Ashanti Branch works to change how students, especially young men of color, interact with their education and how their schools interact with them. Raised in Oakland by a single mother on welfare, Ashanti left the inner city to study civil engineering at Cal Poly – San Luis Obispo. A construction project manager in his first career, his life changed after he tutored struggling students and realized his passion for teaching. In 2004, during Ashanti’s first year teaching high school math, he started The Ever Forward Club to provide support for African American and Latino males who were not achieving to their potential. Since then, Ever Forward has helped all of its more than 150 members graduate from high school, and 93% of them have gone on to attend two- or four-year colleges, military or trade school.
We talk about being a better teacher by learning from our students, the importance of making time to really get to know students, and Ashanti shares some tools that can help teachers create safer, more inclusive classrooms.
“...I knew that I couldn't do it in the context of the math class. So me inviting them to lunch was like, I got to get you into a space where we can have some real talk. Like I can't do that in my 50, 60, 70 minutes of teaching. I need to have a space with you so I can learn a little bit more about you. And I realized that I didn't know... I knew how to teach math, but there was something in the way of me reaching them so I needed to learn from them.”
— Ashanti Branch
- John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Ashanti Branch. Ashanti works to change how students, especially young men of color interact with their education and how their schools interact with them. Raised in Oakland by a single mother on welfare. Ashanti left the inner city to study civil engineering at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. A construction project manager in his first career, his life changed after he tutored struggling students and realized his passion for teaching. In 2004 during Ashanti's first year teaching high school math, he started the Ever Forward Club to provide support for African American and Latino males who are not achieving to their potential. Since then, Ever Forward has helped all of its more than 150 members graduate from high school and 93% of them have gone on to attend two or four year colleges, military or trade school. Are you ready? Let's get character strong with Ashanti Branch.
- John: All right. It is so exciting, Ashanti, to have you on the CharacterStrong Podcast. Thanks for taking the time to be with us today.
- Ashanti: Hey, glad to be here.
- John: Well, you are doing some pretty powerful, amazing work and I know you've been doing it for quite some time and personally I was super excited to jump on the call with you because I was incredibly inspired by the documentary, The Mask You Live In, which I know that you were featured in. I had been inspired by the work that Joe Erman does and his TED Talk on the Three Most Damaging Words In All of Society, or Be A Man.
- John: And I know that you are in that work, and as I was kind of looking into that work and watching some of your videos, I loved going way back probably way early on before you now fast forward to where you are now. But you were talking about early on in your teaching and you went to your students and you said, "Hey, I'll buy lunch once a week, but here's the deal. I want you to teach me during that lunch. I want you to teach me how I can be a better teacher." I love that frame. Let's start there from what you learned in that moment to now, fast forward to where you are today. Talk to me a little bit about that and the incredible work you're doing.
- Ashanti: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for taking me back there. You know that was actually the beginning of Ever Forward. Like I was a first year teacher in San Lorenzo, California, right here in the Bay area, San Francisco Bay area. I realized that there was young men in my class who were super smart and this is the conversation I had with mostly young men. I mean I said, "why, you all are smart, but you're failing my class." And I knew that I hadn't become a teacher to like treat failure. So I was trying to figure a way to help these young men be successful. And I knew that what I could do in the classroom wasn't enough. Like I was trying to be a teacher who was going to be the cool teacher and help students learn and have fun. And I realized that it wasn't even about the math. There was some other stuff in the way.
- Ashanti: So I knew that I couldn't do it in the context of the math class. So me inviting them to lunch was like, I got to get you into a space where we can have some real talk. Like I can't do that in my 50, 60, 70 minutes of teaching. I need to have a space with you so I can learn a little bit more about you. And I realized that I didn't know... I knew how to teach math, but there was something in the way of me reaching them so I needed to learn from them. And so that's where the frame was like, how do I get them... How do I learn about what I'm doing wrong because I'm at school every day, I'm on time, I'm prepared. And I also knew that I had never planned to be a teacher.
