Ashanti Branch: the metaphorical masks we wear
BY AIMEE LEWIS STRAIN
A mask can be used for performance or entertainment, or as protection for hunting, sports or war. A mask can protect more than the face alone, and if you ask Ashanti Branch, a mask can be invisible yet desired to combat the fear of being vulnerable or misunderstood. This metaphorical mask cripples many from finding their true selves.
Branch is the founder and executive director of The Ever Forward Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping African American and Latino males achieve their potential. For decades, Branch has focused his attention on creating an environment where young men can find the space to see themselves as human beings with human emotions.
“So often, these boys are trained to hide behind the image of a man who is strong because he does not let emotions take over,” Branch said. “Expressing those emotions helps us to peel back the layers to find out who we really are – we are enough. We are important and we are valuable.”
Throughout the past school year, students at Junípero Serra High School have listened to talks with Branch as part of the platform of inclusion in Serra’s Mission and Brotherhood program. Themes discussed have included emotional disconnection, confined masculinity, judgment and confidence.
Many of the discussions stem from a project spearheaded by the Los Angeles High School for Recording Arts, titled “1,000 Masks.” Students from all over the world created personal masks. When these masks were showcased, an incredible connection formed between many of the students who had hidden the same emotions. Some of the seemingly put-together and confident students were also feeling frazzled and unsure.
Students and faculty at Serra participated in this hands-on workshop to create their individual masks. Dividing a paper in two, students drew one picture and added six words. On the left, Branch asked each student to add qualities and characteristics that he proudly lets the world see. On the right, students were directed to add qualities that they feel the need to hide.
So what happens when happiness, confidence, pride, funny and hopeful meet sad, anxious, overwhelmed, angry and uncomfortable? According to Branch, the mask of emotional disconnection is something that men have historically honed. Well-known phrases such as “Be a man” or “Suck it up” create a male composite that lacks vulnerability and open discussions surrounding how a man is feeling. He added that there is a male perception that you’re weak when you show emotion.
“If you can’t show feelings because you’re considered weak, then you’re following someone else’s rules for you. Is that weak?” Branch questioned. One of his favorite borrowed phrases is “When we repress our emotions, they pile up like a debt that will come due.”
Fearing judgment, many men choose to mask their emotions, which leads to problems later in life. Branch noted that a lack of expression can potentially lead to an inability to express emotions in a healthy manner, sometimes leading men to turn to substance abuse or explode in anger. To combat this possibility, Branch said, men should find a circle of friends to discuss their feelings. He asked the students to consider this: “Is this the man I want to be?”
“Through emotional expression comes self-esteem and a healthy mental state – something everyone needs these days,” Branch said.
Serra junior Kyle Nash was inspired by Branch. “I think that the most valuable takeaway from Mr. Branch was something that he said in his first workshop: ‘Don’t compare your struggle to someone else’s.’ While we should always be thankful for the privileges and benefits we are given in life, we should not try to undermine our own trauma and struggles with someone else’s by deeming theirs as worse. Mr. Branch helped me learn that by invalidating our own trauma and trying to pretend that because it’s better than someone else’s that we just further damage ourselves and stifle any progress we’ve made to grow from that trauma.
“I think that Mr. Branch’s presence enhanced our current curriculum by allowing us to discuss more difficult topics, while still maintaining a sensitive approach toward these topics,” Nash said. “Especially in classes such as history and English, where we often meet these uncomfortable conversations.”
According to Serra President Barry Thornton, the addition of Branch’s work to the Serra curriculum has helped students to grow in self-awareness, acceptance and confidence. “His partnership with our Mission and Brotherhood program is a perfect match that helps our Padres to develop these leadership skills in the context of faith and thus be powerful leaders for the good in our society,” Thornton said. “Ashanti’s work with our faculty has been similarly inspiring, and it has helped the Serra community be more effective mentors to our young men.”
– Published courtesy Junípero Serra High School. First published in Serra magazine Traditions Fall-Winter 2021 edition.