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.