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Barbershop plan mentors youth

CEO helps young men break poverty, jail cycle


Lorenzo Lewis, CEO of the nonprofit L&J Empowerment, is starting the Arkansas Barbershop Network for Youth Criminal Justice Prevention: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty and Incarceration, a program that teams barbers with other groups to help young people stay out of the criminal justice system.

(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Sean Clancy)

In 2016, Lorenzo Lewis of Little Rock started The Confess Project, a nonprofit that uses barbers and barbershops to help young Black men open up about mental health concerns.

Now Lewis, the 35-year-old CEO of the nonprofit L&J Empowerment, is starting the Arkansas Barbershop Network for Youth Criminal Justice Prevention: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty and Incarceration. The program, which focuses on 14-21-year-olds, aims to “help prevent at-risk youth across Arkansas from entering the juvenile justice system through education and by providing opportunities for them to live healthier and make more responsible choices for a brighter future,” according to a news release.

Lewis’ youth was bumpy. His mother was in jail in Newark, N.J., when she gave birth to him and he was raised in Little Rock by his Aunt Daisy Lee and Uncle T. Royal Lee. By the time he was a teenager he’d joined a gang and at 17 was jailed as a juvenile on a gun charge.

He eventually left the gang life and worked at Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Bryant and later for Rivendell Behavioral Health Services of Arkansas and other mental health providers. He was also going to school, and earned a degree in human services from Arkansas Baptist College.

The Confess Project started with a workshop in a Little Rock church. Lewis, the author of the book “Jumping Over Life’s Hurdles and Staying in the Race,” attempted to hold mental health forums for Black men at other locations, but no one showed up. That’s when he turned to barbershops. He made some connections and began instructing barbers how to actively listen and communicate without being judgmental. The goal was not to train them to be mental health experts, but to train them to be mental health advocates.

In 2019, Lewis was among 18 leaders from nonprofits across the country named a Roddenberry Fellow by the Roddenberry Foundation. The Confess Project was also awarded a $50,000 grant from the foundation.

A barbershop-based program where barbers are mentors helping young people stay out of the juvenile justice system seemed like the next logical step, Lewis says.

“When you think about my journey and some of the challenges young people are facing, it was really committing to a need,” he says. “Barbers are an essential part of the ecosystem and it was a natural fit to connect barbers and young people to help them stay out of incarceration.” The barbershop program, which includes many barbers from the Confess Project, teams with other nonprofits like the O.K. Program and 100 Black Men of Greater Little Rock to give free haircuts and mentor young people.

“It’s really building a network that can help deflect young people from entering the vicious cycle of incarceration,” Lewis says. “What we’ve learned is if they do enter it, it becomes a real challenge for them to stay out.” The O.K. (Our Kids) Program was formed in 2007 by former Little Rock Police Department officer Willie Davis and is a law-enforcement based mentoring program for Black boys and men. The program is part of a national model that began in Rancho Cordova, Calif. Davis, who retired from the Little Rock Police Department, is now a sergeant with the Pulaski County sheriff’s department.

Davis has known Lewis since around 2010 when Lewis was working as a counselor and spoke to kids in the O.K. Program.

“The way he went deep and talked about his own background in front of the kids, I was impressed from that day on,” Davis says. “When he started the Confess Project, I was really interested in his [approach to] mental health. I was serving a population of Black boys that dealt with a lot of unresolved trauma. Lorenzo was on point with some of the things he talked about regarding trauma and the unresolved things in Black boys’ lives in our communities.” On June 23, L&J Empowerment and the Barbershop Network received a $450,000 grant from the Center for Racial Equity through the Walmart Foundation to support the project.

“I think this could grow,” Lewis says of his future plans. “I think counties across the state could use this. We’re bringing it to existing programs, so we could take it to a school or a boys and girls club. That makes is very unique and builds better trust.”

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