Milan Dennie owns and operates King Milan’s Barbershop in the Frogtown neighborhood. He has continued a tradition there for years that he started in his hometown of Gary, Ind.: offering free back-to-school haircuts for kids on Labor Day.
Labor Day 2020 came and went. Dennie hosted an event that day but it was smaller than usual, since kids weren’t going back to school in-person. Now, with elementary schools starting to reopen for in-person learning, Dennie and his team of barbers hosted the Labor Day event all over again– on Feb. 1.
Back-to-school haircut event
It was a long day of barbering.
The event lasted all day and served more than 50 kids. Back-to-school backpacks were distributed, as well as school supplies.
Dennie said, “I love to see kids prepared for success in school. When they’re sitting in my barber chair, I focus on being positive. I talk to them about their grades, how they’re feeling about school, how they’re treating their families.”
Dennie was just a kid himself when he started cutting hair. He was his own first customer but, unlike most kids, his first haircut turned out pretty sharp. He cut his older brother’s hair next, and then several other family members. By the time he was 19, Dennie had enrolled in barber school and was studying business at the University of Indiana.
He went on to open the first King Milan’s Barbershop 16 years ago in Gary, Ind., once a fabled American city. There had been steel mill jobs and the promise of upward mobility for Gary’s growing African American and immigrant population – but the bottom fell out of the economy in the 1990s.
Dennie said, “I have never seen my hometown booming – not in my lifetime. It’s hard to imagine, because our whole downtown is deserted now. I had hoped to be able to keep both shops running, but I decided to move to St. Paul in 2014 to start a new life. I opened my second barbershop here, and eventually closed the one in Gary.
“I talk to the kids who come in about my experiences growing up in a very poor neighborhood. I try to keep them focused on the importance of doing their best in school, on gaining job experience, on discovering their gifts and talents at an early age.”
Barbershop and youth center
King Milan’s Barbershop is committed to helping neighborhood kids reach their full potential. Dennie said, “I’ve been mentoring young people for about 15 years. In addition to offering haircuts in a friendly atmosphere for all ages and ethnicities, the barbershop houses a youth center focused on developing young entrepreneurs.
Called “It’s our Neighborhood,” the non-profit organization has been serving Frogtown youth since 2015. Dennie looks forward to using the resource center again as a place where kids can go after school while their parents are working – once COVID-19 is under control.
Located in the barbershop basement, the resource center has nine computer stations and a quiet area where youth can get tutoring. There are chess boards too, and an on-site chess master.
‘It’s Our Neighborhood’
The mission of It’s Our Neighborhood is to build and develop entrepreneurs at a young age. That starts with encouraging academic success in creative ways.
Artis Martin is a fixture at King Milan’s and a steady presence in the resource center. He worked for Dennie as a barber in Gary, Ind., and followed him to St. Paul a few years ago. He gives a lot of haircuts, and he plays a lot of chess. He volunteers in the resource center teaching kids how to play the game. Chess is strategic, slow, and methodical. It proves that necessary steps must be taken to reach a goal.
The work of It’s Our Neighborhood is provide mentoring relationships with trusted adults, as well as academic opportunities and field trips out into the community for young people. To learn more or to donate, visit www.itsourneighborhood.com.
Dennie said, “We are expecting to really grow this program by June or July. I’m working on grant applications right now to help secure funding, but we have a robust calendar already lined up. We have great relationships already in place with partners like the Wilder Foundation, the city of Saint Paul’s Right Track (employment opportunities and professional skills training for youth), and the Rondo Community Library.
“We’ll be offering entrepreneurial mentoring with established business leaders. We’ll be showing the kids how to create businesses, really digging deep into entrepreneurial skills development.”
Resources to make a way
Dennie acknowledges it would have been tough to accomplish all this without the community resources he has found in the Twin Cities. He said, “When I started the process of forming It’s Our Neighborhood into a non-profit organization, I got help from Legal Corps on a sliding fee scale. The first time we offered the free back-to-school haircuts, we made the front page of the Pioneer Press. I offered the same event in Gary, Ind. for four years and no media stations ever picked it up.
“And the people here, just regular people, have been abundantly helpful to me and my team.”
King Milan’s Barbershop is located in the Frogtown neighborhood at 511 University Ave. W. Call 651.336.1663 to make an appointment and get a quote. Haircut styles are limited only by the boundaries of imagination.