A Shape-Up and a Check-In
Trymaine Lee: A heads-up before we get into this week's episode. We're talking about some pretty heavy stuff, like mental health, and there's some strong language. Sometimes it feels as if the weight of the world is stacked against us. As men, as Black men, we struggle to navigate a maze of hostile systems, and laws, and fears, and emotions.
And often, to get by, we hide our pain, our worry, our hurt until we are numb. We bury the most human parts of ourselves. We put on a mask. We act tough. We lash out at those we love and sometimes at ourselves, at anyone close enough to maybe for a single second recognize our silent suffering.
We're told to man up, to not be a bitch, and it's killing us. But it doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to bottle it all up, and we don't have to let any puffed-up masculinity, or stigmas, or other people's stereotypes crush our mental health or our ability to grow. We don't have to be alone. (MUSIC)
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. May is Mental Health Awareness Month. So on today's show, I'm talking with Black men who are trying to save Black men and our mental health while working from a place that most of us know well, the barber's chair, with a unique program that arms brothers with the tools they need to survive and thrive. And they do it one haircut at a time.
The Confess Project began in Little Rock, Arkansas in 2016, training barbers to serve as a listening ear and, when needed, to connect people to local resources. The goal is to equip men of color, Black men especially, with mental health strategies and coping skills to help them move past their pain. All right. How you feelin', good brother?
J. Divine Alexander: I'm doing fine, brother. How about yourself?
Lee: Not bad, man. I'm good, man. I feel like I'm cheatin' on my barber though. Like, I ain't seen my barber in a while, but I'm here with you. So, you know, I'm kinda cheatin' a little bit. (LAUGHTER)
Alexander: No, I guess it's almost like text messagin', huh? You never actually be with me, (LAUGHTER) but you can text.
Lee: I come in here like, "See, I ain't get a cut, yo. I ain't get a cut." (LAUGH)
Lee: J. Divine Alexander is a barber based in Louisville, Kentucky. He's been a barber since 1995 and has been working with the Confess Project since 2018. They say that a dog is man's best friend, but I think a barber is man's best friend.
Lee: A barber is such an important part of our lives, especially as Black men. And I wonder: How did you get into barbering?
Alexander: Man, it was 35 years ago. (LAUGH) I was 11 years old. I saw how my father was cuttin' his hair and shapin' himself up. And my uncle used to cut all my cousins, you know? So I was like, "Let me try my hand at that." And then I had a best cousin that allowed me to mess him up the first time (LAUGH) initially. And he's been rockin' with me ever since though. But it was just through my father, through my uncle, and just bein' intrigued about seein' barbers in barber shops when I did go.
Lee: What is it about those early memories? I mean, we all have them as young boys sittin' in that chair. You know, I used to have one, Mr. Randy. Mr. Randy would be eatin' a sandwich and with your head, all in his hand, (LAUGHTER) drippin' mayonnaise on you. But they were fond memories. He would jack you up, but they were fond memories. What do you think it is about Black men, Black boys, and the barbershop that has that kinda special resonance?
Alexander: I think when we come to the barbershop as Black men or Black young boys, we get a opportunity to see men actually be men, whether they jack you up, correct you, help you with homework, help define your look or your style or your sense of just bein' an individual in the community and how to navigate through the community accordingly.
Lee: Now, you know the barbershop, it is a space where we come together as a community, as Black men, you know, talk some shit. You know, you're there engaging with each other. And as safe a space as it is, sometimes it's still hard for us to break down to other men. Do you think a lot of us are still struggling to be our full selves not just as men but as kinda humans to each other?
Alexander: Absolutely. We're strugglin' with that daily 'cause what we've been taught as far as bein' a man. You know what I mean? So although it's open, yeah, we come talk about girls, you know, clubs, and who did what in the streets. But when it comes to actually talking about self, we still a little afraid to speak openly and candidly about ourselves.
Lee: Why do you think that is? Why are we still so reluctant to be open with each other?
Alexander: In today's society, it's called hyper-masculinity. But back in the day, it was just called keep your head down, pull your boots up. You know what I mean? And don't cry and don't show no emotion. Be a man. I think that stigma has stuck with us over the course of the years and that's why we tend to not necessarily speak up about our own pain.
