Spotlight |

Barbers in Jacksonville Serve as Information Hubs During Pandemic

Robert Channelle and Jocelyn Turner

“If you want to get any information out, join with barber shops and salons,” says Robert Channelle, owner of House of Channelle in Jacksonville, FL. He calls his salon an information hub.

The Florida CEAL research team recognized this superpower of barber shops as they developed a community outreach project that focused on recruiting and training barbers and beauty salons to spread accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccination. “Our preferred method of sharing information with communities is to strengthen already existing channels,” explains Jessica Otero Machuca, CHES®, who coordinates the Florida CEAL research team’s efforts from the Center for Health Equity and Community Engagement Research at Mayo Clinic. Thinking back to previous public health campaigns that had trained barbers to disseminate information about prostate health and HIV/AIDS, it seemed like an idea whose time had come — again.

But COVID-19 added a twist.

The Florida CEAL research team provided funding to barbers that enabled them to offer a significant discount on haircuts for people who agreed to participate in the information sharing and fill out a pre- and post-survey. At a time when barbers were trying to drum up business and customers were looking for ways to save money, the structure was a win for everybody, says Jocelyn Turner, a health educator who came out of retirement to take on this important program.

Turner adapted a train-the-trainer program that was developed by Cynthia Harris, Ph.D., of Florida A&M University. This program addressed the nature of the virus, the development of the vaccine, and how to protect yourself and your community.

Turner had spearheaded previous public health programs through barbershops when she was with the Jacksonville Department of Health, so she added the names of community-minded barbers and started making her contacts. After the webinar-based training, Turner visited each barber in person to give them handouts, get them set up, and answer any individual questions.

Once trained and set up, the barbers asked people to fill out a survey about COVID-19, then the barbers took the opportunity to relay the facts about the virus. Especially among an initial group of customers in 2021, “there was a lot of light bulbs going off,” says Channelle. “A lot of them had a big change of heart.”

Since the initiative started, Turner and the Florida CEAL team have trained 19 barbers. In all, 938 community members took the pre- and post-test — and inspired countless conversations in the community. "We always tell people to pay it forward,” says Turner. “Don’t just keep the information that you learn for yourself but make sure you’re going out and dispelling myths within your circle of influence.”

Harris notes that trusted messengers in the community can make a far larger impact in ensuring community members have accurate information. “We find that trusted messengers like barbers, in particular, could utilize these materials and convey information and be more impactful than any of us could,” she says. “We appreciate what the barbers have done — their outreach and their impact in spreading the message about a variety of health outcomes” including COVID-19.

Channelle wanted to help his community fight back. He has lost friends, colleagues, and customers to COVID-19, and he wanted to “slap back” at the virus. Participating in this program “gave us a sense of revenge. Now I can share what I know and make a difference.”