The chatter at Brian D's Old School Barbers sounds like that at most barbershops. The customers at the north Minneapolis shop dissect the latest Timberwolves game, ponder the Vikings' quarterback situation, discuss organ donations.

Hold on a minute. Who injected that oh-so-serious topic into what had been a carefree chewing of the conversational fat?

It turns out to be the shop's owner, Brian Davis. He's part of Barbershop Conversations, a three-year program in which just over two dozen African-American barbers in 18 Twin Cities shops volunteered to lobby their clientele about health issues, including diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and organ donations.

"African-American men need to talk about these things, but we're not big on doctors and hospitals," Davis said.

Clarence Jones, outreach director for Southside Community Health Services in Minneapolis, agreed that "in our community, there's a history of mistrust of the health care industry."

But barbershops are different. For many blacks, especially men, the shops serve as social gathering spots, places that offer support and encouragement along with shaves and haircuts. Davis said it's not unusual on a Saturday to have 20 men in the shop, just chatting.

"Men will tell things to their barber that they won't tell to their wives," Jones said.

And that means that "barbers are in a position to talk to men about issues that they won't talk about elsewhere."

The Barbershop Conversations program was jointly sponsored by the University of Minnesota, Lifesource (which promotes tissue and organ donation) and Q Health Services (part of Southside Community Health Services).

It was patterned after similar projects elsewhere, said Lifesource spokesperson Susan Mau Larson. The program has been successful in Chicago and Detroit, and projects are underway in New York City and across California.

"It's a very effective form of outreach," she said. "Because African-American barbershops are such popular gathering spots, they provide a good venue for reaching people."

Fred Evans, one of Davis' regulars for five or six years, agreed with the theory of basing the program in the barbershops. "You have to meet the people where they are," he said.

Health spoken here

The barbers who took part in the project had to undergo eight hours of training, covering both the health issues and ways to ease those topics into the conversation between "Want a little off the top?" and "What do you think of the Twins' chances this year?"

"It has to be very conversational," Davis said. "You can't just jump in and say, 'How come you're not eating better?' So I start by talking about myself, how I'm doing, and then we just sort of ease into it. It's a trust thing; once they realize that you're willing to open up, they will, too."

Davis is an enthusiastic mentor who practices what he preaches. He has given up most meats and eats as many vegetables as he can. Doubt him? He'll show you the plastic bag of Brussels sprouts he brought for lunch.

As an outgrowth of his emphasis on healthy living, he also hands out condoms to young customers. That's not part of the Barbershop Conversations program, but he does it anyway, the same way he has talked Tyrone Shepard, the other barber in the shop, into losing 40 pounds.

"He's always trying to get me to eat right and be healthy," Shepard said, adding with a laugh: "He tried to get me to give up all the good stuff. I gave up half of it."

"That's one less pork chop," Davis crowed from across the room. "That's all it takes."

Donation disappointment

Increasing awareness of health issues was one of the goals of the Barbershop Conversations, and it appears to be a resounding success. But the program has struggled with its other major objective, which was to increase the number of black men who register as organ or tissue donors.

"Women tend to register more than men," said Dr. David Radosevich, who is evaluating the project for the University of Minnesota. "About 55 percent of white women in Minnesota register, with white men about 8 percentage points below that. African-American women tend to be about the same as white men, but among African-American males, the number drops to 30 percent."

The program's organizers had hoped that number would change. Three years later, it hasn't, but Radosevich isn't ready to write off this aspect of the program yet.

"It will take time," he said. "Very few people go to the [state] website and change their status. They do it when they renew their driver's licenses. And even though we haven't seen an increase in donors, we have seen a heightened level of awareness of the issue. We're seeing a lot more willingness to discuss the matter, which is a really positive result."

The customers who agreed to take part in the program took periodic surveys charting changes in their health and their awareness of health issues. While Radosevich still has a lot of number-crunching to do on those, the barbers' participation in the program officially ended Monday with a recognition dinner in their honor.

But that doesn't mean that Davis intends to stop talking to his clients about their health. Just the opposite is true.

"As an advocate in our community, I'm always talking about health," he said. After taking the program's training, "I know a few more points, so now I'm going to do it even more."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392