When Aaron Perry used to get his haircuts (back in the day when he had some hair, he says with a laugh) he used to marvel at the way other Black men would speak openly about health issues, what was ailing them or what tests they didn’t want done. Most guys didn’t want any bad news, he found, and so they skipped screenings and tests that could add years to their lives.
Perry used to sit through his cuts at JP Hair Design and wonder how he could merge the openness of the barbershop with the need for health care that so many men of color desperately needed, yet most stayed in the shadows not speaking about those needs.
As he watched people talk about this or that health issue he wondered how much of those conversations continued when those men left the barbershop. Did they go home and forget about it? Did they really go to a healthcare provider and seek answers? Or were they just comfortable in the old-school ease of the barbershops willing to talk openly about issues there that they wouldn’t anywhere else?
Perry decided he needed to find a way to merge those two worlds. And he did.
Since 2007, Aaron Perry’s Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association has reached out to the Black community to make sure that men and boys in underrepresented areas have the chance to participate in having health care and living healthier lives. And last year, he opened the Men’s Health and Education Center from the comfortable confines of JP’s barbershop. The center provides medical education and also brings together men trying to live healthier lives through things like jogging or running marathons or general exercise. The men learn about proper diet and receive support to help them overcome the anxieties many men, particularly in communities of color, feel about tackling health issues. The Center got national attention earlier this year as Perry appeared with Dr. Jasmine Zapata, who has been a consultant on the project, were featured on Megyn Kelly Today on NBC.
Everything from screenings to health education has fallen under the umbrella of the RLWA but, most importantly, it has provided a resource for the types of conversations Perry witnessed getting his haircut years ago to continue and connect people.
“What I’ve found in doing this work is that when you build a brotherhood, men respond to that,” Perry told Madison365. “Doing things like getting blood pressure taken or seeing other black men running like in Black Men Run, it’s about building that brotherhood. And once that is built it’s easier to try to encourage them to do it, instead of them trying to do it on their own.”
At an event inside of Bonefish Grill on Madison’s West side on Monday, Perry unveiled his plans to take the RLWA even further.
Thanks to a new Community Collaboration Grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Perry has been able to begin a new program called the Black Men’s Wellness Sustainable Initiative.
Because of the grant, Perry is able to expand his program into a total of eight barbershops in and around Madison.
“We were given a four-year grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program and so for the next four years we are really going to work to make Dane County the healthiest county statewide for black men to live in,” Perry said.
The $300,000 grant from the Wisconsin Partnership Program will help Perry to widen the scope and expand the initiative he has been running out of JP Hair Design.
Over the past several years, Perry has recruited a large number of men looking to take their health more seriously and participate in activities. Perry hopes the impact on the Black community can be felt all over the state of Wisconsin and he says like-minded individuals everywhere from Green Bay to Milwaukee are engaging in healthy competition with him to see who can attain the status of being Wisconsin’s healthiest Black community.
High blood pressure, diabetes and cancer are the most traditional health challenges men in the Black community have faced. Perry himself has had to fight through diabetes and weight loss to become healthier. Helping others tackle those issues is a huge part of the initiative, but other activities for less dramatic issues are available as well and Perry has spearheaded groups of men who do lots of activities.
On Saturday mornings a group Perry helped organize, Black Men Run, gets together to run or exercise. It can be heavy running or light, depending on what each person needs. They meet Saturday mornings across from the Vilas Zoo Beach.
Joshua Wright, a Community Project Coordinator with UW Carbone Cancer Center, says he joined Black Men Run when he started to feel his clothes getting a little tighter.
“I saw myself hitting a point where, you know, clothes were getting a little bit tight but also I’m trying to expand my understanding of what athleticism is. I played football in high school but from there I just had a long stint where I wasn’t doing anything on a regular basis.”
Wright says they routinely get between two and ten men for the runs and Wright himself has been participating in longer runs.
As for Perry’s expansion initiative, Vernee Nycole House of Beauty, JT Barber Hair Design Studios, B.Right Barbershop, Atwood Barbershop, COG Barber & Beauty Hair Salon, Resilient Hair Designs and Barberstown will all join JP Hair Design as locations for Men’s Health and Education Centers.