On a very hot day last week, Southwest Philadelphia single-mom Nadira Branch and her 11-year-old son Amin Richard Branch, named for his grandfather Richard Branch who was shot to death in West Philadelphia 30 years ago, when Nadira was only 10, are traveling to the Ivory Coast in West Africa as a two-time Fulbright Scholar. Nadira 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. She hardly imagined this as a child growing up in West Philly, when she would laugh off her dad telling her 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 of 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.” 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 Africa 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. But she was determined to never have to choose between her family and her scholarship.
In addition to being an elected Democratic Committee-person in the 51st Ward, 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 anti-violence 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 the chess championship last year and went viral for his entrepreneurial fortitude 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. The U.S. Fulbright Scholar Program is the country’s premier international educational exchange program, offering nearly 470 teaching and research or combination teaching/research awards in over 125 countries.