STAND-UP COMEDIAN former kindergarten teacher, public speaker, author, social entrepreneur, education innovator—Alvin Irby wears a lot of hats. He wears them here in his native Little Rock, at home in New York City, at conferences, at elementary schools, pretty much all over the place. But his primary focus is to inspire a love of reading in children. With this purpose in mind, Alvin founded the award-winning Barbershop Books, a literacy program aimed at black males aged 4 to 8 that creates child-friendly reading spaces at barbershops across the country.

On Getting Kids to Love Reading: Identity is key to improving reading outcomes for children. We have to inspire kids to read when it’s not required. They’re not reading at home, they not reading for fun, so what we need to do is create experiences that make kids fall in love with reading. Part of that has to do with relevant reading models, like with Barbershop Books we’re giving boys an opportunity to interact with men that look like them and who are encouraging them to engage with reading.

On Cultivating Your Leadership Abilities: When I was at Hall High School in Little Rock, I created a reading incentive program called “It Takes Two.” Seeing an idea I had become real and inspire other people to get involved, I would say that that kind of early success paved the path to leadership for me. And I’ve always been a little different. I’ve been crocheting since I was seven—my crochet game is crazy. From an early age, I’ve been able to appreciate who I am and what I do well. People thought it was strange that I crocheted, but because I was good at it, people respected it and many wanted to do it. This was molding me to step out as leader later on. Experiences like that made me not afraid to start an organization from scratch.

On Similarities Between Stand-up and Teaching: Stand-up comedy requires a high level of cultural competency. As a comedian, you need to be able to translate what you want an audience to know into communication and an experience that people will find relevant and engaging. The same is true of the best teachers. They find interesting and creative ways to make learning fun. I think that has been one of the biggest gifts that comedy has given to me is a deeper understanding of how cultural competency informs teaching and learning.

On the importance of Laughter: A sense of humor has been essential for navigating life’s many challenges and successes. In the work that I do as a keynote speaker, I’ve definitely found humor to be a useful engagement tool. Discussing challenging topics and touchy issues is difficult but humor can help make people more receptive to difficult material. And after a stressful week, it’s always a big stress reliever for me when I can get on stage and make people laugh.

Learn more about Alvin’s Barbershop Books initiative by following his blog at