Guest Columnist

Iowa is removing obstacles to the American dream

William Burt of Waterloo speaks to a reporter from Iowa Public Radio in Burt's mobile barbershop at the Iowa State Capit
William Burt of Waterloo speaks to a reporter from Iowa Public Radio in Burt’s mobile barbershop at the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. Burt is urging state lawmakers to allow mobile barbershops. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

America is the land of second chances. I’m living proof of that.

When I was 14, I started off on the wrong path, dealing drugs and getting in a lot of trouble. My life became an endless cycle: arrest, release, relapse, repeat. All in all, I went to jail at least 20 times.

I eventually ended up at the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility. That’s where my second chance came, unexpectedly.

I began cutting hair for my fellow inmates and, to my surprise, realized that I was pretty good at it. My friends began to turn to me regularly for haircuts. During my time there, I provided my service to thousands of inmates.

It was humbling to see my skills in demand. I also learned how good it felt to serve others. And it wasn’t just about cutting hair. I noticed that every hair cut was an opportunity to meet someone new and start a friendship or reconnect with an old friend. My patrons would share their life stories and struggles. I found that I could serve them just by listening and, if they wanted, by offering advice.

All of this gave me hope that when I got out of prison, I would be able to help even more people as a barber — and, not incidentally, earn a living.

After a few false starts, I enrolled at the University of Northern Iowa, where I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees (both in Leisure, Youth, and Human Services, the latter with an emphasis on nonprofit management).

I also, finally, became a barber and cut hair at shops in Marion, Waverly, and Waterloo.

The more I learned about nonprofits, the more I thought about how best to combine what I learned in the classroom with my specific skill set. Then it dawned on me: I wanted to start a nonprofit organization where I could cut people’s hair for free. Even better, my nonprofit would be a mobile barbershop where I could go to communities most in need.

Kut Kings was born.

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I invested a lot of my time and thousands of dollars to start Kut Kings, but I was excited about the possibilities. My siblings and I were raised by a single mother and I wanted to do anything I could to help those with similar struggles.

It seemed as if I had found my calling, overcome my past, and achieved my own version of the American dream.

But it all came crashing down. I learned that I would have to shut down Kut Kings because it was against the law in Iowa to have a mobile barbershop.

The law didn’t seem to make sense. It was written because of sanitation concerns, but mobile barbershops are allowed in California, Georgia, Ohio and all of Iowa’s neighboring states, and none of them seem to have any hygiene issues.

I learned that I wasn’t the only one whose aspirations were being thwarted for no good reason. Iowa imposes onerous licensing burdens on professions ranging from massage therapist to dental assistant that other states don’t. And those states seem to be doing fine without them.

In fact, the Institute for Justice found that licensing laws in general cost Iowa over 48,000 jobs and up to $4.6 billion in economic value every year.

I wondered, how many people like me are forced to sacrifice their dreams? How many Iowans are missing out because their fellow citizens were denied a chance to serve them?

Too many. That’s why our lawmakers should remove unnecessary obstacles to success. I’m encouraged that the state legislature passed some licensing reform last year and am grateful that our lawmakers ended the ban on mobile barbershops with the bill signed just this week.

I hope our representatives use this momentum and continue to reform our licensing laws.

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Too many Iowans are stifled by unnecessary burdens. Too many of us are denied second chances. It’s time for that to change.

William Burt lives in Waterloo and is the owner of Iowa’s first mobile barbershop, Kut Kings Mobile. On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill legalizing mobile barbershops.

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