The #ShopTalk Movement: EJ Leaders in America’s Black Barbershops

Nov 9, 2021 | BM4F Spotlights, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 0 comments

Dr. Harold Rickenback, PhD

My first introduction to Black Millennials for Flint (BM4F) was through my involvement in a Green Table Talk series in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). I had the honor of serving as moderator for the Legacy of the Earth: Connection to the Land Panel on Gentrification. Impressed by their advocacy work and national footprint, I applied to join the BM4F Board of Directors and begin working with the group in October of 2020.

Legacy of the Earth Connection to the Land (Part 2: Gentrification) Moderated by Dr. Harold Rickenbacker, PhD

One year later I had the opportunity to attend BM4F Weekend of Service in Flint, Michigan. This was my first time meeting the BM4F staff and other Environmental Justice advocates who make up their national coalition. Due to the ongoing global pandemic, in-person interactions had been infrequent, and so it was refreshing to meet their dynamic team and finalize planning for an energetic weekend of events.

LaTricea Adams, Founder CEO and President of BM4F, asked me to moderate a Shop Talk event, which would focus on the connection between paternal exposure to lead and infertility. I am formally an environmental engineer by training and have historically focused on air pollution exposure in my career works, but as a long-time environmental justice advocate and organizer, I embraced the opportunity to discuss water quality issues. Confident as I was that the discussion would flow organically, I prepared speaking notes anyway to help shepherd the dialogue.


For readers who are not as familiar with lead exposure and the impacts on human health, here are a few stats:
• When consumed, research shows that lead can cause learning and behavioral problems.
• As it accumulates, it can cause lasting problems with growth and development.
• Lead in drinking water is more likely to come from household plumbing, especially in homes built before 1986.
• Infants and children are at a higher risk because their bodies are still developing and they are more likely to put inedible items that might contain lead in their mouth.
• Research shows that higher lead levels in men’s semen are associated with low fertilization rates. High lead levels in men reduce the ability of the sperm to bind to embryos and penetrate and fertilize the egg.
• Lead displaces calcium, which is essential for the processes of sperm function and spermatogenesis.
• Lead stays in the body for much longer than most metals, with a half-life of 11 years in bone.
(Sources – US Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute of Health, Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Journal of Human Reproduction)


The event took place on Saturday, August 14th, 2021, at Magnificlips, a local barbershop in the heart of downtown Flint, MI. Barbershops and beauty salons provide a unique communal function in the Black community. In addition to being a central hub in many communities, barbershops are an iconic haven for many Black people and are where we congregate to connect, learn, and laugh.

Videographer JB Productions | Shop Talk Flint 2021

The panel for the event was comprised of a diverse group of young professionals and experts in their own rights. Carlton Poindexter, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland in the department of environmental science and technology, provided an overview of wastewater treatment technologies. Richard Ezike, Ph.D., policy advisor at EVHybridNoire, fielded questions on environmental health and lead prevention and offered a unique technical lens to the discussion as a trained chemical engineer. Lastly, Brandon Wallace, Esq., chief strategist at the APEX Group, provided legal oversight and shepherded a robust discussion around policy and regulatory action.


The event itself provided a platform for men to openly talk about environmental justice issues. I don’t know many men who would candidly speak to strangers about low libido or infertility. This underscores the significance of the event being held in a barbershop, which is widely regarded as a safe space in the Black community. The attendees ranged from young adults to seniors, highlighting the breadth of transgenerational impacts affecting the Flint community. Many of the residents discussed their lives pre- and post-water crisis. A local educator described his lived experience working in schools and seeing firsthand the cognitive decline of students. “Not only are students not performing well on standardized tests, but they also lack motivation and stopped attending school altogether.”

“Not only are students not performing well on standardized tests, but they also lack motivation and stopped attending school altogether.”

LOCAL FLINT EDUCATOR

The water crisis has also affected population decline. Communities of color don’t have the luxury of “voting with their feet” or, in the case of Flint, reestablishing life in another state due to the environmental racism experienced in their hometown. Along with population decline, the resident stated that the local economy has also suffered. Small businesses suffered tremendously due to demographic decline, and it has been a constant uphill battle working to rebuild the community. A larger question looms, where are the settlement funds and why aren’t businesses involved in the settlement process?


In addition to the Shoptalk event, BM4F hosted a MomniBrunch to foster an essential discussion on maternal reproductive health in communities of color. Black women in the US experience disproportionately higher death rates related to pregnancy and childbirth. While black maternal mortality is already a crisis, fertility risks start with and are made worse by exposure to pollution.

A father’s pre-conception health can negatively affect the child, too. While sperm has traditionally been thought of as a vehicle for transporting chromosomes, exposure to lead affects sperm migration and is critical to embryo development. Even after a baby is born, the child’s well-being goes hand in hand with its father’s physical and mental health, which can be impacted by lead exposure.

The intersectional safe space provided by BM4F encouraged men to be vulnerable, ask questions, and make it safe for others who weren’t present to receive the information and do the same. The success of this event highlights the significance of grassroots organizations like BM4F who work to take action on broader environmental injustice issues. We can not have a conversation about paternal health without a platform where men feel safe and are willing and ready to speak up.

Upcoming Shop Talk Event

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