[INTERVIEW] Kenneth Braswell Uses Local Barbershops to Change the Buzz About Fatherhood

Kenneth Braswell

On Saturday, June 16, Kenneth Braswell and the Obama Administration are taking over 100 neighborhood barbershops in 8 cities across the country -- and it’s all in the name of fostering better-equipped fathers.  On the day before Father’s Day, Mr. Braswell, director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Responsible Fatherhood Clearinghouse, is heading up the launch of President Obama’s new Fatherhood.gov initiative, “Fatherhood Buzz,” a unique way to connect fathers to local resources that will help build strong families and communities through their most trusted advisors: their barbers.

In an interview with EBONY.com, Mr. Braswell explained how he came up with the idea to funnel valuable information on everything from parenting, child support, jobs, mental health and healing broken families to local fathers.

KENNETH BRASWELL:  [The Fatherhood Buzz Initiative] has been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I started my own non-profit [Fathers Incorporated, a contractor to HHS] in 2004, but I’ve been doing community work with men and fathers on some level since 1990 and I’ve always noticed that the barbershop is where most of the critical conversations are taking place for men.  I’ve often sat in a barbershop chair and told my barber about life experiences that I was going through and I’ve watched other men tell their barbers very similar family stories.  And we’ve gotten advice from our barbers that’s been great and advice that hasn’t been that great. So the critical piece is that we’re now equipping barbers with good information and resources to give these men that are struggling with fatherhood and provide free support and resources and services to those men.

 It doesn’t hurt that we have a president in office who is the model for responsible fatherhood and happens to be black. We try to be diverse, but [Black] barbershops in particular have a love for President Obama and his family, so when we tell these men and these barbers this is an initiative spearheaded by President Obama and the White House, barbershops have gotten excited and are happy to be involved. So we take that love and passion they have for Obama and bring it together with information to start the conversation about what a responsible father looks like.

EBONY: What will this initiative look like on Saturday?

KB: Well, the information has already gone out in big huge boxes to 100 barbershops across the country. We have “Fatherhood Buzz” t-shirts for the barbers to wear and give to their customers, as well as gift cards designed fliers with parenting tips and economic stability tips -- particularly centered around local jobs. There are some other tip sheets in their information packets about the free hotline we’ve established for struggling parents -- including women.  Any issues these men have regarding child support, mental health jobs, they can call this number [1-800-716-3468] and be connected to trained counselors and social workers on staff who can walk an individual through his issues.

And this is not a one shot deal. We’re launching Fatherhood Buzz on Saturday but we want to come back every quarter in essence change the buzz about fatherhood. The buzz now is economic stability, three months from now when school starts, it could be parental engagement with respect to education. During the winter holiday season it could be about giving, and February about building healthy relationships with your spouse or your child’s mother.  These are conversations that men are having in barbershops anyway, and we to equip these barbers with community resources and build their capacity to still do what they do, stimulate the conversation and be trusted resources, by putting good information in their hands and connecting them intimately with resources in their communities.

EBONY: President Obama is definitely held in high esteem as an example of a loving father and husband, but are you concerned that there may be a disconnect between what President Obama has been able to do – chiefly attaining the highest office in the world – and what your regular dad may feel he’s able to do, and if so, how will you combat that disconnect?

KB: I wrote an article about this some time ago called “A tale of Two Obama’s” that kind of addresses that issue.  While we revere the notion that he is the leader of the free world, he also happens to be Black and happens to be a husband and happens to be a father. What [other Black men] see first is a successful black man who has an educated wife and two wonderful children that he talks about all the time and even as the leader of the free world he still finds time to be a husband and father. That is intriguing to men and they can say “If he can do it, how