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Columbus Barbershop Hosts HIV Awareness Talks

HIV rates among black women are rising nationally. In Franklin County, Ohio Deppartment of Health data indicates black women make up 11% of new HIV/AIDS cases and minorities make up about 36% of new cases. To raise awareness among minorities, a local organization is taking a new approach: they are taking HIV education into barbershops.

For First Impressions, a black-owned barbershop off East Livingston Avenue, this is a typical scene: loud conversations compete with buzzing razors and a blasting stereo. Customers can spend hours talking with friends and getting a haircut. Now, a local HIV/AIDS awareness group is using the atmosphere to get its message out. The Tobias Project is trying to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in the minority communities. Project workers go from shop to shop spreading their message. With just a laptop and small Powerpoint projector, two project workers recently gave presentations at a local barbershop on HIV, AIDS and Syphillus while customers got haircuts. It is based on a program called "Popular Opinion Leader," or POL. Tobias Project Director, Preston Mitchell, says POL is all about spreading HIV messages through people you trust, including barbers

He explained in his presentation, "...this man right here with this big bald head, and I know him, I can talk about him, he's getting his haircut. In order to for him to let this guy cut his hair, that barber has to have be credible. He has to have a certain amount of trust for him. So thats what make barbers really, Popular Opinion Leaders. They're popular. You guys are credible. And you're considered to have integrity. That means you're not going to cut a line in someone's head where they don't want it. So if you have all of that then you got a jump on these people they know automatically that they trust you."

In the middle of the busy barbershop, Mitchell clicked through Powerpoint slides. He used the shop's Venetian blinds for a screen.

"67% of all new cases are African-American women. So that' alarming. We have to think about that as constituents, as barbers, as African-Americans in the community," Mitchell said.

The talk lasted more than an hour. In that time the crowd listening in the shop grew from six customers to 18. One customer, Randy Soublot, 21, says he did not expect to get a health lesson with his haircut. "I didn't know the stats on African Americans and this HIV thing. It shocked me. Its stuff they don't teach you in school, really," Soublot said.

First Impressions is the first barbershop in the country to use the program. Co-owner, Laymond Morris says he agreed to hosting HIV awareness talks because he sees himself as a role model. "To me it just was something else that would bring awareness to the neighborhood. And by us dealing with a lot of black men, I thought it would be appropriate... for them to come to the barbershop and not only get cleaned up but be informed also of different diseases and what else is out there. We all need to be aware, we all need to be supported and kinda give back. I guess the older, the more I notice a generation of young men out there who are really walking around blind," said Morris.

Tobias Project Director, Preston Mitchell, started the barbershop program in January. He says barbershops are like small community centers and a perfect place to teach HIV prevention. "You know when they come in here they're going to tell you what they did last night, what their woman did last night, how the drink was and everything else. I said don't you think you can give them a great deal of service by saying 'Hey dude, that sounds like a wonderful thing you did last night, but did you think about protecting yourself? Did you think about what we're dealing with out here in the public," Mitchell explains.

The barbershop program is being expanded to other local shops. Mitchell is even giving HIV education lessons to barbers going through the Ohio State School of Cosmotology.