September 22, 2013

The Ever Forward Club - The Power of One Man

I met Ashanti Branch in July of 2013 when we were both “outlander” staff men at the YMAW, or Young Men’s Adventure Weekend, held near Vancouver, British Columbia. Ashanti is currently a Vice Principal at the Montera Middle School in Oakland, CA. He was using his summer being Ashanti, and accumulating rich experiences, ideas, and new skills to take back to Oakland to increase his impact on his community.

Ten years ago Ashanti founded The Ever Forward Club (EFC), a not-for-profit organization in Oakland, CA. The program was started to support young men of color in high school who were failing 50 percent or more of their classes.

In the last ten years, Ashanti has put together a solid, school-based program that's had an amazing impact on countless numbers of kids, a couple of inner-city schools, and their surrounding communities. Over the years of tracking the progress of their EFC participants, they have recorded some incredible statistics. In the past eight years:
  • 100% of the EFC members have graduated high school.
  • 90% of the EFC graduates attend 2 or 4 year colleges after high school.
  • 1000+ students, faculty, family and friends have participated in their Annual 24 Hour Relay Challenge which promotes community building and healthy living.

If you work in this field, you know the power in those numbers and the many small victories it's taken to achieve that degree of success. It’s easy to see why Ashanti Branch is on my list of heroes and a brother in mission. His current goal is to bring the EFC to 20 middle schools and 20 high schools by the fall of 2015, potentially supporting as many as 1,000 individual students! I have no doubt Ashanti will reach that goal!

I recently spoke with Ashanti to learn more about what he's learned in his 10 years with The Ever Forward Club. In the recording below, you can hear how the EFC got started, how it’s grown, and about the four core principles of Academic Development, Personal Development, Community Development, and Family Development, that have made it so successful.

You’ll also hear how Ashanti’s 'young male' literacy has evolved over time. I just love the part where he tells us what keeps him in this challenging work. If you like hearing about real man-making, this short clip will be very much worth your time.

Click the arrow to start play (may take a second to load)

If the player isn't visible, click on this direct link.

If you took the time to listen, you’ll see why I so respect and honor Ashanti for his powerful dedication to the young males in his world. Makes me wish I had an Ashanti in my life growing through my teen years. What I love about his story is that it’s another tale of how much difference one very motivated man can make. In ten years, Ashanti Branch has touched thousands of lives, and the positive reverberations of that impact just can’t be measured. AND, he’s just getting started!

You can learn more about The Ever Forward Club on his website,, or you can email Ashanti directly.

If you’re inclined to make a donation in support of one very reliable man-maker, working in extremely challenging circumstances, and getting extraordinary results, I know Ashanti will put the funds to good use. You can donate at the FirstGiving donation site, or make a check out to Warrior Films c/o Ever Forward Club, and send it to The Ever Forward Club, Ashanti Branch, 7514 Holly St. Oakland, CA 94621.

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September 13, 2013

Teen Boys - Grief and Loss

My Friend Bruce
My pal Bruce died unexpectedly a couple weeks ago at age 79. He was a very good man, wasn’t supposed to die, and I’m still in shock. At his service, just days after his passing, all of his family and friends tried to find a way to cope with the idea he was not going to be with us any longer. It’s still hard and will be for a while.

Grief is difficult business for which most of us have little preparation. At the service for Bruce, I was able to touch a deep well of grief, not just for him, but for all the other good friends and family that have passed. It actually felt really good to let the tears fly, use lots of tissues, and just be a very sad mess.

It wasn't always that way. As a young male in an alcoholic home, there were lots and lots of disappointments, and big personal losses too. There was the death of my grandfather, my much loved dog, my mother, dear friends moving away, and the heartbreak of my first teen love affair ending. Those were all big losses for an innocent young man. To make it worse, I faced those tragedies alone, without any guidance, grief tools, or support.
You’re on your own, just deal with it.
In fact, the absence of any support, or even positive role modeling around dealing with loss and grief, communicated a pretty clear message: You’re on your own, just deal with it. I did . . . and became a kid who was emotionally bound up, pressurized, and lived with a thick veneer as a shield over all that anger and sadness. Like so many kids I see today, out front I wore an “I’m OKAY” mask.

I met Bruce’s teenage grandson at the funeral. He didn’t cry either at the funeral service or at the cemetery. When I spoke with him about the loss of his grandfather, I could see the over-wet eyes of someone holding it all back. He said his grandfather’s passing was a very sad thing, but that he was doing OK. In that moment, I wondered where all his grief would go and how it would ultimately be expressed. I was reminded of a quote by William Pollack, in his book Real Boys : Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood. His quote says, "If we don't let our boys cry tears, they'll cry bullets."

On rites of passage weekends for boys, there is often a grief process of some sort. I’ve seen it in programs for 9-12 year-old boys, and a different version on a teen guy's passage weekend. The idea is always the same; help kids understand, and maybe express grief and loss. In age-appropriate language, the messages we try convey include:
  • Loss is a normal part of life.
  • It’s a good thing to talk about your feelings of loss and grief. 
  • Having feelings of sadness is normal (even big feelings). 
  • Anger is a common, normal, and healthy response to loss and grief.
  • Grief and sadness can go on for a long, long time after a loss. 
  • Guys cry, it’s just fine, and it’s good for you. 
  • Unexpressed grief can sometimes come out sideways, and hurt others. 
  • And that with the support of your community, it’s a good thing to honor the loss with an appropriate ceremony or ritual.
Hearing those messages early in my life would have lightened my load of emotional baggage considerably. It would also have been very helpful to have developed some emotional vocabulary, learned how to get and use support for the hard parts of my life, and especially, given my young self permission to cry real tears.

Way back in 1995, I wrote a book on grief and loss for teens. It’s still selling well. It's titled, Help for the Hard Times – Getting Through Loss. If you know a young person dealing with a big loss, or if you work with young males, it’s a good book to read and maybe share. It’s never too early (or too late) to help kids learn healthy ways to cope with the really hard times.

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