By Sam Piha
There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities. Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward Club, is a former classroom teacher and a strong advocate for boys. He appears in the feature film documentary entitled, The Mask You Live In. Ashanti is also featured in the History of Afterschool in America documentary where he makes the case for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below we continue our conversation with Ashanti about the needs of boys. You can view part 1 here.
Q: Do you think it's helpful to develop programs that are gender based?
A: There is a huge need to have separate gender groups for the work that the young men need to do by themselves; for the work that young women need to do by themselves. There needs to be safe space for them to come together and learn about healthy relationships, healthy conversations, and building community together.
What I realized was that our young men need a space where they can be not only held to high expectations, they can be given high support; that this is an environment where, as a mentor, I can push them the way that I need to push them and they do not worry about how it looks to other people in the room.
If young men are not learning how to be young men in a healthy way, then how will they learn how to be young men in a group with young women? They need to figure out, "How do I be? How do I work in this world?" The world is expecting you to act a certain way. We don't put them in a box. We say, however you show up and however you are, you're perfect. But how do we help you learn tools? To navigate and communicate in ways that are different - not just based on who we are and how we are raised. I think it's really important.
As a teacher, I've seen students who are smart, who do their homework on the sly, then they goof off and talk back. Then you recognize it - they're trying to code switch. Many boys think they can't let their friends know that they are a freaking 4.0 student. I had one youth who dressed in clothes four times bigger than his body. For four years of high school, he was valedictorian. But he knew that what he had to do and luckily he had it in him - "I'm going to take care of my business while I still fit and feel cool with my homies". Most don't have tools like that.
Q: Can you say something about afterschool and school-day environments?
A: Afterschool programs allow young people to say, "Look, the day is over. I'm tired of pretending that I like whatever they were talking about. Now I get a space to just be free." In afterschool, we have the space to help our young men know that they are valuable. "You may not do so good in your bookwork, but you've got a lot of skills.” I think that afterschool programs allow youth to get a taste for something else, to see how good they can be at something that's not going to be marked as a grade, or not going to take their creativity and crush it because somebody told you that your drawing “is not according to the rubric”.
Many of our schools today are not engaging, exciting or fun. Unfortunately, school still looks like it did 100 years ago. I think schools are maybe one of the only industries that are operating as it did 100 years ago and still expect to be successful. We have a system where you show up, you sit down, you listen, you do what the teacher says, and you go home and hopefully you can regurgitate it when they give you a test.
How do we make sure that not only the afterschool people know how to support young people, but we also take those skills and help teachers integrate those into their classroom? I think it's important that both happen. I believe that it should happen all day long. Teachers should be educated in how boys learn differently than girls in a safe way so that teachers can make sure that they're providing the type of education that's going to reach all of their students. 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. That's what we're really excited about.
Mr. Branch, born and raised by a single mother on welfare in Oakland, California, took the road less traveled to get out of the ghetto and attended one of California’s premier engineering colleges, California Polytechnic - San Luis Obispo. After tutoring struggling students, he realized his true passion was teaching. In 2004 as a first year teacher, Ashanti started The Ever Forward Club to provide a support group for African American and Latino males, who were not achieving to the level of their potential. Since then, The Ever Forward Club has grown to serve both young men and women and become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.
Ashanti was awarded with 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. Mr. Branch is on a mission to change the way that students interact with their education and the way schools interact with students.
By Sam Piha
There's an emerging trend in afterschool to focus on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities. We published an earlier blog post which contains an interview with Lynn Johnson (Spotlight: Girls) on serving the needs of girls and young women. Now we turn to the needs of boys.
Ashanti Branch, Founder and Executive Director of Ever Forward Club, taught high school, middle school, public, private and Charter schools and is a strong advocate for boys. He appears in the feature film documentary entitled, The Mask You Live In. Ashanti is also featured in the History of Afterschool in America documentary where he makes the case for gender-based programming in afterschool. Below are some of Ashanti’s responses to our interview questions.
Q: Can you say a little bit about how you got into this work?
