Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Taking Off the Mask": Working with School-Age Boys

By Sam Piha


What does it mean to be male? There are many messages that are absorbed by boys and young men - some of which are useful and others that are destructive. 

When Ashanti Branch was a teacher in Oakland, he recognized that boys and young men needed a place to explore this. He left teaching and founded the Ever Forward Club. “At the Ever Forward Club, we believe that all young men have the desire to be fully alive – to be loved, respected, held in high regard, held to high expectations, held accountable for their actions and supported to help achieve their goals.” - Ever Forward Club Website 

In 2014, the Ever Forward Club partnered with The Representation Project to develop the documentary, “The Mask You Live In”. (The Mask You Live In follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. Experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media also weigh in, offering empirical evidence of the “boy crisis” and tactics to combat it.) See the trailer below. 




We invited Mr. Branch to serve as a speaker and workshop leader On October 17, 2017 as part of our Speaker’s Forum series. 

We also recently conducted a video interview with Mr. Branch asking him about his views on the needs of boys and young men and how we can serve these needs in afterschool. Below are some of his responses.
"Taking Off the Mask": Working with School-Age Boys with Ashanti BranchOctober 17, 2017 in Oakland, CA

“I think that after school programs are becoming aware that there is a need to support young men in really specific ways. This is coming out of this idea that for so long there's been just a place of ignoring boys and allowing certain behaviors to be left as 'boys will be boys' or 'that's just the way boys are.' I think that what has happened is that has been let go for so long that young men have found themselves in a crisis. 

Society doesn't give our young men really good tools with dealing with sadness and fear and shame and other kind of emotions like that. They're clear in what you do when you're angry. They're clear about what you do when you're happy. So if you don't fit in happy or angry, what do you do with the other (not so positive) emotions? Usually it comes out as anger. 

Everything is converted to anger or I just pretend like it doesn't matter, then I get checked out to the world. 

They isolate, many feeling that ‘no one cares about me’. They begin to self-medicate, self-fulfill those feelings of not being a part of the group - engaging in drugs, alcohol, rampant unprotected sex, gangs, etc. Many of these behaviors are about  the need to cover up the feelings that they're really trying to figure out. How do I deal with this real feeling?

The afterschool space gives us a space to help our young men know that, ‘You're valuable. You may not do so good in your bookwork, but you've got a lot of skills.’

The afterschool system works because it allows for some students to get a taste for something else, to get to see how good they can be at something that's not going to be marked as a grade. Their creativity is not going to be taken away and crushed when somebody tells you, ‘your drawing is not according to the rubric’. Afterschool just provides a safer space. 

That's what we're trying to do in Ever Forward. We're trying to do more work around the social-emotional development of our young men, teaching them to be social-emotional leaders, so that it doesn't just happen afterschool. It happens all day long.”
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Ashanti Branch is Founder and Executive Director of The Ever Forward Club. Ashanti works to change how 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.


The Ever Forward Club was featured last year in the documentary, “The Mask You Live In,” which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. After completing a fellowship at the Stanford d.school in 2016, Ashanti, stepped away from working for a school district and began working as the Founding Executive Director for Ever Forward-Siempre Adelante, in an effort to grow the organization to serve thousands of Bay Area students. In April 2017, Ashanti was awarded a fellowship from the national organization CBMA - Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

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