When Ashanti Branch started the Ever Forward Club in 2004, he had no expectation that it would become a nationally recognized nonprofit. Nor did he harbor goals of appearing in a critically acclaimed documentary, collaborating on a Grammy-nominated album, or being applauded on the TED stage. All he knew back then, as a first-year math teacher at San Lorenzo High School, was that he wanted to help young men of color live their best lives. The rest is what happened when a personal mission meets a public need. Says Branch: “I still sometimes am like, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Cause: The Ever Forward Club primarily mentors underserved young men of color through a combination of programs focused on family, academics, community and self. Events like the 24 Hour Relay, a huge race and community campout happening at Oakland Technical High School on May 23 and May 24, is meant to encourage healthy connection. But the Ever Forward Club’s crown jewel is its “Taking Off the Mask” workshops, a traveling program that encourages emotional intelligence and vulnerability at schools and workplaces across the Bay Area.
Founder: Branch’s voice grows big with pride when talking about his native Oakland. It’s where he spent his adolescence trying to navigate his own struggles with masculinity while being raised by a single mother. He’d go on to pursue a career in engineering because, as he explains, “growing up poor, I wanted to be rich.” But before long, he pivoted to education — his true calling — where he began recognizing his old patterns in new students. “I remembered whatI was dealing with and realized I had nobody to talk to about the fact that I was struggling,” he says. “I wanted to create for them what I wish I had. You know?”
Impact: Branch’s work with the Ever Forward Club was featured in first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s celebrated documentary on toxic masculinity, The Mask You Live In. It also inspired the song “#100kmasks” off the Grammy-nominated children’s album, The Love, by Oakland’s Alphabet Rockers. One hundred percent of the high school seniors mentored by the nonprofit graduate, and over 90 percent of them go on to attend college.
Supporters: Branch is quick to shout out Elaine Mellis, the Ever Forward Club’s philanthropic fairy godmother who threw the club its first gala in February. Mellis offered her help after meeting Branch for the first time at a Battery Powered Impact Dinner in 2019; two years earlier, the San Francisco social club gave Ever Forward its first big grant. “It was magic,” Branch recalls. Co-chaired by Tanum Davis Bohen, the Ever Forward Masked Ball in February was a rousing success.
Budget: Roughly $375,000
Get involved: The club needs people who can take it to the next level of growth, Branch says. That means advisory council members, volunteers, donors and sponsors. everforwardclub.org