Lee: It was in 2015 that Divine started on his mental health journey, learning to open up. He was going through a really dark time, and a friend suggested that maybe he needed someone to talk to.
Alexander: At that moment in my life, man, I really couldn't figure it out. I was just down and wondering why I'm getting these depressed feelings coming over me. So I would sit in this little sunken place and be like, "I can't believe this." And, like, I'm tryin' to do what I'm 'posed to do. I'm tryin' to do what's right. I'm tryin' to help. I'm tryin' to.
And he was like, "Man, you might need to just go talk to somebody. And then they could probably peel back the layers." And that's what has happened. Me and this gentleman, we sat down, and we talked, and we peeled back some layers, and I opened up. And it was pretty dope, man.
Lee: When the brother suggested that, you know, maybe you should talk to somebody, what was your initial reaction?
Alexander: "I don't need to talk to nobody. I'm good." (LAUGHTER) You know? But that friend saw something, and saw some pain that he's never seen in my face, and suggested that. And then my mom passed September 15. And then after that, I just fell really into a whole 'nother sunken place and didn't want no help, nobody. Then I met Lorenzo in 2018. And that's when I started gettin' things back on track, man.
Lee: He's talking here about Lorenzo Lewis, the founder of the Confess Project. So tell me about meeting Lorenzo for the first time. Talk to me about that.
Alexander: Gentleman from the Urban League, one of our friends in common, my client at the time, said, "Hey man. We're looking for a space, man, to bring this Confess Project." And I was like, "What is that?" He's like, "Man, this friend of mine, he's (UNINTEL)." And, "Okay. Well, what is it though?" He's like, "Man, he's just gonna talk to you about openin' up." "Okay." (LAUGH) "I know you always got somethin' goin' on at your shop." So I said, "All right. Cool." Lorenzo comes in. We meet him.
Lee: Lorenzo did something that Divine refers to as "the mask presentation," to show folks just what the Confess Project is all about.
Alexander: It's a presentation that the Confess Project does with the mask. It's a Jason mask. One of the gentlemen that worked there, he wears the mask and Lorenzo acts as the barber. He's like, "Hey, what's goin' on? What's wrong?" "Nothin'." He's like, "Man, why you down?" "Man, I ain't. I'm aight." You know?
And then he finally breaks the stigma and he says, "Man, well, if you want to talk, man, we can talk." So then dude lifts the mask up, and then he's like, "Oh, really?" You know, so basically what the mask represents is the fact that we gotta go through life in some sort of façade. Even though we may not be up to it, we gotta smile when we don't wanna smile. We gotta, you know, scratch when we ain't itchin'. You know what I'm sayin'? (LAUGH)
But when we get home, we ain't scratcin' no more, we ain't smilin' no more 'cause we had to put on for the people outside. You know what I'm sayin'? So that's why. And when they came and presented it, it was just so phenomenal, bro, where I was like, "They speakin' to me."
Alexander: And you could see he was real intentional about trying to get this work out. And I'm grateful for that.
Lee: So what kind of tools have they given you? I mean, you talked about addressing the actual need as Black men especially, as brothers. We have our walls up. You know, we always gotta be a man. It's all that kind of toxicity. You recognize the problem, and then you're engaged with Confess Project. And I wonder what tools they gave you or how they helped you to kinda chip away at some of the stuff you've seen in brothers in the community.
Alexander: Oh man. It's simple, man. We follow a four-point guideline, which is active listening, positive communication, validation, and stigma reduction. Active listening is just givin' a ear to your client or even to another barber or whatever. Just givin' that ear. But I'm not tryin' to really know their whole business, all their life either, but just to get a little somethin' that I can hear.
And then positive communicate with 'em and say, "All right. Well, look, man. I know somebody up the street, up the hall that's a counselor. Would you like to talk to them? Are you willing to talk to them?" You know? And then the validation is, "Okay, man. You've expressed it. You've said it. That's real, man. Thanks for keeping it real." That's really when it's real. You know what I'm sayin'?
