Ever Forward, Ashanti Branch
Until now, most of my blogs have been about amazing individuals who saw a need and immediately responded, passionately involving themselves in a cause. This month is a little different. This month, I’m writing about an inspirational individual who tried ignoring his passion for years. He tried ignoring it because he had always equated success with financial prosperity, and he knew his true talent— teaching and mentoring young men—would never make him financially successful. But after working as an engineer for almost five years, he knew he could no longer ignore his passion. So he changed careers and began “feeding his soul.”
Ashanti Branch was raised by a single mother in Oakland, California. His father passed away before he was born. His family was on welfare, and he was admittedly on a bad path by the time he entered middle school. His story could have been tragic. Ashanti could have ended up being one of the 50% of African-American males that don’t graduate high school in Oakland—or worse. But his middle school teacher, Ms. Barlett-Preston (Ms. BP), helped him turn his life around.
One day after causing a disturbance in Ms. BP’s class, Ashanti was given detention. Ashanti complained that the detention was unfairly awarded. Ms. BP told him, “Life isn’t fair. It doesn’t give us what we want; it gives us what we get. Our job is to make the most of what we get.”
Those words stuck with Ashanti. He decided that day to make the most of what he was given in the hopes that his father would look down upon him proudly. With hard work and determination, Ashanti graduated from high school and college and began a lucrative career as a civil engineer, even though his friends repeatedly told him that he was meant to be a teacher.
He may have known this was true, but he wasn’t ready to accept the lower salary of a teacher, particularly given his financially insecure childhood. So while working as an engineer, Ashanti began tutoring kids at Huntington Learning Center in Pleasanton, CA. He recalls the joy he felt explaining how to multiply polynomials to one young man. It was a lightbulb moment; Ashanti knew he could no longer ignore his true calling. He took a paycut to become a high school math teacher, first at San Lorenzo High School and then eventually at the high school he graduated from 20 years earlier, Fremont High School.
When he first started teaching, Ashanti was frustrated. So many smart young men in his classes were failing. He made a deal with about 15 of them: he would buy their lunch every Thursday if they would sit down with him and “teach him how to be a better teacher.” What he claims was initially selfish on his part grew into a weekly club called Ever Forward. Ever Forward became a place for young men to figure out who they really are. According to Ashanti, once men know who they are, everything else falls into place. Of the 135 high schoolers Ashanti has mentored, all of them have passed his math class and 100% of them have graduated from high school, with more than 90% becoming first-generation college attendees. These are incredible statistics!
Now, 10 years later, Ashanti is the assistant principal at Montera Middle School in Oakland, where he has also started a middle school club to complement his high school club. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ashanti, talking to him about Ever Forward, and observing his middle school club in action. Ashanti’s passion and commitment to the boys was apparent, and their respect for him was easy to see.
Last year, Ever Forward became a nonprofit organization. After 10 years of having small, local fundraisers with a handful of committed donors and paying out of his pocket to hold weekly meetings, take students on college tours, and participate in other social events, Ashanti has big plans. In addition to his two current clubs, Ashanti is incubating 10 new Ever Forward Clubs in the Bay Area that are set to launch at the start of the 2015–2016 school year. He will send 50 middle and high schoolers on college tours this May and hopes to continuously raise that number. But that’s not all. He would also like to grow his organization nationally; in fact, after being featured on National Public Radio, he has received calls from out of state educators asking how to start Ever Forward at their schools. Ashanti believes his position as a teacher and administrator offer him a unique perspective on what these young men need and how to work within the school structure.
Ashanti’s enthusiasm for helping young men gain the necessary confidence and skills to realize their own true path is inspiring. If his story resonates with you, get involved. As a startup nonprofit, Ever Forward is looking for volunteers to do the following:
Serve on the board of directors
Mentor the young men in the program
Lead fundraising circles
Provide office support, marketing, and outreach
For more information, please visit Ashanti’s website, fill out the volunteer application form, or send him an email.
Earlier this year Ashanti and the Ever Forward Club were featured at Sundance in a documentary titled The Mask You Live In. If you didn’t make it to the film, you can learn more about the movie or how to host a screening here.
Do you know of anyone who is inspiring others to live greatly? For example, someone who founded a nonprofit organization or a volunteer who is making a difference in your community. If so we would love to hear about them!