- Ashanti: Teaching kind of called me and I was like, I'm accepting that I'm going to get paid low, but I'm not going to be a failure at my job, you know? And I was not willing to stay around while watching students just continually fail my class. And so I took it as my responsibility and that's how it all started. So that was the beginning Ever Forward. Like, and we began to meet every week and these young men began to talk about, I'm going to be no nerd, no geek, no teacher's pet, because they knew that smart in that community wasn't cool.
- John: Yep.
- Ashanti: And if you wanted to be cool in that community, you either had to be a good athlete, you had to be very attractive and people love you and charismatic or you didn't get any attention. That's pretty much it. You're going to be the cool, the athlete, or you're going to be like just as a plain person, right?
- Ashanti: And I think that that was hard for a lot of young men who wanted to have friends and had saw movies about high school. So anyway that was the journey of Ever Forward. That's how it started. And we began in that classroom to really talk about what was going on in their life. Giving them a space to like take off the mask. And like, I didn't use the word mask back then, but it was really like that thing. Like how do we know that we're all going through stuff? And the more that we can talk about it, we can recognize we're not alone. And the more we recognize we're not alone, maybe we can let some of the steam go that we can deal with some of the challenges that get in our way of being our best selves as students and in life.
- John: I love it. And I know, I mean because it is the work that you're doing even now with all this, but like talk to me a little bit, because this is great insight for educators who are wanting to do what's best for their students, right? But sometimes it's not that we don't want to do it, it's just how do we do it? How can we be more effective? What were some of the things that you learned back then? And even fast forwarding today, that would be good for educators to hear? Like once a week making time for that to actually get to know them outside of, say math class, so we can have real talk and how important that was. What were some of the things then that you learned from them? What was getting in the way?
- Ashanti: Well, I think for a lot of them that was always get in the way is just not believing in themselves, one. Not believing that they had either the skills to do well or they had to have so many negative messages that have brought them to that day that was just like, this is just not important to me. You know, when I did an activity with them, one of the things I learned and I about it in some of my keynotes is I say, I showed these four examples of four young men who were doing horrible in my class and I sent out this little thing they had to fill out. Like what's the obstacles in your way? And you know, one of the young man was like "the obstacles in my way are that my classes are boring to me."
- Ashanti: One young man said, "I lost my father." One young man said, "you know, I'm trying to deal with and avoid these gangs in the area." And so for me, when I started hearing their response... And the fourth young man was like, "I'm just glad to be alive."
- John: Yeah.
- Ashanti: At 13 years old. The obstacles I've overcome is just staying alive. And I realized that it was, none of them said I can't multiply, I can't divide. It wasn't even about math, it was about all the other things that are the obstacles that are in my life that doesn't let school become a priority. And I realized then we got to have a place to talk about that stuff. And I can't do it in a classroom. I can't do it in my math class where I have 35 other students and I'm trying to like have individual conversations. I'm having a few, but they're not really deep. They're really surface level.
- Ashanti: And so I think for educators, I was saying like, look, it takes extra work. Our schools and our design really, we're doing a lot more social emotional work now. But in 2004, they were like, Hey, we only teach math in here. Who has time for the other stuff? Right. SEL may have been taught in like other schools, maybe private schools, maybe some other communities have brought it into their work, but not in my school and not in urban schools. And actually if you want to do anything that was like soft skills, people would look at you funny. Like we don't have time for that. And so I realized that my work is going to look differently. My classroom was going to look differently and I was going to deal with whatever people said about it because I knew that there was way more involved than just me putting some formulas on the board.
- John: So, I mean, I think that's a powerful statement that you make because in the work that we're doing with lots of schools across the country, the pressures that a lot of times schools feel that they have to, whatever it may be, teach to the test or get through the curricula. And a lot of times it comes down to that either time, right? We don't have the time or something around like staff buy-in. Talk to me then just about that, like going back to it, because you're talking about, you started meeting once a week, right? And then you started to, my guess is, start to see then the impact of that, it has to have an impact then on the academic side when we're actually doing the work, the foundational relational work. So maybe talk a little bit about the impact that you've seen by making time for that which is most important.
