“I’m feeling love, an undying love for Black people and saving our lives. That’s where I’m at tonight — saving Black lives out of love,” professed Reed Tuckson, MD, co-founder of the Black Coalition Against COVID-19, during a live-streamed town hall of Making It Plain, a forum to discuss COVID-19 and the ways it has impacted Black lives. Black doctors and health advocates came together to speak with Mike "Dynamike" Brown, owner of The Shop Spa in Hyattsville, Maryland, and Katrina Randolph, owner of Tre Shadez Hair Studio in Capitol Heights, Maryland, both of whom made an effort to share clear information about the COVID-19 vaccines with clients who stepped in their doors.
The town hall was in support of Shots at the Shop, the White House's new joint initiative between the Black Coalition Against COVID, SheaMoisture, the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity, and the White House’s COVID-19 response team to bring accurate information about and awareness to the vaccine.
As part of the initiative, SheaMoisture is launching a $1 million fund in support of training more barbershops and salons as community health advocates, an unofficial role they may already play for other health-related issues and community topics. Up to 1,000 barbershops and beauty salons across the country will receive a $1,000 grant, plus tools and training, to plan a vaccination event close to their business with help from the Shots at the Shop team.
“We feel it's so important to get African-American people vaccinated because they've suffered disproportionately from this outbreak, both from incidence of infection and the severe consequences that result from getting infected,” said Anthony Fauci, MD, the country’s foremost infectious disease expert and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, to Refinery29 during a Zoom interview. “Everyone needs to get vaccinated, but even more so for the African-American community. So if we can get beauty salons [and others] where people come to relax and exchange ideas, the message can get to people.”
Who is getting vaccinated, and at what rate, varies by race — and some states are closing the racial vaccination gap quicker than others. That’s not to say Black people aren’t getting vaccinated: They are, but at a slower pace. 31% of Black people in the United States have been vaccinated, in comparison to 44% of white people, 35% of Hispanics, and 56% of Asians. It is to say that there are factors especially applicable to the Black community that affect one’s personal decision to get vaccinated — meaning there are valid concerns that must be addressed and challenged before some Black people will agree to take a vaccination shot or two.
The country’s mishandling of COVID-19 only served to highlight the dysfunctional foundation some Black communities were already surviving on. Black people disproportionately represent essential workers in the U.S., meaning they were the ones still heading into work during the worst days of the pandemic; one of the reasons why Black people and Latinos were hit hardest by COVID-19.
The U.S. healthcare system has historically provided inconsistent or inadequate care to Black people. It follows that skepticism is rooted in mistrust in the healthcare system. That’s where hairstylists and barbers come in: Beauty salons and barbershops have long served as political bases and community meeting spaces. Barbershops were stops on the Underground Railroad, and these beauty establishments have long been viewed as places that could cultivate community and health education. They were locations where you could exchange crucial information in the age before the internet — and they still are today. “Black-owned beauty salons are a place where people gather, people trust each other. [Hairstylists and barbers] are the people who are in the trenches, on the ground,” Dr. Fauci said.
For example, in 2002, Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, founded the Health Advocates In-Reach and Research Campaign (HAIR). The campaign joined forces with the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity in 2010 with the goal of making beauty salons and barbershops “relevant portals for health education and delivery of public health and medical services in the community” in Prince George’s County, Maryland. At Simply Erinn’s Unisex Hair Salon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, there’s Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, a monthly gathering that started when a client, board-certified genetic counselor Dita Obler, noticed that women would give each other advice on health issues based on their own experiences. (This isn’t uncommon; sitting in the shampoo bowl or stylist chair, you might chime in to any conversation happening around you.) Obler, now the initiative’s co-founder and executive officer, saw it as an opportunity to create a time in the salon to have dialogues about women’s health with doctors and medical professionals. “There aren’t many places where we can talk about our issues and concerns and how they affect us,” Erinn Pearson, the salon’s owner and co-founder of Community Conversations, said. “Not everybody understands — but we understand each other.”
The conversations have been running for 12 years, and when Massachusetts initiated a stay-at-home order, Sister to Sister continued to hold talks on Zoom, shifting to topics like stress, depression, and building healthy coping strategies. Once details on the vaccines available were announced, they met virtually to discuss the development.“What we're trying to teach is health literacy skills and critical thinking about health care; how to interact with the health system and navigate the system so that you're getting the best care and the most appropriate care for you and your family,” Obler said. “So it's really scaffold building and relationship building. And then most critically, we're trying to help people assume an identity as the captain of their own health ship.”
Pearson is willing to make her salon a destination where clients can find educational materials on the vaccine to make a decision for themselves, or even offer the parking lot as a place for a vaccination event — but a hurdle she would have to address is that she likely won’t take the vaccine herself for personal reasons. “If [they] need a safe space and need me to reach the community, I can provide what you need, but I have to live with the fact that I’m not vaccinated,” she says. As a salon owner who put additional hygiene protocols in place and did virtual consultations over the pandemic, Pearson is open to supporting the effort. She will likely keep the mask protocol in place and re-evaluate at the end of the summer, despite the order being lifted across Massachusetts.
The morning I spoke with Randolph, she was prepping for her vaccination clinic event near her salon in Capitol Heights, Maryland. There will be food, music (her husband is a DJ), gift cards, and most importantly, a place to rest. “Just to anchor people into feeling that comfort,” she says. “A lot of them are still a little hesitant, but they trust me.” Clients will be able to take a COVID test at Randolph’s salon prior to the event if desired.
Randolph says she keeps literature on COVID-19 in her shop so that if she can’t answer something herself, there’s a resource. “I'm always looking for ways to make my salon a place where it's a community, where we give back,” Randolph says. Hopefully, Shots at the Shop will inspire more barbers and hairstylists to step into that role — while also giving them the resources to do so.