Dontay Williams called out from the stage at Sabathani Community Center: "When we break it down, what is mental illness?"
"Trauma!" called out someone in the audience.
"Depression!" said another.
Williams went on to note that mental illness is frequently stigmatized and misunderstood in the African American community. Then he asked the crowd, "Do you agree with that?"
"Yes!" several people replied.
He'd come to south Minneapolis from Georgia to talk about an innovative program called the Confess Project that trains barbers serving Black communities how to spot mental health troubles in their clients and connect them with services. Dozens of barbers from the Twin Cities came to listen. The hope was that the barbers could receive training to reach struggling people in a more authentic, relatable way.
"You all hold key roles in this community. … historically, barbers and stylists have been teachers, social ambassadors, relationship consultants and so much more," Larry Tucker, a therapist, told the group.
He said he learned much about what it meant to be a man, to be part of the Black community, when he was a young boy in the barbershop.
Today, Tucker owns Kente Circle, a mental health agency in Minneapolis where barbers can direct clients struggling with mental health issues and chemical dependency.
Minneapolis City Council President Andrea Jenkins recalled getting her hair cut the day after Daunte Wright, a Black man, was killed by a Brooklyn Center police officer. A man came in and began talking about how Wright had been one of his best friends. People in the barbershop started talking about what happened.
"You could just hear the pain, the anguish, the trauma in the voices of the brothers that were sharing their feelings, their ideas, and I just thought, 'Wow, this is an incredible space for people to have opportunities to talk about their feelings without being criticized or stigmatized,'" Jenkins said. "And I think that the barbers and the beauticians and hairstylists … are in a really unique position to work with people when they're dealing with self-care."
Jenkins said the Confess Project is an important opportunity to reach people where they are and give support that they may not find in other places.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males 19 and under, and the Confess Project trains barbers to build a culture of mental health for Black boys, men and their families.
Williams, CEO of the Confess Project, said he has taken his training for the program, which has earned national recognition, to 44 cities so far. The effort, he said, "has a mission to extend the life of the Black community, particularly boys and their families."
He noted that African American patients have historically dealt with misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and lack of cultural understanding from the medical community. And few psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers are Black.
Will Wallace, who has worked with at-risk youth in north Minneapolis, said he and his team went out to about 50 barbershops to sign them up for the program "and every last one of them said, 'We need this.'" They told him about hearing many stories from clients reeling from stress, poverty, the pandemic, homelessness.
Barbers are a trusted resource, he noted — people feel comfortable talking with them versus a doctor.
Flint'e Smith owns a barber shop called Right Choice in Robbinsdale and serves as an ambassador for the program locally. He's seen it all, he said, when it comes to mental health challenges — kids reacting poorly to the COVID-19 shutdown and people struggling with suicidal thoughts and addiction.
Barbers can refer clients to Black providers and support groups, and normalize expressing their feelings.
"Advice," he said, "is taken a little bit better from people who have been through it."