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Café Society in Austin neighborhood

Friday nights at barbershop offer customers a chance to let their hair down and talk about latest issues

This article originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune

It’s Friday evening at Ron’s Barber Shop in the Austin neighborhood and the usual buzz of gospel music and idle chatter begins to die down. Owner Ron Gibson stands in the middle of a wood and tile floor covered in clumps of hair.

"Welcome to the Café Society," he says as he turns off the television and the music. For one hour, barbers and customers will talk about the issues of the day-issues that affect "our families, our city and our nation," says Gibson, 40, of Chicago. He announces the rules.

  • Only one conversation may take place at a time-any more would be rude-and at the end of the hour the discussion must yield some conclusions.
  • Under the "disagree" clause, "we’ll agree to disagree," Gibson says. "But we don’t have to be disagreeable."

With that, facilitator Theo Francis unveils the week’s topic. And the concept of barbershop conversation, that free-wheeling, anything-goes, rapid-fire conflagration of opinions narrows into a laser-like debate, one that opens minds to new ideas, bridges the gap between know-it-all teens and seen-it-all seniors, and reiterates just what a barbershop does best: gets people talking to one another.

The conversation reaffirms a sense of community that has begun to decay in some neighborhoods, Gibson says.

"The barbershop is the last place where men can sit down and talk. It’s the thread of our community. And without a chance to bond and understand each other, we’ll draw into ourselves and we’ll get to the point where I won’t even want to talk to you," Gibson says. "When that happens, we’re gone."

That sense of community inside barbershops brought Gibson into the Café Society, which is sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council. The program, part of the council’s debate and dialogue initiative called The Public Square, sets up weekly discussions at six locales around Chicago that focus on current events. Café Society develops the weekly topics, then uses facilitators to proctor the talks.

Christopher House in Logan Square, Valois Restaurant in Hyde Park and three cafes hold the discussions. But Gibson’s place, at 6050 W. North Ave., is the only host barbershop.

The same topic is discussed at each location, and issues have included animal rights, vegetarian living, the ouster of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and whether the Dilbert comic strip is still relevant.

While developing the program seven years ago, Barbara Ransby, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stopped by Ron’s for a quick cut. As Ransby listened in on the conversations around her, she came to a fast conclusion: The program could work here.

Gibson was less inclined. He worried about his place losing its barbershop feel and that people would become less candid. Most men at the shop, such as Terrence Nichols of Oak Park, have been going to Gibson for years.

"Ron’s been cutting my hair for 19 years," says Nichols, 39.

Many of the children who lounge on the chairs or a long bench while they wait have known only one barber. There are no stylists at Ron’s and no beauticians either. That’s intentional, Gibson says. The only activity, he says, should come from a buzzing clipper, real talk and the back room, where a chessboard is set up.

Despite his reservations, Gibson agreed to try out the discussion format. A facilitator came into the barbershop in October 2002. By the end of the night, people were yelling at one another, but in a good way. The program was a hit.

"There’s already that barbershop talk that goes on," says Alice Kim, director of The Public Square. "But with a focused conversation, we expose a lot of people to different topics. It’s taking a community happening and injecting discussion and debate to it."