“Who wants this $20?” Cisco Infante asked a room of boys aged 12 to 15 at the Melrose School (PS 29) on Courtlandt Avenue. The students looked at each other with confusion and trepidation.
Infante, the creator of the school’s Barbershop Talk program, asked again: “Who wants this $20?” Malick Kamara, 13, quickly caught on, leapt from his chair and snatched the bill.
The lesson? If you want to achieve success, you have to grab it.
For the past two years, Infante has been running Barbershop Talk with the help of basketball coach Bright Amoako, who worked to bring the program to fruition. The two grew up in Melrose and wanted to have a positive impact.
“I wanted to give back to my community in a way that’s meaningful. Give them the information I wish I once had. It’s just a matter of minimizing the mistakes that go on in our lives,” Infante explained.
The program caters to the students of M.S. 29 which is located in The Melrose School. Every Wednesday they gather in a classroom-turned-lounge and sit around eating pizza and snacks while others take turns in the barber’s seat.
The idea of this weekly meet-up is modeled after a typical urban barbershop, where the young men engage in conversations moderated by Infante. They talk about their feelings and growing up in a neighborhood of color that historically lacks funding and resources.
Aaron Artis, 13, touched on learning about environmental racism in school – when poor neighborhoods, usually of color, are subjected to landfills, hazardous waste and incinerators, leading to the reputation of the South Bronx as “asthma alley.”
Alex Nuñez, who graduated from the school, is a local barber of Shorty’s Barber Shop at 680 Courtlandt Ave. He brings in the supplies and gives the students their fresh cuts. He, too, was born and raised in the community.
“I feel great giving back to the neighborhood. I don’t want them to commit the same mistakes that I committed in the past. I look at these kids like my little brothers,” he said. At the moment, there is no subsidy for this program and while Amoako works for the school, Nuñez and Infante volunteer their time.
“This is important to me because some kids don’t have money to get haircuts. It’s a good thing to do,” said Christopher Motino, 13, as he was getting his shape-up.
As the students speak, respect is demanded. Anyone who interrupts must do 15 push-ups. There was a round-robin of reading aloud, and helping each other is encouraged. If a student struggles with a word, others assist.
“To be honest, this is a whole new experience,” said Angel Rosario, 15. “I never got the chance to have people who have really good knowledge talk to me about real life experiences – this is a way we can build our minds and become more intelligent.”
A sign hanging on the wall sums up the message to all who attend: “Barbershop Talk: This is a safe space where you have the right to be vulnerable and talk about issues of importance to you and the community.”