A: I grew up as a poor boy, raised by a single mother in Oakland. As a first-year high school teacher, I wanted to help some kids in my classroom pass algebra. I realized that those young men were looking for a space to be real, to talk about what was really going on in their life, and not be ashamed about it, not be ridiculed for feeling something or by caring about their education. Many of our boys live in a community where education is not valued, where the smartest kid at the school is called names like nerd, geek, and teacher's pet.
In some communities, students who get the highest score on the test are celebrated, people cheer for them. But in our community, those students don't get elevated. Our young men believe that to be cool, to fit in the cool crowd, you've got to act certain ways. Usually they aren't ways that are going to help them with their education and help them further their life in a positive way. That's a sad part that we've got to work on.
That's why I'm really glad that there's some resurgence in this work, and we're trying to be a part of that work. What we've been trying to do in Ever Forward is when we started 13 years ago I was a teacher just trying to help some kids pass algebra. I wasn't trying to start a non-profit. I didn't even know what a non-profit was.
Q: Can you comment on the needs of boys, especially boys of color and those from low income communities?
A: We are becoming aware that there is a need to support young men in really specific ways. 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 this has been let go for so long that young men have found themselves in a crisis.
If you look at the prison population in the United States, 93% are men. That would tell you something is happening with men. It usually starts when they are little boys. The hyper-masculine narrative of what it means to be a man tells our boys that “this is how men act “ and if you step out of that box, then society has a good way of either pushing you back into the box or pushing you so far out of it that you don't even know who you are.
I think that the awakening of people in communities, the awakening of people around the nation and the world, is recognizing that we must start when they are younger.
Society doesn't give our young men good tools with dealing with sadness and fear and shame and other kind of emotions. 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 emotions? Usually it comes out as anger. If somebody embarrasses me, I may feel sad. But I don't know how to deal with sadness. I know what anger looks like. Thus, everything is converted to anger. Or I just pretend like it doesn't matter, then I get checked out to the world.
Then how do young men deal with this? They isolate and experience quiet desperation – “no one cares about me”. They begin to self-medicate, self-fulfill those feelings of not being a part of the group - drugs, alcohol, rampant unprotected sex, gangs. They exhibit so many different behaviors to cover up their feelings that they're really trying to figure out. How do I deal with this real feeling? The documentary, "The Mask You Live In," which was done by The Representation Project, is about American masculinity and how society is shaping our boys.
Q: Can you describe what kind of activities you do in Ever Forward Club?
A: There are many activities and curriculums being created to support young men to promote their healthy well-being and social-emotional development. In Ever Forward, we believe that our young men need a safe space to talk about what's going on in their life and to know that any part of themselves that comes out of their words, their heart, is part of them and that's okay. If we give them tools with dealing with the real and the true part of themselves, then we are giving them more space to be fully themselves and they're not pretending to be somebody else.
Our meetings start off with a simple check-in - your name and how are you doing right now on a scale from one to ten. If we're going to start a meeting, we should know where they are right now. If any one comes in below a seven, we're going to check in further with them. There's a way for them to self-select whether they want people to ask them questions. They can come in and fake it every day -“I'm a nine”- and know nobody's going to bother them. But if they say “six”, we're like, "Hey, what's up? Why are you a six? What's happening?” They are then able to indicate "I need somebody to talk to me about something."
Our young men have a hard time asking for help. I have a hard time asking for help as an adult male. I still struggle with this. If I can't do it by myself, then maybe something's wrong with me. Once our young men feel the safety of that circle, it's really powerful for them because they know that every week I get to check-in with them. It doesn't just stop in the week. During the week, they're building a brotherhood that lasts longer than just the week, but the weekly meeting is like the big piece that helps them through that.
Once we get check-in done, we often play a game. Usually there is some competition. For young men, competition is really huge. Sometimes it's not really about the game- it's really what happens during the game. Somebody might break a rule, cheat, or make up their own rule. Then stuff comes out. Somebody might get mad, start yelling, or call some names. When this energy comes out that is when we can help teach them.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.