Ashanti Branch wasn’t originally going to be a teacher. He studied Civil Engineering in college and went on to become a construction project manager. Goals changed, however, when Branch began tutoring struggling students. He found an untapped passion for education and changed careers, becoming a math teacher instead.
In his first year of teaching, he founded the Ever Forward Club in inner-city Oakland, CA to aid African-American and Latino male students who were not reaching their academic potential. In addition to academic help, Branch holds space for these young men to come forward with their mental and emotional struggles, helping students better understand and interact with their emotions and redefining what it means to “be a man” for them. Ever Forward’s efforts show in the results. Not only have 100% of its members graduated high school, but 93% have gone on to attend college. Eventually the Club became its own certified 501(c)3 nonprofit and added two board members to its roster.
It’s important to note that Branch went back to the high school where he graduated to serve the kind of young men he grew up alongside. “I became a teacher because I saw that my community was hurting without good teachers,” says Branch in the 2015 documentary, “The Mask You Live In.” As an African-American who attended college and had a successful career already, Ashanti provides a positive role model experience for students that may not get it elsewhere.
Branch’s work has gone on to receive larger recognition and support – a TEDx talk on wearing “emotional” masks, prominent airtime in “The Mask You Live In,” a Fulbright Exchange Fellowship to India, a Rotary Club Cultural Ambassadorial Fellowship to Mexico and a 2010 Teacher of the Year Award from the Alameda-Contra Costa County Math Educators.
The Ever Forward Club initiated a project called “100k Masks” to show young men how much in common we all have with each other. By seeing that someone on the other side of the world also struggles with the same problems a particular student is going through, that gives them permission to be more open about it and process the issue in a healthier way. If you would like to submit a mask, click here.