When she tells her story, the scholar Nadira Branch always begins it in the same way: that she is 30 years into her grieving process.
Thirty years from the death of her father, Richard Branch, who was gunned down on a West Philadelphia street corner when she was 10 years old.
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And that everything Branch has done since — including her latest, a second Fulbright Scholarship, a scholarly achievement profound in its rareness — has flowed from a promise she made to the man.
“My dad was a strong proponent of education, even though he never graduated from high school," Branch said. “I promised to get my dad the education I knew he wanted, but never had a chance to pursue.”
This summer, Branch, 40, and her 11-year-old son, Amin Richard Branch — named, of course, for his grandfather — are traveling to the Ivory Coast for the Fulbright, the country’s premier international educational exchange program.
The grant writer will work in the country’s Ministry of Women, Family and Children, securing funding for critical programs there that serve women and children. She’ll also spend time on an independent research project on economic diplomacy.
Susan Muendl, Fulbright’s assistant director of global programs, wrote in an email that the organization was impressed by Branch’s “cultural sensitivity and professional experience.”
This latest holy-smokes achievement is one that Branch, whose soft voice belies her booming laugh, hardly imagined for herself as a child growing up in West Philly, when she would laugh off her dad’s admonishments to do her homework. “I don’t care if there are two people in that school today,” he would tell her. “You’re going to be one them.”
“I didn’t take it seriously,” Branch said. “But when he died, I said, I’m going to go to school, and I’m going to work really hard.”
Branch’s bar for “working hard” is somewhere in the stratosphere. She graduated in the top of her class at Parkway High School. She made the dean’s list every semester but one at Penn State, and studied abroad in Ghana.
“To see all my professors, police — everyone in positions of authority, they were black. It was life-changing,” Branch said. “Just knowing who I was as an African American and a young scholar. And I felt a part of something that was bigger than me.”
She returned to the continent after graduation, working in Mali as a health education volunteer for the Peace Corps. She lived in a village and became so fluent in Bambara, the local language, that she began to dream in it.
While getting her master’s in public administration from Penn, she learned she was pregnant with Amin — “Bam!” she said, laughing. But Branch was determined to never have to choose between her family and her scholarship.
“I loved being smart, and I love being a scholar, and I loved being a mom,” she said the other day at the ESPM Hair Zone at 60th and Girard, as Amin got his hair cut. “I did not want to ever have to choose between my loves.”
So the woman who refused to be defined by fear, or grief, or a false choice, kept pushing.
“I am a serial fellowship awardee,” she said, laughing. In 2016 alone, she was awarded three national fellowships, all while raising Amin and running a consulting business. One was with Every Town for Gun Safety, the antiviolence organization. Through that fellowship, Branch spoke to audiences about her father, and how she has used her life to honor him.
He was killed in a drug dispute, something she doesn’t hide from. Branch simply tries to keep doing things she is afraid of. She has tried to model the same perseverance for her son.
The seventh grader at the String Theory School won a chess championship last year, and went viral for his entrepreneurial chops during a snowstorm last winter: He used a Google spreadsheet and CashApp to earn a few hundred dollars shoveling neighbors’ sidewalks. He says he’s excited about going to Africa and learning a new language.
“When I travel with my mom, it feels like I can go anywhere. There’s a whole big world out there — I don’t want to stay in the same place forever,” he said. He says he’s proud of his mother.
And Branch is pretty sure she’s made her father proud, too.