So then the last part is removing that stigma. So now, you no longer have to feel like you can't be vulnerable, bro. You can go ahead and express yourself and say what you gotta say no matter what your issue is you're facin'. You know what I'm sayin'? It's not like they come here, get a haircut, and seek therapy. No. (LAUGH) It's just based off of general conversation.
And then when I hear somethin', I'm like, "Yo, this is where I can help." So now, I'm able to help clients in my chair as well as help myself because I'm helping them, because I'm saying to them what I would like to say and see. So I'm mirroring what's goin' on.
Lee: You know, when you talk about connecting brothers with, you know, someone to talk to, like a counselor or a therapist, I think about the stigma that that carries with so many of us still, this idea of a counselor. And so when we're dealing with pain, you know, we maybe try to smoke it away, drink it away, sex it away, fight it away, do all those things that don't do anything.
But we don't talk it away. We don't engage with people. Talking about those conversations, how does it go when you say, "Hey man. You might want to talk to somebody," or, "Hey, if you want to do this, I got you. I know somebody down the hall"? How does that actually work? Because I'm imaginin' some brothers bein' like, "Man, I ain't tryin' to talk to nobody." (LAUGH) But I wonder what it's looked like for you.
Alexander: I guess, Trymaine, it's almost like bein' on drugs, okay? You could talk to people and tell 'em, "Hey, yo. Stop doin' drugs, man. Drugs is bad. Drugs kill." You know what I mean? "It's a dead end." But until they are ready to get off, then that's when they seek the help.
So when they ready, outside of talkin' to me, whomever else that's involved in a such type of Confess Project, our confession-type situation that I do, it's up to them. But they've been provided that information that will sit in their head, you know? Whether it sits dormant or whether it's activated, it's still gonna be there to where when they ready, they'll receive that help.
Lee: And I'm sure they trust you if Divine is saying it. If you're saying it to them, they say, "I love and trust this brother. Maybe I'll give it a listen."
Alexander: Absolutely. 'Cause, I mean, how would you not love and trust me if I'm usin' a razor close proximity? (LAUGH) You know what I mean? To your face--
Lee: --respect you at least.
Alexander: Your nose, your lips. (LAUGH) You know what I'm sayin'? Right? Your temple area. So there's a level of respect there. You know what I'm sayin'? So.
Lee: And so after going through the journey, right, and gettin' the resources, and you go through the whole Confess Project kind of plan, talking about that first client after you're, you know, armed with all the tools and resources, tell me about that.
Alexander: Man, the first client is a guy that attends the University of Louisville. I met him in 2016 as a freshman or sophomore. And he was gung ho about his degree. "I'm in finances. I'm in finances. This is what I'm doin'." So then a year later or so, he start gettin' down in the dumps.
Still comin' to the shop, but I was like, "How's school?" "Man, I don't even think I want to do it." "Okay, well, what caused this?" "Man, I want to do something that gotta do with helping the people in the community." "Okay, well, what are you good at?" You know? "Well, I like numbers. I like math. I want to do. But, man, I just don't know, man."
So he started bein' in this sunken place as far as what he was gonna do as far as. I was like, "Okay. What do you want to do with the people in the community?" He was like, "Man, I just wanna help some kids. I want to help some boys." "Okay. Well, what are you thinkin' about changin' to?" He was like, "Business management." Okay, bingo.
Right then and there, I was like, "Okay, well, business management. You could create a organization. You could create a nonprofit organization. You could create any of these structures and still use your degree in business management and help kids at the same time."
And then he was like, "Man, I ain't even think of that. You know, my whole goal was about money and finances because, you know, we need economics." But then when he starts seeing the presentations at the shop, that's when he started openin' up. And then he came back to me and said, "Hey, can we have somethin' called shop talk in your shop? And it'd be these students at the University of Louisville."
And I was like, "Oh, okay. Cool." I facilitated it. He galvanized it and drummed up a whole buncha kids to come in my shop. He said the conversation that we had about him changin' his direction is what made him want to go out and start talkin' to people at his school. And he turned it around and we had, like, four shop talks every month, every other month. Kid's doin' his thing, man, because just somebody gave him a little encouragement and a little confidence. So he's in a better place now. He's cool, man. He's enjoyin' doin' what he's doin'.