- Ashanti: Yeah, well see, not only was I making time, I was buying lunch, so.
- John: Yeah, good point.
“And I realized that it was, none of them said I can't multiply, I can't divide. It wasn't even about math, it was about all the other things that are the obstacles that are in my life that doesn't let school become a priority. And I realized then we got to have a place to talk about that stuff. .”
— Ashanti Branch
- Ashanti: I was deep, I invested in a big way. It was kind of like I didn't know what I was doing. I just knew I couldn't keep watching it happen. And I think that teachers come into teaching with a lot of heart and passion and there's some things that systematically in schools that can make you just get to a place of life, "Man, well if they don't care, if they didn't going to provide me supplies and resources and tools," then they can, I've seen teachers get to a place of not caring themselves. Not that they started off not caring, they just grew through this pressure to conform to the way it's always been done. And I left an engineering career to become a teacher.
- Ashanti: I was like, look, you're not going to pay me peanuts and then treat me like crap. You know what I'm saying? Like maybe I shouldn't say crap.
- John: You're fine.
- Ashanti: Like you're not going to treat me like this. So I was clear that my work was going to look different and I was okay with that. And then I was never going to be afraid for a job. Like I was a math educator. I would do whatever my other responsibilities were to do, but also like there's certain things that don't make sense, you know? And so I think as an educator my goal was like how do I do it on my own time? So lunch time is my time, after school is my time, weekends is my time. I'm going to do what you need me to do during your time and on my time I'm doing it my way.
- Ashanti: And I think that I began to build that space for young people to just come to my classroom and knew that it was going to be a safe space in there. After school we were doing homework, listening to music, people were doing whatever. It's taking a nap. There was food in my room. It had to look differently because school wasn't working the way it was designed. If you walked in most of those schools in that class, in that building, they were teacher in the front, desks... Now our math department was different because we worked in groups but it was still like an idea that we had to do something different and we got pushback from a lot of people.
- Ashanti: Why are you doing this? Why are you doing it that way? And I think that just really believing in your own self and recognizing that I got to try some things out. I mean you can't just be like I'm going to do it all different with no kind of testing. I started with these young men at lunch and that's how Ever Forward grew up to this organization. And it's been really a great journey for that 15 years. It's 15 years now. I look back to 2004 and realize we've come a long way.
- John: I love it. Well I mean even going there and we have these shorter obviously podcasts and our goal is that like people are left wanting more, wanting to learn more, dig in more. So even speaking about that, the Ever Forward Club, which like looking at it, I mean just when we talk about results and even just incredibly the support that's given, right? Where it was to provide support for African American, Latino males who are not achieving to their potential.
- John: Since then though, I love this. Ever Forward has helped all of its more than 150 members graduate from high school and 93% of them have gone on to attend either two or four year colleges, military or trade school. Because you are doing the work that you're speaking about right now in this podcast. So maybe talk to me about this, like if you were to kind of close out this podcast, the work that Ever Forward has done, can we learn more about the work that you're doing and two, what would be one or two things that you would leave educators with today to either, here's what you need to be digging into. You need to be learning more about this, or here's something that you could be taking a first step towards being more intentional and effective in this work, what would it be?
- Ashanti: Yeah man, that's beautiful. So I would say the best thing I can offer educators and for us as an organization, we are in this campaign. So the journey has been growing as we have been building out this vision that I had about creating a space where schools provide a space for young men to have a support. Now our work started with those young men, but then we realized after I went to the fellowship at Stanford that look, we need to do some work with teachers and parents and other people in the community that are working with youth. Like who are the other users? And so we began to do like professional development for educators. Really talking to educators about what do I need to do about myself? What are the things I need to work on and think about?
