Originally appeared in Word in Black
Ashanti Branch was failing, and he wasn’t sure why.
In 2004, not long after abandoning a promising, lucrative career as an engineer, Branch found himself among the ranks of underpaid, overworked teachers at San Lorenzo High School in Oakland, California, the hometown he thought he’d left behind.
Fueled by a knack for math and a passion for helping his struggling community, Branch was a successful rookie teacher at the under-resourced school. But he noticed a cohort: Black boys carrying the weight of systemic racism who didn’t seem to care about their education — and disrupted his plans to teach students who did. Cajoling didn’t work; neither did bluster and discipline.
Because he’d been in their shoes — a Black boy raised by a single mother who studied his way out of poverty and into college — Branch was frustrated he couldn’t reach them, and took it personally.
“I was like, ‘Why are you resisting this opportunity for your future?’” Branch says. “I knew, deep down, that their not getting an education would have no effect on my future life. But it would have an effect on my soul.”
A profound realization dawned on him: these children needed not mere academic guidance, but healing.
So Branch went back to the drawing board, so to speak. Having tried everything else, he put a bribe on the table for the disruptors — off-campus fast food from a nearby restaurant — and encouraged his students to teach him.
“I said, ‘I’ll buy you lunch once a week. In exchange for lunch, teach me how to be a better teacher,’” Branch says. “I brought in lunch, and we ate, and we talked, and I asked questions.”
With Branch establishing a safe space, the teens shared a meal and told him about their lives: dealing with poverty or absent parents; navigating neighborhoods plagued by gun violence and gangs; trying to figure out a path for their lives with few visible options. And where they come from, they told him, book smarts are worth nothing on the street. Branch listened and advised where he could.
That first meeting, however, led to another the next week, and another the week after that. Within months, the sessions had become a regular part of Branch’s schedule. Before long, the Ever Forward Club, a wide-ranging support program for at-risk young men, was born. The concept was simple: give Black teenagers the time and space to get help with schoolwork, get advice from a trusted adult, and get a chance to heal, if just for 45 minutes over lunch.
Over time, Branch developed a more formal curriculum, and more young men began showing up — including some members who brought friends along. Membership exploded, student performance improved, and Branch began to see he was healing damage neither he nor his students realized was there.
“I was learning from students about what was going on with them — why they were behaving the way they were,” Branch says. “It wasn’t academic — it wasn’t, ‘I can’t multiply,’ or, ‘I can’t add numbers.’ It was that life was slapping them around. And when they came to school, they were just trying to keep things moving.”
Since that first meeting in 2004, the club has exploded in reach and scope. Along with mentoring high school students and young men in the East Bay area, the Ever Forward Club holds workshops for educators, teaches students how to mentor others, and has a youth academy dedicated to social and emotional learning.
Spelled out on its website, the EFC mission statement is deceptively simple yet powerful: “(A)ddress the underlying causes of dropout rates, youth violence, and the growing achievement gap through mentoring and social emotional development.”
The first set of conversations with his students reminded Branch of “what it was like for my own self to navigate the chaos of life while I was in school,” he said. “I was like, ‘If I get to college, I’ll get out of Oakland, and all my problems will go away. I’ll make a lot of money, I’ll get a good job. I gotta just fight through this current madness right now, to get to the other side.’”
The difference with his first Ever Forward Club members, he says, is “no one had told them the formula for ‘happily ever after,’” he said. “So it occurred to me that, oh, yeah — they’re navigating all this other nonsense. They’re from a community where being smart wasn’t cool.”
Ultimately, Branch says, that group of kids needed healing, and he decided to step up.
The result of Branch’s efforts? The Ever Forward Club website notes that since 2004, “100% of Club members have graduated from high school (in contrast with Oakland Unified’s 60.5% graduation rate).”
After graduation, “90% of Club members have enrolled in college, a trade school, or the military (in contrast with the national college enrollment rate of 45.5% for low-income students).
And, there are also zero EFC grads “currently incarcerated (in contrast with national incarceration rate of 8% for black males ages 20 to 24).”
“Teaching math was what I was hired for,” he says. “But either I’m gonna just sit back and be like, ‘This is messed up,’ and just keep watching all these kids fall through the cracks” or take on the challenge to stop it. The success of the EFC — and the fact that the young men kept coming back, sometimes bringing friends along — is proof he made the right decision.
“They had a space that was safe enough for them to come in that room every Thursday for lunch and realize, ‘I’m not alone,’” says Branch, who compares acting out and disruption inside the classroom to hiding behind a mask.
“You’re getting something that you didn’t even know you were missing. Once you start getting more of it — once you’re getting more care, more love, and being heard and being seen — I think it’s harder to hide.”
This story was produced in partnership with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.