Lee: You know, in some ways, you know, you're right there on the front lines, right? Where they might not be goin' somewhere else, they're comin' to you and saying, "Man, it's fucked up," and, "I'm going through this situation. I can't--" whatever.
And I wonder though, not unlike other first responders who are there on the front lines how all this is affecting you personally as a man. Certainly you have tools you have resources. You're connected with the brothers over at Confess. But how was your journey changed along the way?
Alexander: Within my own self personally, of course going through the pandemic, I resorted to music, man. I created a song, Speaking Thoughts Out Loud.
Lyrics: Depression is a state of mind. You can sit around and waste time. You can live in your head all the things again, spend all your time smokin' and drinkin'. These are my thoughts out loud.
Alexander: It was just somethin' that I was goin' through. It spoke about my lows, then the middle, tryin' to navigate through it. Then at the end, I actually decided to have a better outlook on life. And just listenin' to the things that I've shared with others, "Hey man. You might want to listen to some of the things you shared with them." You know?
Lyrics: Too much overthinking got my mind really ponderin'. It's to the point where I try not to bother y'all. I'd rather sit back and take shots of alcohol. In fact when my mind starts to quiver...
Alexander: But, again, I do have my days, ups and down, you know, with my own issues as far as depression and anxiety. But today, I'm cool, man. I'm about a nine, nine and a half. (LAUGH) I'm cool.
Lee: I feel your energy. I told a producer earlier. I woke up today, I said, "I'm gonna conquer this day. This day ain't gonna conquer me." I said, "We're about to line these things up and just eat 'em up." (LAUGH) So--
Lee: --I'm gonna catch these wins today.
Lyrics: So I had to devise a plan, overcomin' pain which makes a better man. And I cherish the bond with my children. Instead of destroyin', I'd rather be buildin'. I use the barbershop as a crutch. But sometimes, the pain be too much. Much. I wish it'd go away. I wish I could stop it. But everywhere I turn, there's a person in my pocket.
Lee: I wanted to ask you, man. You sent me one of your songs. And you were so open, and you were vulnerable. And I wonder, like, how did you get to the point where you could just say, like, "I'm a open book. And I'm gonna share my experience and my feelings"? 'Cause, again, your music, it's really about your feelings, right, and how you feel as a human being. How did you get to that point, man?
Alexander: The inspiration, of course, came from my own situation in the pandemic, just bein' locked in, not bein' able to do anything. But I have certain rappers that I like and listen to that speak pain in their music, like Joe Budden, Kanye West, Tupac, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and DMX. When you hear DMX, Lord, Give Me a Sign, he speaks about the fact that he's runnin', he wants to run from the situation. But, no, Lord gave me the strength to fight back.
Dmx: I'm a big boy now, but I'm not still grown. And I'm still goin' through it, pain and the hurt, soakin' up trouble like rain in the dirt. And I know only I can stop the rain with just the mention of my savior's name. Lord, give me a sign.
Alexander: He said the same thing in his music. He's been cryin' out for help. He was looking for help. But at the end of the day, it was still on him to want that help. You know what I'm sayin'? When he was ready. But his music spoke to the pains and the social ills that we go through as Black people in our community.
Lee: What are some practical ways and advice you would give to brothers? And, again, I think this is specific to Black men. Obviously, humans go through things and all kinds of men and women go through things. But as we mentioned earlier, Black men, we are under a certain kind of pressure and we experience a certain kind, specific kind of violence.
And I wonder for all the brothers who are listening, who are going through tough times, you know, what's some practical advice? Knowing every situation is different, but what's some advice you would give brothers to help them get through these tough times?
Alexander: Well, again, man, let's talk. That's the main advice, bro. Conversation rules the nation, bro. And that's exactly what we gotta do, man. We gotta communicate and conversate with our people and show them other ways. And I think that's tangible.
Just bein' open, man. Just bein' vulnerable, man, on both ends. The brothers that are hurtin', that are in pain need to open up and talk. It's no different than me when I was in pain. Especially when it comes from our community, when we're a victim of depression or anxiety, man, again, we looked at as weak, man. But the real thing about it is when you say that and acknowledge it, you pretty much stronger than those who keep bottlin' it up, tryin' to activate it in a different way.
