Welcome to the Evolving Man Project’s “Evolved Man of the Week” profile. Each week, we highlight an individual who embodies what it means to be an evolved man, famous and non-famous men alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to teacher, comedian, author, public speaker, and social entrepreneur Alvin Irby. Mr. Irby’s simple but revolutionary idea to combat the low-literacy rates among young black boys across the country came to him after a visit to his local barbershop. There, he ran into one of his first-grade students who was very antsy and restless as he waited for a haircut. Eventually, he developed the idea for Barbershop Books.
Here Alvin talks about what he hopes Barbershop Books inspires:
Mr. Irby has a passion for serving others and entertaining others. He has dedicated his life to teaching and educating young people and adults (through his witty comedy). His organization the Reading Holiday Project has created an out-of-the-box way to get young black boys interested in reading again. Alvin expands on this idea and why it’s so effective:
“Why not libraries? Why not schools? Right now, more than 80 percent of all black boys in 4th grade across the nation and in New York City are not reading proficiently. The traditional approaches, they aren’t working, at least not for this population.
The Barbershop Books program is not a tutoring program. What Barbershop Books is doing is bringing books — culturally relevant, age appropriate, gender responsive books — that young black boys would want to read [and] bringing those books where boys are. Barbershops are an important part of the black community and the black culture. In these communities, you pretty much use the same barbers, so over the years, barbers really become like a member of the family.”
Alvin Irby was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He has an undergrad degree from Grinnell College, two master’s degrees from Bank Street College of Education and New York University respectively. He spent years in New York City as an elementary school teacher, served as the education director The Boy’s Club New York, authored the children’s book, Gross Greg and founded Reading Holiday Project. Its standout program, Barbershop Books, has been featured on NBC, CBS, Black Enterprise Magazine, and CNN.
In addition to being a social entrepreneur, he finds time for his stand-up. In 2015, Mr. Irby was one of the nine national finalists (out of 600 comedians) selected by NBC to perform in the Standup NBC Final Showcase at the Hollywood Improv. With all his success, Alvin still hopes his work will make a lasting impact on young men and boys who look like him. Through reading, he hopes to achieve this goal:
“I’m convinced that there’s a significant number of black boys who don’t associate reading with being black. I want you to take a moment and ponder this question: What does it mean for millions of black boys to never see a black male reading? Never. We don’t have black male teachers. Less than 2 percent of American teachers are black males and that’s across the board, all grades. If you get down to the critical reading period, pre-k to third grade, it’s less. If you look at the high rates of single-parent households where mothers are the primary adult figure in boys’ lives, then we add another layer. So we have a situation where millions of black boys, thousands here in New York City, never see [an adult] black male engage with books.”
Alvin Irby has made quite an impact on the lives he’s touched through humor, wit, compassion, and reading. We wish him and Barbershop Books continued success. He is the true definition of #BlackBoyJoy. Today, we honor Alvin Irby as this week’s Evolved Man of the Week.