As a kid, Ashanti Branch was angry. He was a young Black boy growing up in Oakland, CA with a single mom. His dad died of an accidental overdose before he was born. His family was poor. He had to grow up fast. And he wanted out.
Determined to find a way out of his low-income upbringing, Branch went to school to be an engineer. Upon graduation, he got a well-paying job in the field and excelled.
“My identity was being a smart kid from Oakland who left to live a different life,” he recently said on an Instagram Live with Men’s Health, adding, “I thought I was living the dream. The dream was ‘happy ever after.’ And I think I was just searching for happy hour…but there should be more to ‘happy ever after’ than waiting for Friday.”
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As it turns out, Branch’s ideal storybook ending looked a bit different than his engineering path. And he’s out on the other side to tell the tale—and change the lives of young men in the process.
In a recent episode of the Men’s Health Instagram Live Series Friday Sessions, Branch joined host Gregory Scott Brown to discuss modern masculinity, the impact of mentorship on young men, and how men can achieve their most fulfilling life. Branch can speak on such topics both personally and professionally. That’s because after he left engineering, Branch went back to school for teaching, feeling called to educate young people—especially young men.
“It was a calling on my heart and soul,” Branch said on Friday Sessions. “I really thought I was going to do it for two years and get it out of my system and go back to the money. But that was 20 years ago.”
Some two decades after leaving engineering, Branch shines as the founder of the youth mentorship organization Ever Forward Club, which helps young men living in the Bay Area examine modern masculinity and embrace their emotional sides. Though Branch has now found success as a nonprofit leader, leaving his outwardly impressive job as an engineer wasn’t easy. Looking back, he said it was a battle between his head and his heart.
“My head wanted me to look good and be impressive to people and feel the dopamine hits when I tell people how much money I make and what thing I get to do because of this engineering job,” he said. “But at the end of the day, when I would sit in front of my big TV with my Xbox, I was like, “Is this it?” Deep down, I felt like I was missing something.”
Once he figured out the missing piece was educating young people, Branch says his sense of fulfillment increased—but so did his sense of duty toward young men growing up in situations like he did. In 2004, he was inspired to form the Ever Forward Club as a safe haven for the young men in his class to talk about their struggles. The school-based program now services several schools in the Bay Area, bringing training and workshops to students of all genders and experiences, but especially focuses on young men struggling with the pressures of masculinity and growing up.
“I was creating what I wish I had in high school,” Branch said on Instagram Live. “I was creating something just based on a feeling inside that there has to be more to being fully a man. We’ve told men for so long that they shouldn’t show anything outside of these limited confined masculinity tropes or definitions.”
In his work, Branch draws inspiration from a famous Frederick Douglass quote: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” To build strong young men, Branch said he provides a constant space for them to be their full selves, encouraging them to take off any “masks” they may wear to hide their feelings and emotions.
“They get a space to recognize that there’s more to me. There’s more to me than people can see,” Branch said, adding, “What we do with the young men is [ask them], ‘Where in life are you exhausted? Where in life are you having to pretend and fake and be not fully you?’ That’s the work.”
Once a young man desperate to escape Oakland, Branch now works within his community to better the lives of teens like the teen he once was. And, for him, the fulfillment is better than that engineering paycheck.
“All those things [I went through] were preparing me for the work I do today, supporting young men who I meet in my work who are the oldest, the only male in the house, or “the man of the house” at a young age,” Branch said. “I see them. I know the struggle.”
Watch the entire conversation with Branch below:
Katie Dupere is an editor and writer in New York City specializing in identity, internet culture, social good, lifestyle and beauty topics.
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