- Ashanti: And that's where our work around the mask has really began to take off. And helping educators know that sometimes we are judging the behavior of our students based on the actions that they are demonstrating. And that makes sense, right? It's intuitive. Like you do this, you don't come to class every day with no pencil, no paper, no nothing. You don't act like you want to learn. I may judge that as being, you don't care about your learning. But if I've never asked you if I've never really got past what you're showing me, because all of us in some ways we have to put on these masks. And so what we've been helping educators do is ask more questions, be more inquisitive, be more curious yourself, if we want our students to be more curious, because I was the kind of student when I was in middle school when I was not focused on academics and if I knew you as a teacher didn't like me, I'm a guarantee you the feeling's mutual.
- Ashanti: And as a student, my role in the class is not to let you make me look like I'm a fool. So it means I got to go first, which means that there's a bigger dynamic happening in the classroom with students when they know teachers are not really seeing them for who they really are. I think we all want to be seen for who we are, even adults. So anyway, I'm going to try and make them quick. So one thing that we ask educators to be a part of is this 100,000 mask challenge, right? We say, look, there is a way that we have found with a really simple tool we can learn more about our students and really help ourselves be more present for them. Because if in my class, I know that students are coming to school every day hungry and I start the class, good morning, with my coffee and donut in the front, I may totally be triggering things I don't even know I'm doing. Unintentionally.
- John: Yes. Awareness.
- Ashanti: Awareness. It's about being aware and I think that what we found in this campaign is that when we help educators do that, we have helped educators feel more safe and more inclusive classrooms. And so the 100,000 mask challenge is doing that and they can see our work so they can go to ever... I'll keep it simple, they can go to everforwardclub.org. Everforwardclub.org as our main website. They can find all the information there about the campaign, the 100,000 mask challenge. They can find that at onehundredkmasks.com. Onehundredkmasks.com.
- Ashanti: And we look forward to educators bringing this tool to their classroom. We, we give it away and our expectation from educators who use the tool right now is I say, look, once you've used it, then you send the tool, the resources, the tools back to us as a part of being a part of this global movement. We've collected over 37,000 masks from 12 countries. So we know that educators are using it and we are excited about being part of a movement that's helping educators build safer spaces for young people who are not the students who are just going to do it because you told them to do it. Like there's many students who don't need any extra, but there's a lot of students who just need to know that the educator cares and so that they can then buy some of that belief.
- John: Well, I just want to, and even in this short convo, just say thank you for the work that you're doing. If anything, to keep encouraging the work that you're doing and I hope that people do dig into... We'll include in the notes both of those links that you mentioned so people can find it with the podcast and I just love that. It's like the two things at the end that I just think stand out so heavily are one, the importance of the adult behavior practices. When really, to impact the work that we're trying to do, it's like that adult behavior work, which a lot of times is we got to dig into our own stuff. We got that awareness piece, those paradigm shifts and that willingness, that mindset part that connects with it and I just love it.
- John: I feel called with what you just shared, that the line that a lot of times when we're doing trainings that we share is like, would you agree that students have a hard time learning from someone that they don't like? Yes. Okay, let's keep it simple. Would you agree that students have a hard time learning from someone who they feel doesn't like them? And that could be both intentional and so many times unintentional. And so how do we get more intentional in that work? And you are doing incredible work so I hope people do reach out to you, grateful for you, excited to see you at the SEL exchange that's going to be coming up in October. And I hope that we can even talk again some time and I want to hear some of these powerful stories because I know you've got them. Because you're deep in that important work. So if you'd be willing to do that at some point, I'd love to get you back on and share some of those examples of the work you've been doing.
- Ashanti Branch: Absolutely. I look forward to seeing you in Chicago and we're going to be making masks there, so we'd love to see you come and have a conversation face to face.
- John: Love it. Looking forward to it. All right, you take care. Thanks for everything.
- Ashanti: Thank you.
- John: All right.
- Ashanti: All right, bye-bye.
- John: Bye-bye. Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.
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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.