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'Aftermath' Barbershop Plans to be a Cut Above

Delegates from the Other America

New America Media, News Feature, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Sep 05, 2008

Editor's Note: On September 6, the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign will culminate with as many as 16,000 family delegates attending conventions in three cities to talk about issues they want to put on the national radar as the country prepares for the presidential election. In the forth of a five-part series, NAM editor Khalil Abdullah – who has reported on the campaign from local town halls across the country -- profiles these delegates, parents-turned-grassroots activists. Rene Mitchell is a single father and a small business owner that takes extra time to help out at his kids school. Mitchell became a professional barber in 1996 and is the lead partner in his own shop: Aftermath Full Service Barber and Beauty Salon. NAM's coverage coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Were it not for Hurricane Gustav, Rene Mitchell would have hit all the gears driving a NASCAR speed machine over the 350-mile northeastern run from New Orleans to Birmingham. Engine purring, he’d arrive in style at the Equal Voice for America’s Families town hall meeting on September 6. But, at only 11 years of age, he’s delighted at settling for “the vacation that never ends,” according to his father Brandon Mitchell.

Mitchell’s children, Rene,12; Aliyah, 6, and Akil, 7, had been intent on making the trip to Birmingham where their father is to serve as a family delegate. It’s one of three simultaneous town halls, (with Chicago and Los Angeles), sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation to ratify a policy agenda developed by and for low-income families.

However, given Gustav’s blustering threat to the Big Easy, Mitchell drove his children to Little Rock to visit with their grandparents. He returned to Memphis and will leave from there for Alabama.

“I didn’t know Rene wanted to be a NACSAR driver until this summer when his essay was chosen in the essay competition at the CDF [Children’s Defense Fund] Freedom School,” Mitchell said. “He knows the names of the drivers; models of the cars.”

Mitchell, a single father, has had his children enrolled in after-school during the regular year and in the full day summer program. “Aliyah, she wants to be a doctor and deliver babies.” His youngest son, though, is enamored with his father’s profession. “Akil’s essay was also chosen. He wants to be a barber.”

Brandon Mitchell is 35, but at 13, older than Akil is now, he set up the mirror so he could give himself a haircut. He was disappointed with the result, but “I was determined,” he said emphatically, “to make it right.” He honed his technique, until, finally, his skill had folks asking him where he got his hair cut. Mitchell became a professional barber in 1996 and is the lead partner in his own shop: Aftermath Full Service Barber and Beauty Salon.

“Aftermath” references Hurricane Katrina and its crushing impact on his hometown, but also speaks to Mitchell’s efforts to “keep my clientele together and comfortable.” As a professional at a different barbershop before Katrina, Mitchell explained that he lost half his customers as people evacuated the city, some never to return.

Opening a new business was tough. “Don’t believe everything they tell about [rebuilding] New Orleans,” Mitchell said bluntly, “that’s not what’s going on down here.” He said that he and others in need were “denied loans and grants and everything else” though officials and decision makers knew that the storm and flooding had wrought havoc on people’s lives. In addition, competition is fierce, he noted, with barbershops or salons sometimes “within two or three blocks’ radius of each other.”

Mitchell’s distinctive vision for Aftermath includes developing an apprenticeship program “for students in high school who do not go to college,” he said, in order to provide a career that can yield income and opportunities. There are procedural steps and requirements from the state’s cosmetology board he has to meet before his program will be accredited and eligible for subsequent grants and loans. Mitchell is undeterred. “Everyone wants to see someone who‘s really helping. The youth are definitely watching. They want to know: where are those who will put their life own on the line?”

Mitchell said he was inspired by the work of the individuals at the CDF Freedom School. Their efforts at tutoring the children increased his motivation to be of service. He volunteers at the school. “I do extra work they might need,” and, for example, sometimes buys “lunch for the interns to show some appreciation.” His actions did not go unrecognized, leading to his selection as a family delegate to what promises to be a unique gathering of grass roots and community organizations a mere two months before the U.S. presidential election.

Mitchell acknowledged that he would be pleased if his participation with the Equal Voice campaign gets others more active in their communities. “I don’t mind being used for that,” he said, “we have to come together collectively.” He insisted, though, that attitudes have to change as well. “Everyone is looking for reward, not results.”

As the delegates gather to raise the visibility of their lives and struggles, Mitchell said, “I expect some mercy from our federal government. You can pray every day, but we have to get our government to see whatever it is that we need.”

For Mitchell, prayer and belief in self-help do not contradict his desire to see increased federal assistance for New Orleans. Katrina unleashed such wholesale damage that the city still requires intervention on a scale that only the federal government can contemplate. The city survived Gustav, but may yet be tested by other storms.

Mitchell confided that he sometimes wonders whether his decision to stay in post-Katrina New Orleans has been the best course of action for his children. “Three years since, I’m thinking about relocating to where the housing is occupied and not vacant. They [my children] deserve better.”

Days before Katrina hit, Mitchell and his ex-wife sent the children to Memphis to stay with relatives, and, not long afterwards, joined them. “The people in Memphis opened their arms up for me,” he said warmly, adding that, as music is his relaxation, he finds the jazz and blues scene of Memphis second only to New Orleans. Leaving New Orleans would be difficult, particularly because he has established a business “that feeds me and my family.” But --stay or leave -- Mitchell is determined for his kids’ sake to make it right, just like he did after that first hair cut.

Note: Brandon Mitchell’s life as a single father is to be the subject of a upcoming documentary.

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