Barber instructor realizes old tradition plays new role

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Isaiah Burrus works with a client/CU photo by Seth Manley

HARRODSBURG, Ky. (WTVQ) – For generations, barber shops and beauty salons have not only been community gathering spots but also centers for debate and discussion on everything from the weather to sports, religion and politics.

In the current climate, they have become even more important,.

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Rodney James, barbering instructor at Campbellsville University Harrodsburg, realizes that, doing more than teaching students about hair and skin care.

He’s grooming the next generation of barbers to engage in conversations about race, politics and other potentially divisive topics people increasingly encounter in the workplace and in life.

“One of the most important skills of any barber is to understand different cultures and allow people to be comfortable knowing you’re in charge of your station or your shop. You set the tone,” said James, who brings more than 25 years of barbering experience to his role. He has overseen the Harrodsburg program, which includes a full-service barber shop on campus, since it was established two years ago.

“Our communities are blending at a high rate, and our shops are no longer polarized for one type of hair or culture,” he said. “Students who graduate from our program learn about straight, wavy and curly hair, and they also learn about creating an atmosphere that embraces commonalities, respect and diversity. These things have never been more important.”

James’ role as teacher-or coach, as most students call him-goes beyond educating about styling, shaving and business management. It’s teaching about attractiveness inside and out, while modeling tolerance, understanding and humanity when serving clients and the community.

Growing up in Lexington, Myron Russell was always interested in barbering, having had friends and family who worked in the profession. When COVID-19 eliminated his job last year, he turned to the Conover Education Center to follow his dream.

He says he couldn’t have found anyone better than James to teach life lessons that transcend the walls of any barber shop.

“The world is bigger than what we see. Everyone in life has been through different things and I can always learn something from someone,” said Russell, who will complete his certificate this summer.

“You’re not only a barber, you’re also a counselor sometimes, too,” Russell said. “And you also turn into a community leader. You don’t realize how many times you can affect the kids who are coming in, helping put them on the right direction.”

As for James, in addition to overseeing the full-service barber shop on-campus, he also owns the Idle Hour Barber Shop and operates a booth at The Julietta Market (near the Greyline Station) in Lexington, where he practices what he preaches. His entrepreneurial success is motivating for students, but teaching is his real passion.

“It’s a blessing. I’m in my element. I knew I had to give back what God gave me, and that the industry needed what I could help them learn,” James said. “It just shows that life change happens here, from the urban hipster to the rural guy. When you look into students’ eyes, you can see it and you can feel it.”