This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Monday morning found the library at Bethune Elementary filled with the unmistakable buzz of celebrity: Sixers star Tobias Harris had arrived to celebrate the school, and with him came a chattering phalanx of cameras, handlers, and reporters.
But even as the towering athlete sat down to read aloud to a group of kindergartners, from a corner of the library came another buzz: the quiet electric hum of hair clippers, as five volunteer barbers provided free haircuts to Bethune students.
For most of this day, the cameras would stay focused on the star, not the barbers.
But all of them were at Bethune with the same message of hope for the young people of North Philadelphia: The world has gifts to share, and they’ll one day have gifts to share with the world.
NBA star Tobias Harris speaks to a Bethune student and barber David Choung, owner of Barbers Inc. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)
Harris was delighted to meet the men with the clippers. “Awesome,” he said, as he watched the men at work.
And the barbers likewise welcomed Harris. “It’s a major thing when somebody [the students] look up to shows up,” said Joshua Washington of Mount Airy. “They see him on TV.”
But Washington and the other barbers also want the students to know that giving isn’t just for the rich and famous. Organized with the help of a teachers’ group, Men of Bethune, they don’t just come to cut hair – they come to show young people how to build community.
“When they see that ordinary people can give back, they see that they can do it, too,” said Washington. “You don’t have to be a celebrity.”
Principal Aliya Catanch-Bradley said that when the barbers heard about Harris’ visit, they called to see whether they should reschedule. She was having none of it – the Harris visit and the holiday haircuts are two sides of the same coin.
“I’m so glad both [events] happened today,” said Catanch-Bradley. “For these barbers to come in and give of their free time, it’s just unbelievable. … Tobias came with the celebrity and the economic backing, but our barbers come with their time and their skills.”
“Everybody is working on the same thing,” she added. “Just with different resources.”
A star’s growing philanthropic profile
Harris was at Bethune as part of his own growing campaign to improve public schools in Philadelphia and nationwide, which was launched in October with a million-dollar gift to nine education organizations and funds, including four in Philadelphia.
Harris, who recently signed a five-year, $180 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, also started targeted initiatives in literacy (“Tobias Lit Labs”) and minority teacher recruiting (“Tobias Top Teachers”). He used his visit to Bethune to give $100 gift certificates to all the school’s teachers and to highlight the importance of bringing black men into the profession.
“I know a lot of you guys spend your own money on supplies,” Harris told a room full of teachers as he handed out the gift cards. “I appreciate all you guys and I look forward to learning about the success of the students.”
Harris, a native of Long Island, N.Y., has moved quickly to establish a philanthropic footprint in his new home. Locally, portions of his million-dollar gift went to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the city’s Read by 4th campaign, a nonprofit that seeks to empower girls called Team Up Philly, and the Center for Black Educator Development, founded by veteran educator Sharif El-Mekki.
Bethune, for its part, has earned a national reputation for its successful efforts to boost its share of black male teachers – a “conscious effort” by a school administration whose enrollment is three-quarters African American. Although only about 5% of Philadelphia teachers are African American males, almost a third of Bethune’s staff are African American men – and a total of 43% are men of color. Harris used Monday’s appearance at Bethune to praise the hiring of black male teachers, which research shows can cut the student dropout rate by 40%.
Harris meets the black male teachers of Bethune Elementary. (Photo: Bill Hangley Jr.)
“The numbers don’t lie,” he told a room full of male African American teachers. “I want to applaud you guys for being that person for our kids.”
Tall and trim in a fitted white shirt, Harris was composed and a bit reserved during his initial presentation to the teachers, but he visibly relaxed as he joined students and staff to read and chat. He joked easily with kindergartners during a read-aloud session in the library and later joined several students and their families to talk about holidays and homework, inviting them to see him play.
“There’s a game on Christmas against the Milwaukee Bucks if you want to come,” Harris told one bright-eyed youngster.
“Will there be snacks there?” asked the boy eagerly.
“You bet,” laughed Harris, and the group went on to discuss their gift wishes: an Xbox, a basketball, a Fortnite game, five dollars, a remote-control airplane.
“Hopefully I’ll see you at Christmas,” Harris said as he stood up. “If you want that airplane, study hard!”
As he stood, someone pointed out the barbers at work in a small glass-walled office in the corner of the library. Harris headed straight in to check it out. There he found a group of men working over small boys in makeshift barber chairs, chatting and laughing as they worked.
“A kid can get a haircut at school – that’s awesome,” said Harris.
“That ain’t what we were cutting when I was in school,” shot back one of the barbers. The group laughed and joked some more, and Harris thanked the barbers for all they’ve done.
As Harris left, Washington told him, “Thanks for giving back.”
A haircut and a path out of trauma
Washington is 33, and giving back matters to him. He grew up in Mount Airy and met the other barbers while working at Barbers Inc. on Champlost Avenue in Olney. The owner there, David Choung, knew a teacher who was also a member of the Men of Bethune group. The teacher invited the barbers to do a holiday haircut event last year.
It turned out to be a smash success. In the end, the barbers cut about 50 kids’ hair. With each haircut being about a $20 value, that was about $1,000 worth of services.
But Washington said the cash value is the least of the project’s benefits. His goal isn’t just to help kids feel good, but also to teach them that they, too, can make their world a better place.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” Washington said. “When [kids] see that ordinary people can give back, they see that they can do it, too. You don’t have to be a celebrity.”
The barbers see themselves as role models – men who can show young people that a path to success and happiness lies right in their own neighborhood.
“They see this, and then they think, maybe I can be a barber. Maybe I can own my own business,” said barber Jamal Dorsey of Germantown. “And maybe I can give back to my community somehow.”
It’s great for kids to see that celebrities like Harris care, Dorsey said. But it’s even more important for them to see that their neighbors have something to offer too – even if it’s not cash.
“It’s not about money. It’s about wealth,” said Dorsey, gesturing to the tight-knit group of men hard at work around him. “This is wealth.”
Bethune’s neighborhood, Hunting Park in North Philadelphia, is a struggling community. Catanch-Bradley, the principal, said that homicide rates here are among the city’s highest. Her students confront violence, hunger, homelessness, and addiction on a daily basis.
“My babies are very trauma-riddled,” she said.
And Christmas can make those traumas especially harsh. It’s the hardest time of year to be short of either cash or hope, she said.
“This can be a very depressing time of the year for those who don’t have much,” she said.
Barber Jamal Dorsey: “This is wealth.”
So when the barbers show up, Catanch-Bradley knows they’re bringing more than hair clippers. They bring moments of relaxation and support for young people who badly need it.
“What we know about trauma is, if you come from a chaotic environment, you will try to recreate that environment – it’s just what you know, what you’re comfortable with,” said Catanch-Bradley. “So if my hair’s not looking good, then I don’t feel good about myself, and I may act out in certain ways … but if somebody is just loving on you for just a little bit of time, that kind of lifts the spirit.”
Harris, who says he can easily imagine becoming an educator after basketball, said he was delighted to meet the men of Barbers Inc. A little of their kind of help goes a long way, he said.
“It’s awesome for young people,” said Harris. “Having a nice haircut, it’s a real confidence booster.”
And back in the library, as Tyrell Cirino finished instructing an elementary student on the finer points of scalp care, he paused to reflect on what the young man is learning as he sits in the barber’s chair.
“He probably doesn’t understand it now,” said Cirino. “But hopefully he’ll understand someday.
“He’ll remember that time in elementary school when somebody came and cut his hair. And maybe he’ll have some talent of his own he can share. Maybe it won’t be cutting hair, it’ll be something else. But he’ll remember that he can give back.”