Penn profs draft Philly barbers to ‘build better brothers’


Barbershops are traditionally bastions for male bonding. They are places where men can engage in spirited debates about sports and politics, where they can have racy conversations about sex, with barbers serving as unofficial moderators of the free flowing dialogue.

This spring, while they cut hair, barbers in approximately 50 barbershops across Philadelphia will also offer knowledge about HIV and risk reduction to their customers.

Approximately 1,100 African-American males, ages 18-24, are being recruited to participate in a program called “Shape Up—Barbers Building Better Brothers,” a research project that is a collaborative effort between Penn and Philly barbers.

Barbers and clients in the program will have one-on-one conversations about strategies to reduce the risk of HIV and other STDs, prevent unplanned pregnancy, manage anger and talk about ways to make positive life choices. The research project uses Apple iPads, enabling participants to easily access interactive videos and applications about the discussion topics.

“There’s no better way to spread the message to young African-American men in the community than to have barbers help get the word out,” says Loretta Sweet Jemmott, the project’s chief investigator and director of the Center for Health Equity Research in the Penn School of Nursing. “Men may not attend a health promotion program at Penn, but they’re going to get their hair cut.”

Along with her research partner and husband, John Jemmott, a professor in Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and School of Medicine, Loretta Jemmott provides leadership in Botswana on a HIV prevention research grant as part of the Botswana-UPenn Partnership. She also is involved with two National Institutes of Health-funded randomized controlled trials in South Africa focusing on adolescents and adult men, and a HIV prevention study focusing on Jamaican mothers and their daughters.

The five-year “Shape Up—Barbers Building Better Brothers ” study is funded by a $3.7 million grant from the National Institute for Child and Human Development.

Jemmott says effective intervention programs do more than simply tell people to change their behavior. “You have to take the time to learn  why people do what they do, understand the code of their streets, listen to their voices, determine their attitudes and beliefs about the behavior, and build the skills they need to change that behavior,” she says.


Originally published on February 3, 2011