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Cutting it, the Cuban way.

A trip to Cuba for a conference on Sustainable Development earlier this year led to meeting incredible entrepreneurs and people committed to social and sustainable development.

Arte Corte (Cutting Art), is about so much more than just a short back and sides. Founded close to 20 years ago by Gilberto Valladares Reina known to everyone as Papito, the “living museum” hairdressing salon in Havana Vieja is a sight to be seen. Barber paraphernalia, including tools and furniture from the ages is stylishly combined with paintings and sculpture all charting the evolution of the trade through the decades. Hairdressing is seen as an art form here but for Arte Corte, being a business is a means to a different end.

Social restoration

When it opened its doors in the Santa Ángel area of Old Havana it was the only business in what was a slightly shady part of town. Drugs, prostitution and social deprivation riddled the area. The street, affectionately known as el Callejón de los Peluqueros (the alley of the hairdressers), is now home to over 20 businesses including galleries, restaurants and cafes.

This social restoration as Arte Corte likes to call it, has been the work of Papito, his team and the local community which they have encouraged, supported and inspired to transform and reclaim the neighbourhood. The facades now have the work of artists and sculptors showcasing local talent, there are outdoor seating areas for people to enjoy their surroundings and even the plants get watered by those from the community. Recycling schemes have been introduced and the redesign of the area played particular attention to environmental benefits. This has not only brought members of the community together, but evoked a sense of pride, belonging and ownership in a street where that just didn’t exist. This was the beginning.

Cultural vibrancy

Cubans are united by their love for the arts; theatre, music and dance permeates all parts of life – from people stopping in the street to hear musicians practice to entrance fees to the Gran Theatro only costing a few pesos for locals to experience the world-class talent of the Cuban Ballet.

Recognising the wealth of local talent, Arte Corte has worked to support the development of local artists, sculptors and performers. Through showcases on the street, to concerts and exhibitions, these artists have not only promoted their work, but have been instrumental in uniting the local people. The once unappealing area is now home to galleries and work studios that welcome in the community.

Such energy needs to permeate the whole area and as Papito explains, “if you want to work in developing the local community, you have to consider all generations”. Arte Corte runs projects for all; from its Baby Park where free haircuts are offered to children and entertainment like weekly film screenings are available, to a day centre for the elderly (called a Casa de Abuelos, or House of the Grandparents which seems much nicer to me) where older folk can eat for free, see their friends and have somewhere to go.

Economic “solidarity”

For Papito, the economic regeneration of the area is intricately tied to the cultural and social development of the community. A better quality of life is seen as coming from a vibrant community, one that thrives from culture, arts and togetherness, the economic indicators will follow. In order to attract other Cuentapropistas (sole traders or micro-enterprise owners) to the area it had to be appealing and mobilising the community was vital in this. In an area where the young felt helpless, there were a lack of jobs for the adults and the elderly were forgotten, once in, making sure that the businesses form part of the fabric of the community is part of the virtuous circle. Businesses are encouraged to hire locals so that the benefits of development are felt locally, to contribute to the artistic and cultural activities in the area and to consciously be part of the community in whatever way they can.

For local vulnerable youth who have disengaged from study or work, part of the challenge has been to gain employment rather than turn to drugs or the streets. Arte Corte has responded by setting up a training academy which teaches the craft of hairdressing and provides a profession. It is doing much more than just providing technical skills however, as the mission is to also build values, self-worth as well as a sense of belonging in the community. As one young man I spoke to said, “Working here means I’m not on the street, but it’s more than that, cutting hair is like art, and that’s important to me. I’m creating something.”

The training runs for a year and is free, but is not without its rules. The students are entering a contract with Arte Corte, one that needs commitment – to the school and to themselves, an adherence to the values of the organisation and what it stands for. Things have been changing in Cuba, young people are growing up wanting things like the latest phones, people migrate to the city and families that lived close together are losing that sense of belonging. The emphasis is on working at the grassroots, the microlevel to remind young people of social values and build a sense of community.

The significance of human capital in Arte Corte’s success can’t be underestimated. People are encouraged to give what they can; time, skills and knowledge, money, or just their physical help. Each morning, local hairdressers volunteer their time to train the students and locals receive free haircuts to allow the students the opportunity to practice, but also crucially, to bring the community in to the school. With this in mind, once a week, the young people visit the Casa de Abuelos so that there is an intergenerational exchange in the community. Activities can vary from putting on a street party with music and dancing to playing dominos and chatting but the aim is to evoke a sense of belonging and shared learning across the generations so that there is an exchange of respect and values. One apprentice explained, “It was weird at first, but now I enjoy my time there, I talk to people and I’ve learned lots. It’s actually quite fun!”

The reach and ambition of Arte Corte extends well beyond hairdressing. The private sector is in its infancy in Cuba with limited licenses being issued by the government to micro-enterprise owners. For well established brands like Havana Club the rum makers, CSR activities include promoting access to employment and together with Arte Corte, the company sponsors a bartender training programme for young adults from the local community that is run by the organisation. Again, Arte Corte has mobilised the power of the local community with training and even the space to practice being offered by local businesses.

A model of private-public partnership

Promoting the “living museum” element of the enterprise was a way to exist in a system that is only just opening up to the role that the private sector can play in society. It also provided the premise by which to engage and inspire local people; to bring the social and cultural to the forefront of its work. Sitting on one of the many outdoor tables in the Callejón de los Peluqueros with Papito is like being with a local celebrity; he’s greeted by the old and young alike, from kids showing him artwork, students are given instructions as they come in and out of the academy, an old man shouts out as he carries water for the plants and an Australian tourist offers his time in the training academy. There’s a sense that lots remains to be done and if you stick around for long enough, you won’t be able to stop yourself from getting involved.

It hasn’t been an easy ride to get this far. Suspicion of the private sector led to initial blocks and forging close alliances has been instrumental in the organisation’s journey from building in-roads with the local community and engaging with local businesses and artists. The role of the local City of Havana Historical Office has been instrumental in the realisation of Arte Corte’s social dream. It has provided the space for the training academy which has grown slowly over time and provides crucial support for the other social projects that are on offer. Could such an initiative be replicated in other parts of the city particularly Central Havana, that hasn’t had the same regeneration spend as other more touristic parts of the city? Possibly not. Though Papito and the work of Arte Corte has received many awards and accolades, including being personally name-dropped by President Obama whilst he was in Cuba, the political will to engage with the private sector remains stunted. Each area within the city has its own Historical Office and changing hearts and minds is a slow process.

Such private-public partnerships showcase the potential to combine the social values of both the state and its people in Cuba. As Papito explained, “We share the same values and philosophy of those in the local Historical Office. We want to create a thriving community, one where people of all ages come together, remember where we’ve come from so that we shape our future, together.” What started with hairdressing has provided so much more for the immediate, and extended community in Old Havana. As entrepreneurship grows in Cuba the potential of the social entrepreneur provides a real opportunity to reconcile some of the complexities of private-public relationships. It will take time and until then, chipping away, little by little, projects like Arte Corte will socially, culturally and economically transform neighbourhoods, one street at a time.

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