May 9, 2007
Column By SUSAN CAMPBELL, Courant Staff Writer
Vivian L. Akuoko didn't exactly move through the Georgia school system so much as she was pushed. By 10th grade, Akuoko hovered at a third-grade, maybe a fourth-grade reading level. Frustrated, she left school and headed north.
In Hartford and on welfare, she enrolled in a hairdressing school, where she met a woman who saw in her something her Georgia teachers had missed. Akuoko is a natural student, and she wanted to improve her reading. She'd pick up anything - trash blowing on the street, books far beyond her reading comprehension. She pored over her Bible. (She continues to do that. She just finished the book of Jeremiah and has moved on to the book of Mark.)
The woman told her that if Akuoko got her GED, she would help her through hairdressing school.
So Akuoko earned her GED, became a stylist and began working toward owning her own shop. Today, she and her sister, Naomi W. Forde, run Evay Day Spa and Beauty Salon on Albany Avenue, which caters to what Akuoko calls the "laptop babies," professional women who sit tapping on their computers while their hair is styled.
Just over the hill from their spacious salon - hardwood floors, area rugs, a wall of community-appreciation plaques with a long-ago photo of Oprah Winfrey in town to promote her then-new talk show - sits the University of Hartford. Akuoko used to think of it as an ivory tower, though the college has been reaching out for years - 17 of them with Educational Main Street, a partnership with organizations in Hartford's North End. Various programs include tutoring, mentoring and parenting workshops.
Earlier this year, when program coordinator Andrea Crittenden called Evay with an idea for a new program to promote reading in the neighborhood, Akuoko jumped at it. The plan, gleaned from Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," was to use North End hair salons as reading salons by distributing free books to customer's children. In Gladwell's book, an African American breast cancer activist stationed herself at salons to urge customers to get mammograms to huge success.
Customers at the shops tend to spend two hours or more each visit. They often bring their children. Those children need something to do, and people like Akuoko could go a long way toward encouraging them to read. She has, says program director Mary Botticelli Christensen, what sociologists call an "authentic voice." Her words have more weight than, say, an English professor's, said Christensen.
Since the university began distributing books in March to her salon and three others - Head 2 Toe Full Service Salon, Nu Attitudes Hair & Nail Salon, and Baswa Hair Cultivating Studio - Akuoko has become a bit of a crusader. She keeps records of who takes a book, their addresses and whether their parents read to them.
"I don't want to see another child pushed through the system," she said. "If you have been through that, you know how it is. You are always dodging something, pretending you know how to read. If we start them young, they can see that the world is more than just being in the neighborhood."
Down the road and up Main Street, Joy Martin, the energetic owner at Head 2 Toe, gives a tour of her salon and spa. She, too, was quick to take the school's red box of free books because she's a reader herself, she said.
"I firmly believe it takes a village," Martin said. "I say that all the time. And they listen. Maybe it's the voice I use. When the parents are in my chair, that's when I really talk to them."
Back at Evay, Akuoko records the choices of ninth-grader Syretta Crawford and her brother, Elijah Johnson, a fifth-grader.
"You're a reader, aren't you?" Akuoko asks them. They both nod yes, and Akuoko smiles. She has asked for more children's books in Spanish, and Christensen has promised to get them for her.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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