This article originally appeared on the Chicago News Cooperative website and in the New York Times.
In bright red letters, “Ron’s Barber Shop” is printed on the glass front at 6058 West North Avenue on Chicago’s far West Side. A bumper sticker is plastered on the shop’s back door with a message to the community: “Stop. Killing. People.”
The back entrance to Ron Gibson’s shop leads to a small area with a chess table, opening to a large room with five leather chairs, five barbers, children playing video games and customers sharing stories and opinions on the usual barbershop topics: relationships, local political races, President Obama, high school football, churches, favorite places to eat and good movies.
But two Fridays a month, at 5 p.m., Mr. Gibson silences the cacophony coming from two televisions and turns his shop at the corner of North and Meade Avenues into a forum for the kind of academic discussion not usually heard in a barber shop.
The sessions, sometimes led by professors from the University of Illinois at Chicago, have recently explored issues like domestic violence, rape and the state of public education.
Mr. Gibson, 41, said he hosts the talks in hopes that a frank exchange of views would help solve community problems. The discussions are organized by the Illinois Humanities Council and the university.
At one recent meeting, about 50 men and women sat on benches and listened to Beth Richie, professor of criminal justice and African-American studies at the university, speak about her book, “Compelled to Crime: The Gender Entrapment of Battered Black Women.” The discussion explored why some black men beat women.
Fallon Wilson, 27, who said she saw violence against women within her family, told the group that she believed there were multiple, intersecting reasons, including the devaluation of women.
“I think it goes back to how we construct traditional masculinity,” said Ms. Wilson, who researches gender-based violence at the University of Chicago.
Ayesha Truman, 37, a teacher at Hinsdale South High School, said she was disturbed by the way some male students treated female classmates, and she pointed to negative messages about women in music and on television.
“How do we break the cycle?” Ms. Truman asked.
Mr. Gibson and four other barbers cut hair during the discussion. The male customers listened quietly.
Mr. Gibson said the barber shop was a natural place to hold community discussions, whether formally organized or otherwise.
“It’s a big melting pot,” said Dwayne Rushing, 32, who lives in St. Charles and works in Chicago. One of his sons, Nicholas, got his first haircut from Mr. Gibson when he was a year old.
“It brings in a lot of people with different socio-economic backgrounds and lifestyles,” Mr. Rushing said of the barber shop. “You get some fairly well-off people and some very poor people. I wouldn’t say anybody discounts your opinion one way or another depending on where you are in your life. When you’re in a barber shop, your opinion counts.”
On a recent Saturday, a barber, Jeff Williams, 50, flicked a toothpick from either side of his mouth, cutting a customer’s hair and singing along with “Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind and Fire. “Gonna tell a story, morning glory.”
Aniyah Rushing, 6, wore a pink sweater with her jeans tucked into her boots, and danced around the center of the shop.
Gloria Hooker, a minister in a red sweater and a lifelong resident of the West Side, who was waiting for her hair to dry, chatted and let out belly laughs between sips of Pepsi.
“There are still good people here who still want to have a beautiful spot for their children and children’s children,” she said.
Mr. Gibson keeps close a reminder of why it is important to address community issues. A plastic heart-shaped pin with his cousin’s name sits in a drawer beside his chair. In 2008, the cousin, Ryan McDonald, 22, was shot to death on the sidewalk about three miles from the barber shop.
“A lot of times, we stand too divided because we do have our opinions,” Mr. Gibson said. “We have older folks that say young folks don’t know nothing. We have younger folks that say old folks think they know everything.
“I don’t blame any one person for that. If we had a place or a situation where I can hear you, you can hear me, I can hear your opinions, we can disagree without being disagreeable, eventually we will have every question answered.”