Barber shop talks prompt entrepreneurs to mentor, engage black youths

| Bridget Ryder | March 17, 2017 | 1 Comment

Reynolds-Anthony Harris, right, and Houston White promote the concept of black excellence in the barber shop White owns and operates called H. White Men’s Room in north Minneapolis. They also are strong advocates of school choice, and use a book titled “Minneapolis School Finder: A Resource Guide for Parents” to help parents. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In the aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights last July, sitting in the barber’s chair at H. White Men’s Room in North Minneapolis became therapeutic for Reynolds-Anthony Harris.

While getting his hair trimmed, the parishioner of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, former teacher, current business owner and father, expressed his thoughts and feelings about the death of the black man. The incident had struck him like no other. And with other police-involved shootings around the country, Harris said the last few years have taken him “to a new place as a black man.”

“That really shook me to my core. It was a spiritual crisis for me,” he said of Castile’s death.

From that crisis came the Minnesota Harvest Initiative, offering internships, mentoring and other assistance black youths might need. The name is a reference to Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” Through the initiative, Harris is hoping to engage a new crop of young black men in education and economic participation.

Impetus for change

Harris, 63, had followed the deaths of other black men in police interactions, but the circumstances of Castile’s death — a man driving through a quiet neighborhood and then shot by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her young child — made him think of his own daughter, Katherine Harris, 30. He hadn’t experienced such a range of emotions since 9/11.

“I needed to take a time-out with my family,” he recalled.

Later that summer, he headed south for a family reunion. The comfort of simply being together with his large extended family, parents and four siblings brought him to a new place. He realized how well his family had protected him. He had never felt inferior or unsafe as a black man. He had also grown up with the example of parents who served their community, his mother supporting missionaries and taking him to charity events, such as the March of Dimes. His father was an Army officer.

Back in the barber’s chair in North Minneapolis, he continued to process his reaction to Castile’s death.

“It’s like, ‘What am I going to do about this?’ I looked for a way to do it that honored my family and got to the root of the problem,” he said.

Houston White, an entrepreneur and friend, shared Harris’ pain at the vast number of fatherless black families and black men who don’t receive a good education and economic opportunities. Through his barber shop clients and adjoining coffee shop, which has become a community gathering place, White also had a pulse on the community.

Over months of conversations, about 15 black business owners and businessmen committed themselves to be examples of excellence and bring opportunities to black youths, which led to the Minnesota Harvest Initiative. They organize dialogue sessions at the barber shop and give talks at other venues, such as the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis.

“We’re very supportive and ask them [youths] what they’re having trouble with,” Harris explained.

One young man said he was struggling with math.

“I think we had found him three tutors by the time we were done,” Harris said with a laugh.

The Minnesota Harvest Initiative has also joined in Opportunity for All Kids’ (OAK) school choice campaign. The current focus is the Equity and Opportunity Scholarship Act, House File 386 and Senate File 258, which would create state administered scholarships for low- and middle-income families to attend private schools. The bill would also give a 70 percent tax credit to corporations and individuals who donate to Minnesota Department of Revenue-approved nonprofits that fund the scholarships.

The legislation also has the support of the state’s bishops. The Minnesota Catholic Conference is an OAK partner, and school choice was a central issue at MCC’s Catholics at the Capitol event March 9 in St. Paul.

Harris chose a Catholic education for his own daughter in Oregon. He was able to afford the education he thought worked best for her, and he wants to see that opportunity available to people of lesser financial means, too. He also hopes the scholarship will be a catalyst for more innovation in education.

But the ultimate goal of the Minnesota Harvest Initiative is to bring good out of evil.

“It’s about a group of men that came out of a tragedy to move the ball forward on these issues that affect our kids,” Harris said.

For more information about the Minnesota Harvest Initiative, visit

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