Lee: Stick with us. We'll hear from Lorenzo Lewis, founder of the Confess Project, after the break.
Archival Recording: What's goin' on, y'all? We've made it to New York City, and I am really excited today. We just left Boston. Thank you, Boston, for showin' us a good time. We look forward to y'all followin' us. Hey, make sure to donate. Hit the link below, make sure to support our work.
Lee: In 2020, the Confess Project started their State of Mind tour to bring the project to 16 cities all over the country, including Boston, New York, Philly, and Dallas. The program has trained 300 barbers, and they're working to train another 800.
Archival Recording: We're travelin' the country and educatin' barbers on mental health. Road to 1 million, we won't stop until we get there. Let's go.
Lee: They're currently in Los Angeles, where I caught up with Lorenzo Lewis, who founded the project in 2016. The first thing I want to ask, Lorenzo, man, is how did you get to this point where it's a struggle for many of us just to be open. But here you are, man, being a gatekeeper and teaching other brothers how to open up a little bit. How did you get to this place?
Lorenzo Lewis: You know, honestly, man, it has just been a long life journey goin' through my own issues of depression and childhood trauma. I was involved, you know, in a gang in my youth. And beyond that, I lost both my parents before the age of 21. And so I realized what depression and, you know, what we know as loneliness and how that leads to a lotta of self-destruction.
Knowing that my own personal struggles were always a challenge, I think that a lot of this was just me really reimagining how to overcome and rise above all of this. And so I'm hoping that the way that I've been able to imagine that is what other young brothers can do now across the country.
Lee: Was there a breakthrough moment where you were forced to grow into who you are now?
Lewis: Yeah. It was right there before I was age 18. I dodged a felony conviction, a juvenile conviction of a firearm. And, you know, the judge gave me a second shot. That was that shot where I realized that it was a turning point. Because the next few years beyond that, I worked in a juvenile detention facility.
And so I remember working with a lotta young brothers and sisters like myself with a similar story. And so I know what that looks like from firsthand but also how to go back into the system and really be able to work with people with those same lived experiences. I think that was my turning point, you know, early on that really helped me to not go into what we know as recidivism but also how we can continue to use our purpose to overcome that pain that we went through.
Lee: So talk to me about the Confess Project. I know you've taken all your personal journey. But you found a way to, you know, resource and give tools to other people. How does it actually work? Like, how do you train the barbers? How does it actually work?
Lewis: What we do is, you know, obviously there's a lot of recruitment on the front end, you know, working with the barbershop owners, working with barber schools. We do work with schools as well. That relationship building there, just in a partnership we perform with the barbershops there.
We go in. We also do this virtually in the barbershop setting. So while people are actually in there gettin' their haircut, it's takin' what we would do in the classroom and takin' it to the barbershop. And from there, they get a certificate and they're entered into a coalition, a national coalition of those 300 barbers in which they get coaching calls every month and support through our engagement staff that helps them beyond that year.
One thing to remember: We do connect those barbershops with local therapists and local hospital systems in case someone there is really struggling. And so on the back end there, we're able to provide them technical assistance. And so we're giving them a well-rounded experience in our communities. It's really turning a barbershop into your culture/mental health hub there right in the neighborhood.
Lee: Why barbers? Why choose barbers as being, like, so central to this mission?
Lewis: Yeah. So, you know, I grew up in my aunt's beauty salon as a kid probably from the age of five until, you know, 15. And so barbershops have always been just such a transformational movement. Just seeing people go there to get a grooming service, and beyond that really just breaking through and getting through that stuff. You know, women coming into the shop, goin' through a hard time.
I saw my aunt, you know, really, you know, help people that was in need. Folks would come in there, struggling from losing their job. Six months later, they had a job. They was flourishin'. It was simply because of that support they got there at the salon.
Also, that was where I found my first male mentor. Somebody there not only cut my hair but really empowered me, that nurtured me, that gave me just accountability as a young man. And these things really helped me along now as an adult in the work that I do now across the country.
So it starts with support, right? There's a African proverb that says, "A child who does not feel warmth for the village, they will burn it down." And so we know at barbershops and salons across the country, Black barbershops and salons, you know, we're focusin' on feelin' that warmth from our village so we continue to do good in our communities.
