If you want to know what's happening in your community, head to a barbershop, Billy Cabrera says.
Cabrera meets men from all walks of life inside his storefront on Andover Street in Lowell. He cleans their rough edges, tracing neat lines with a razor and shears. And while they're seated in his barber's chair, Cabrera imparts some of his own wisdom, sharing lessons from a life marked by struggle, but also personal growth.
"You're getting a haircut and you're getting knowledge," customer Moe Cruz said. "You know, like real knowledge."
Cabrera, an ex-convict and addict in recovery, launched his shop with the goal of helping other men make a fresh start, using the trust he builds as a barber to help them make positive changes.
Since then, Cabrera and his crew have expanded their role as community mentors with help from The Center for Hope and Healing. The organization, which runs a rape crisis center in Lowell, partnered with Billy's Barber Shop to test a new initiative that aims to reduce acts of violence against women. Called Buzz 4 Safety, the program teaches barbers to serve as role models for customers, helping them reconsider gender stereotypes and their conception of what it means to be a man.
After early successes in Lowell, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying the concept as a national model, according to program facilitator Miguel Andres Quiñones. Research shows when boys are taught to be tough, not to show emotion and that domination is power, it can feed into a cycle of violence against women.
And that violence is often sexual — reinforced by the language that men commonly use to describe their physical relationships with women, Quiñones said.
"We say, 'I hit that.' ... 'I slammed that.' Right? It's always an it. So we've kind of been computed to look at women as objects," he said.
Cabrera agrees that men feel pressure to behave a certain way: strong, arrogant, powerful.
"The house is supposed to be clean," Quiñones added. "The food is supposed to be cooked. When I want sex, we should have sex."
Cabrera and his team hope to challenge those notions when they sit down with customers.
And to understand how far they've come, you need to see where they've been.
Many are from broken homes. Several were abused, and few had strong father figures. At young ages, many were told they had to step up and be the man of the house, learning by example from the men who were present in their lives.
Justice, a consultant from Jane Doe Inc., recounted how his mother's partner used to strike the wall when he was growing up — never hitting her, but demonstrating that he had power over her.
Buzz 4 Safety helps the men redirect that power and reframe their notion of masculinity.
Moe Cruz comes to Cabrera's shop every Thursday for a haircut and a bit of religion.
Cruz grew up hard on the streets of Lowell. As a young man, he was angry. Cruz said he was in and out of jail, and in and out of bad relationships, until he finally resolved to change his life.
"It just got really old," Cruz said. "I just didn't want to keep going down that same path."
Cruz says Cabrera is helping him be vulnerable and make better choices about his relationships.
"Do you feel good about your life?" NBC10 Boston Investigator Ally Donnelly asked.
"It's not where I want to be," Cruz said. "But it's not where I used to be. So I'm heading in the right direction."