March 1, 2021
Ever thought about going walkabout with scissors, razors and a barber’s chair? All packed into a special hairdressing salon on wheels?
That’s what Brian Dowd – the “Walkabout Barber” – does with his special “Cuts, Connection, Conversation” tours.
Brian’s bus rolled into Cherbourg on Monday and was an instant hit with the kids and their parents who enjoyed getting some very funky haircuts alongside some very positive conversations.
When a career as a professional rugby league player with the Newcastle Knights didn’t work out for the Gomeroi Kamilaroi man, Brian admits he started to spiral down … into drugs, alcohol and a suicide attempt.
But at the age of 27, he realised something had to change. Nobody could “fix” him but himself.
“It took me three years to save my life. I went through drug and alcohol, mental health, anger management, loss and grief – whatever I could to try to get myself to stand on my own two feet,” Brian told Cherbourg Radio.
“By the age of 30 I realised, I just saved my life and I want to go out and save other people, and that’s how it started.”
Brian went to uni, studied trauma recovery and began talking to people.
It’s not Brian’s education that allows him to make connections, it’s his life experience.
He wears the scars from his old life – “been there, done that” – with pride.
“It allows me to go out to communities and talk to people from a place that people have been at or are at,” Brian said.
“It’s about me not being better than anyone, me not being worse off than anyone, but me just being equal with everyone and saying, ‘Hey, if I can do it, you can do it, too’.”
In 2011, he won a Deadly for “Outstanding Achievement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Employment” for a program he started, “Black On Track”.
But why is he now a barber?
Brian began cutting hair five years ago after his young son was diagnosed with autism.
“I remember taking him for his first haircut and he left crying and I left crying because the haircut was so traumatic (for him) – with noise, vibration and all his sensory issues going on,” Brian said.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I bought a set of clippers.”
As he became better at clipping and snipping, Brian thought ‘there’s probably other children out there like my son’, so he opened a barber’s shop in Newcastle.
Now Brian combines his hairdressing with mental health first aid, and takes his barbershop on the road.
The 57-seater bus has been completely stripped inside, with barber’s chairs and a beauty salon.
Brian calls it a “mobile healing space”.
This is the first time his bus has come to Cherbourg but over the past two years it has visited more than 80 other Indigenous communities.
Brian said he wanted people to leave his barber’s chairs feeling good “on the outside” because of their appearance, but also feeling good about themselves because they’ve had “a deadly conversation, a good yarn”.
“Let’s face it. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a stranger than to your own mob,” Brian said.
He was aiming to do more than 60 haircuts during his Cherbourg visit, helped along by Murgon barber Tyrone Murray.
After its whistlestop visit to Cherbourg, the bus will hit the road again, heading for stops in Toowoomba and Goondiwindi.
[UPDATED with correction]