Ashanti Branch, MEd, founder and executive director of the growing nonprofit the Ever Forward Club for boys, develops new ways to engage at-risk youth, inspiring them to stay in school, realize their voices matter, and believe they can become role models in their communities.
Recently, Ashanti launched the Ever Forward Summer Arts Experience, which included a special talk with Wynton Marsalis, an open rehearsal at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and a rehearsal and performance of The Comedy of Errors by Santa Cruz Shakespeare. It was our pleasure to partner with Ashanti by offering 1440 signature classes, nourishing meals, and pod-style living on our campus to his group for the three nights of this remarkable program.
The idea for the Summer Arts Experience began during the first Service Week at 1440, in 2017. Service Week is a unique campus-wide program designed for teams from nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit employees, board members, and stakeholders are invited to apply for this week of free, best-in-class professional development underwritten and hosted by 1440.
Service Week guests have time to connect, share ideas, and expand their reach in between workshop sessions, which is when Ellen Primack, executive director of the Cabrillo Festival, approached Ashanti. She asked if he'd like to bring a group of his boys to the festival, which hosts renowned artists from around the world. From that moment on, Ellen and Ashanti collaborated on the Summer Arts Experience for 2019, with 1440 and Aimee Zygmonski, managing director at Santa Cruz Shakespeare.
Of the whole experience, Ashanti says the most telling part was at the end when the boys said, "I don't want to go back yet." Ashanti believes they found comfort here, so he reminded them, "Ever Forward was created to show how learning can be fun. And, if you work hard, then amazing opportunities will come your way." Important takeaways occurred throughout the weekend, including in 1440's signature improv class when the group experienced new ways of collaboration and communication, and in the talk with Wynton Marsalis who encouraged them to pay close attention to the music they listen to—to really listen to the words and ask themselves is it uplifting in any way, and how much are they investing in what goes into their ears that can uplift them?
Any of us can attend a workshop, create a career that aligns with our values, and even take daily walks outside, seeking invaluable inspiration, but we can't know which moment will contain a sound bite of wisdom or bring a new person, perspective, or joy into our life in a way that will change the course of a project, a relationship, or a life.
These moments catalyze inner evolution and growth, rejuvenate us, and give us hope when we feel stuck.
Ashanti created the Ever Forward Summer Arts Experience for at-risk boys with all this in mind. His goal is to give them a variety of new experiences trusting they will get something they need, and they will have evidence that people see and support them.
Ashanti says, "If you know that you have people that look up to you, people who want to support you, and that you mean something to them, then it's harder to want to do nothing. If you are here with us in this club, then you can't say that you don't have someone who wanted to support you."
With deep gratitude to all the partners, Ashanti says the Ever Forward Summer Arts Experience is going to change those lives, and he looks forward to doing it again.
Learn more about the Ever Forward Club at everforwardclub.org.