Mixed in with the fades, the barber shop is fertile ground for political organizing

By: - February 17, 2020 7:50 am

Barber Joseph Arradondo, left, greets Brian Fullman at The Chiseler Barber & Beauty Shop in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. Fullman visits shops to promote the work of Barbershops Creating Change in the Community, an organization that engages barbershops to get people to be more politically active. (Photo by Courtney Perry.)

Brian Fullman walks into The Chiseler Barber Shop in Brooklyn Park and within a few minutes he’s suddenly refereeing a debate about — who else? — President Donald Trump. 

“A black man would never get away with it!” one barber shouts to another about Trump’s various misdeeds. 

Fullman, an organizer with the progressive religious nonprofit ISAIAH, gives a hearty laugh. He loves to hear barbers and customers talk politics in a place where everyone can be an expert on anything, especially if you can make the crowd laugh. 

“This is where we feel powerful,” Fullman says of Black men and barbershops. That’s why he created Barbershops Creating Change in the Community, a coalition of two dozen barber and beauty shops that seeks to organize the hardest-to-reach Minnesotans in a place where their value is unquestioned. 

The barbershop is a vector of information and storytelling. Among the cutting and styling of waves, hi-low fades and tapers, this is where people get community news and gossip. 

“People think they can get all the information they need at the barbershop,” says Chris Prowd, owner of T & C Barber Shop in Brooklyn Park and one of Fullman’s stops on a typical day of community organizing. 

Fullman, 48, is the perfect barbershop prophet — a South Side Chicago native who has sold drugs and been shot, seen the inside of a prison and had his own successful barbering business before he took up political organizing. 

Malik Gaillard, 21, second from right, shares a laugh with organizer Brian Fullman at The Chiseler Barber Shop in Brooklyn Park. Gaillard is the son of one of the co-owners of the shop, and Fullman talks with him regularly about how to get young people engaged in their community. (Photo by Courtney Perry.)

He says he asks his recruits the same thing he asked himself a few years ago: “What legacy do you wanna leave behind? What do you want your children and nephews to say about you when you’re dead and gone?”

Given the average volume of the barber shops he’s organizing, Fullman has interacted with hundreds of Black men and women, giving them a sense that they are protagonists — a favorite word of his — in the story of their community. 

Ken Martin, chairman of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, says political operatives on both sides have come to realize that work like Fuller’s is the most effective kind. 

“We’ve got to be present and create a dialogue that is long term,” he says. “And if we want to talk to people from different communities and engage them in a conversation, we need to go where they are. And barbershops aren’t just a place for a haircut.” 

Trump’s campaign is hosting its own long-term conversations with voters, a multimillion-dollar effort in Minnesota that began last year. The Trump Victory Leadership Initiative is a six-week intensive course for a select group of volunteers that become “fellows” trained in organizing skills needed to become permanent, paid field staff. The campaign has already trained 30,000 of these organizers across the country who lead neighborhood teams in an ever widening circle of Trump devotion and Republican grassroots energy. 

Key to the success of this style of organizing is authenticity — people must believe that you are real — and Fullman has walked the walk. 

One of seven children, Fullman lost his father at the age of 13, from which arose complicated emotions at the time because of his father’s alcoholism and penchant for verbal and physical abuse. 

“I couldn’t wait to get out on those streets,” he says of his South Side Chicago neighborhood. “And then those streets chewed me up.”

Fullman, right, talks to the staff at T&C Barbershop in Brooklyn Park. Fullman visits shops to promote the work of Barbershops Creating Change in the Community, an organization that engages barbershops to get people to be more politically active. (Photo by Courtney Perry.)

At 19, he sold drugs to an undercover officer and was sentenced to four years in prison, but got into a boot camp program after eight months and won early release.  

He followed a cousin to Minnesota and went to barber school knowing his felony conviction wouldn’t be held against him. 

Before long, Fullman was a hot barber with two Cadillacs and a fancy town home in a white neighborhood — the dream life he always envisioned, yet discovered to be strangely empty and devoid of meaning. 

The Rev. Paul Slack, pastor of New Creation Church and at the time president of ISAIAH, was sitting in Fullman’s barber chair and knew that something was missing. 

“This is how God works,” Fullman says. 

Before long he was doing social justice ministry and went to the Capitol to lobby for juvenile justice reform after his son was shackled for truancy. “I knew what that had done to him psychologically, and I didn’t want that to happen to another child,” he says. 

Fullman was astounded at how accessible democracy was to him at the State Capitol in St. Paul. “The doors were wide open,” he marvels. “I kept looking over my shoulder for security.” 

When a client asked, “How do we get young black people to vote more?” barber Anthony Starks said he wants his community to know “We are the people we are waiting on.” Starks, working at The Chiseler Barber & Beauty Shop in Brooklyn Park, is a member of Barbershops Creating Change in the Community, an organization that engages barbershops to get people to be more politically active. (Photo by Courtney Perry.)

He took a pay cut to work for ISAIAH, which this year with partner Faith in Minnesota will train as many as 7,000 Minnesotans for the Feb. 25 precinct caucuses, including many in barber shops. 

Fullman has worked on issues like criminal justice reform, predatory lending and peace and understanding among African immigrants and African-Americans, who have often become trapped in a cycle of animus toward each other borne of misinformation. 

His biggest challenge, he says, is persuading Black men and women that change is possible. 

“They’re so stuck in their truth that we don’t have a voice in the democracy at all, so what is the use of us trying to organize when all they do is stomp us out every time,” he says. “And they got some legit things they can refer to,” Fullman says, citing incidents like the acquittal of officer Jeronimo Yanez in the killing of Philando Castile. 

Fullman, left, greets a friend as barber Joseph Arradondo talks with staff and clients at The Chiseler Barber & Beauty Shop in Brooklyn Park. (Photo by Courtney Perry.)

Fullman touts ISAIAH-led victories like a legal defense fund for immigrants in Hennepin County, or paid sick and family leave in St Paul. “We can point to victories and say, ‘Yo: We are changing things.’”

John Vinson, who co-founded Chiseler Barber Shop 25 years ago and who Fullman calls the “Yoda” of local barbers, says Fullman has given the barbers and customers a way in to a political system that they know is important but always seemed walled off. 

“I’ve always wanted to be a grownup and follow politics and get to know the process, so I’m grateful,” he says.  

But the work has just begun, Fullman says. “How am I making sure that I am always having joy every time I see someone who was in a hopeless, isolated, shameful space to becoming a powerful, hopeful protagonist in their community?” he asks. “We call that crossing the bridge.” 

Once hundreds and then thousands have crossed that bridge, he says, they will have built a powerful, multiracial coalition for change. “That’s the work.” 

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J. Patrick Coolican
J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican is Editor-in-Chief of Minnesota Reformer. Previously, he was a Capitol reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for five years, after a Knight-Wallace Fellowship at the University of Michigan and time at the Las Vegas Sun, Seattle Times and a few other stops along the way. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and toddler son.