When Jeff Noël was getting his hair cut recently, he noticed something about the barbershop.
"People are here to talk; they're not here for a haircut," he said. "We’re here to share our opinion and we’re looking for a place where we can speak with candor."
It might be an exaggeration to say people don't come to barbershops for haircuts, but the idea of barbershop conversations stuck in Noël's mind. He'd recently moved back to Miami, his hometown, to transfer to Florida International University. And he was looking for ways to engage with his community.
"The barbershop is probably the only place besides Walmart where you’ll see gray hair, you’ll see homeless balding hair, you’ll see, you know, millennials and you’ll see the younger generation all sitting down in the same place. So I said, what would happen if we come together and we actually have discussions that matter?”
And so began BarberShop Speaks. Since this summer, Noël and a couple of friends have hosted public conversations in barbershops throughout Miami. They've talked about education, held a presidential debate watch and discussion and analyzed women's roles in politics and the workforce, among other topics. There's music and food, and Noël says a typical turnout is around 30 people -- mostly 20- and 30-year-olds.
On a recent Friday night, the group gathered at Five Star Beauty in Liberty City. The topic was "Women (In)powerment" and Jeff Noël's sister Makisha Noël guest-hosted a conversation on what it means for women to be "in power" versus "empowered."
The group's answer boiled down to: It's a position versus a state of mind.
If you're in power, "you're getting your source of validation from someone else... whereas empowered is something that's coming from within," one participant said.
Another added: "So empowered would be maybe starting your own business or something like that, you kind of have the go-getter mindset."
They talked about how it's hard to be empowered as a woman: to try to have a career while potentially facing a pay gap in the workplace, to juggle work and family in communities where women are expected to be both breadwinners and caregivers.
That resonated with Schelomith Doirin. She got her bachelor's degree in finance just this year and recently quit a job at an investment firm because she didn't think it would allow her to fulfill her goals: having a successful career and being a devoted mom.
"In order for me to really be free financially like I want to be, like I need to be really... for my future family," Doirin said. "There's no way for me to get there if I'm depending on somebody else's paycheck."
So Doirin's now self-employed, flipping houses.
A lot of the crowd has stories like Doirin’s. They’re young, children of immigrants from Haiti and Jamaica from families who send money back. They’re entrepreneurs -- one’s got a food delivery startup; another built a website, targeting millennials -- it aggregates articles on money, health, and tech. Two of them teach high school. Makisha Noël, the evening’s moderator, works with a non-profit that sends medical aid to Haiti.
Doirin said BarberShop Speaks has been a way for her to connect with other ambitious 20- and 30-year-olds.
"It's like a breath of fresh air," she said. "On my own, I meet other people that are interested in what I'm doing, but [they're] much older than me."
And, she says, BarberShop Speaks has piqued her interest in politics.
"I feel like everyone around me was just so into elections -- not only because of the presidential elections, but also the local elections -- so I've been more engaged," she said.
At Friday night's discussion, the political engagement was clear, as talk turned to the presidential race and the group agreed the United States needs leaders who empower women to have careers and families both.
"I see what Hillary will be doing as she will be lifting others up with her," Jeff Noël said, as people around the room nodded and murmured in agreement. "I could see imagine young girls coming to the Oval Office... they see Hillary Clinton in this position of power, and I could imagine how much strength and vigor it will give them."
Referring back to the earlier discussion of women in the workplace, another man said if Clinton were in office, it would affect how men and boys look at women in authority -- possibly leading to higher salaries and more equal treatment.
Mercedes Pratt talked about her 4-year-old sister, what it would mean for both of them to have a female president, especially just after the first black president.
"I thought of all the things, the possibilities that she will have, being a little toddler and growing up and being able to see [a female president] when she was 4 years old," Pratt said. "And I think of myself and all the possibilities that I could accomplish."
BarberShop Speaks meets again this Friday at Turn Around Beauty & Barbershop, 14929 NW 22nd Ave., in Opa-locka. It’ll be a voter education session about elected officials.