Dot Reid is the founder, owner, and operator of Refuge for Men, a full-service barber shop in the Fan. Under her leadership, Refuge barbers offer free hair cuts to the homeless through partnerships with religious institutions and nonprofits. Refuge also raises funds for worthy causes and offers a mentoring program for high school students. Dot recently started the Refuge for Men Foundation, and plans to train formerly incarcerated people in the skills they need to open their own barber shops.
The face of an incarcerated person has changed. Because the reasons people get locked up has changed. You may have a perception of what a person who got out of jail looks like, but the reality may be totally different. People are getting arrested for all types of nonviolent things at younger and younger ages.
I’ve been incarcerated before. A lot of people wouldn’t think so. I’ve lived it and experienced it, and it’s touched my family.
If you have a record, you lose hope and motivation, because you hear about all of the things you can’t do. I faced that situation myself. I moved back to Richmond ten years ago with a degree in nursing, but also a felony on my record due to mistakes I made.
I decided that, just because I have a felony on my record, it doesn’t mean that I’m not entitled to seek prosperity and the other things that I want in life. I just had to figure out how. One day, I came into the kitchen for breakfast and told my dad, “I’m going to barber school.” It seemed a far-fetched idea at the time. But I focused really, really hard. All I did was work and focus on this dream.
At barber school, I saw that a lot of my classmates also had criminal records. And a lot of the guys had learned how to cut hair in jail. Most did not earn a license, but barbering gave them skills and something to look forward to.
When I first started the business, I really didn’t have any customers. So I would go out and do free hair cuts for the homeless at churches. I saw it as a win-win, where I was able to give back to the community and could also hone and sharpen my skills.
Now we get dozens of requests for haircuts from religious institutions and nonprofits. We hear all types of stories—and that’s the goal. The barber shop is traditionally a place where men gather to talk. It’s the cornerstone of a lot of communities. That bit of personal human contact really goes a long way, especially for a homeless person who may be used to being shunned. And grooming is part of human nature, so I feel that everyone deserves it.
Our tagline is, “it’s not just a haircut.” You can break so many barriers through a haircut. It dawned on me that this shop is not just a refuge for customers; it’s also a refuge for everyone who works here. It gives a lot of these barbers opportunities they hadn’t had.
Other businesses might be hesitant to hire someone with a criminal record. I would tell them not to look at a formerly incarcerated person’s circumstance, but instead look at the positive contribution they could make to your organization. It’s not personal; you’re not there to judge their habits or activities. And people who are released have an extra layer of accountability; they have to report to a probation or parole officer and maybe get random drug tests. It’s a corrective process that is designed to make this person a better person. They’ve done their time, and now what they need are the tools to successfully transition back to society.
The name “Refuge” was on the shoebox of my final project for the cosmetology program where I earned my barber’s license, and I just stuck with it. I started this business, and I never turned back.
—interviewed December 21, 2015