Lee: Lorenzo, what does the data show us about, you know, Black men's access to health care, you know, the rates at which we're suffering from mental illness, suicide? What picture does the data paint for us?
Lewis: Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black men and boys under the ages of 20. And also, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for Black men and boys over the age of 25. Realizing as well, you know, that clinicians, there's only 4% of clinicians of color.
And so when you think about the people around access and, you know, how culture access is very dim. But beyond that, really understanding that African Americans are less likely to receive mental health treatment than the general population. People can't trust people that don't look like them and people that's hurt them.
And people that's hurt them, and that's abused them, and that's misused them, they're not gonna get help from people that look like that. So I think that's where we gotta be at the cornerstone of that conversation. That's why we were so adequate (SIC) about getting into these barbershops, because we were like, "Hey, these brothers are gonna have to know how to help themselves." Right? Like, they're about to go back to the strength of our ancestors and how they were able to have to get themselves out of the stuff that they were in or how they had to fight for themselves and band together.
Lee: You know, this is your work, man. You committed yourself to this, and you got barbers all across the country engaging with Black men. And I want to ask you, man, just straight up. Do you think we're at, like, a crisis point here? I look at the suicide rates.
I look at the other ways that we kill ourselves through trying to cope and medicatin' ourselves, or lashing out at those around us. We got the police. We have all this stuff. Do you think that we're at, like, a crisis point? And if we don't get things right, you know, what's at stake?
Lewis: I'm excited for the mental health movement that's goin' on right now. But when you start to really talk about Black men and mental health, and I can tell you that until we can really accept what Black men need in regards of their mental health and the support around how systems need to change and how policy needs to change, I think that we're gonna continue to have these issues.
I think that we're gonna continue to see the police brutalities and the different things that's taking place until we revamp the way that our systems are set up. Our systems are not likely for Black men to live a promising and successful life.
And so I think that until we can have those hard conversations there, I think that what we're doing is only-- in some cases, I hate to feel like it's a Band-Aid. But I also know that there's so much more macro work that has to get done in order for this stuff to really, really change.
And so I'm hoping that my voice, my advocacy can really start to invoke those changes because brothers are really hurtin' because of policy, right? Because of public policy and because of the way that it's hurting folks from employment, from havin' a quality of life, from bein' able to have adequate means to help their families, which then all this can detrimentally hurt their mental health, right?
And so these are the things that I think we really gotta understand. Until that can change, I don't think we're gonna really see much of a shift in the mental health movement, until we can really change policy.
Lee: My last question for you, man. Do you have any advice for Black men and those who love us who might be listening, advice on just how they might be able to get through some of these tough times? I mean, we're obviously goin' through some tough times now. But before COVID, after COVID, you know, it's a tough road for us as Black men. What advice might you have, man?
Lewis: One of the advice that I can really give out, Trymaine, is that, you know, remember, you know, that there is light at the end of the tunnel somewhere. As I'm using my voice, I encourage other brothers to use theirs. I reimagined my trauma, and I took my experience as a child and was able to turn it into a movement.
And so I challenge other brothers to think of themselves as a movement as well because they can do the same. And I think that once we do so, we really have such a powerful, unique story that can be really just transferable across the country.
Lee: Lorenzo, thank you so much for your time, man, and your work. You know, we really do appreciate it, brother. Thank you.
Lewis: Yeah, thank you so much, Trymaine.
Lee: That was Lorenzo Lewis and J. Divine Alexander with the Confess Project. If you or someone in your life needs some extra mental health support, there's a growing network of Black therapists who are there to answer the call. And also, for real, we gotta check up on our people. A text, a call. Just reach out to make sure they're good. And if you're not, don't be afraid to let folks know. You are not alone.
And before we wrap today, we've got a quick favor to ask you. We'd like to know more about you, our Into America listeners. We want to hear what you like about the show, what you don't like, what you want more of. So I hope you'll take a little survey for us so we can make a better podcast for you.
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Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Aisha Turner. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. And a big shout out to my barbershop, the Standard Grooming Company in Brooklyn, New York. Take care of yourselves. We'll see you next Thursday.