Little Black girls need to see women that look like them in the media. It helps in boosting their confidence and knowing that they can achieve anything. This is why the Ms. Black USA pageant is so important. I recently interviewed Chanda Branch where she talked about her journey.
The Empress Dee: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what it is that you do?
Chanda Branch: My name is Chanda Branch. I am a professional artist; I am a mom and a wife. I am an educator and I also hold the national title of Ms. Black USA.
So, I have a lot of hats that I wear but I think that you can boil things down and say that I am creating beauty in the world through art and teaching.
The Empress Dee: Absolutely! It is true that you do wear many hats and we will get into that a little bit later because I was looking at the interviews that you have done and I thought OMG, this lady is a superwoman!
One thing that I have read in a couple of your interviews, you talk a lot about leadership. So, can you tell me who were some of the people that you saw as leaders?
Chanda Branch: I think that for a lot of women, the first leader that you recognize in your life is your mom. That is also true for me. But my grandmother was an absolutely fierce woman. She really held all of those qualities that you would associate with a southern belle.
She could cook, she kept a beautiful house and she managed the family, but she was also very, very civic minded. She worked at the church and she was the church secretary and she handled business there and that was a very male dominated space and so I did not realize it at the time but she was a wonder woman who was really paving the way and showing me some incredible ways of exerting myself in a space without being offensive and in ways that were very natural.
The Empress Dee: That is beautiful, I love it! So, what would you say are some of the most challenging aspects of being in a position of leadership?
Chanda Branch: I think that it depends on the level of leadership that you are in. I am the former chair of the Raleigh City of Arts Commission and that was a space that was not typically female dominated. I had a lot of male commissioners who were very respectful, but they were not always forth coming with their support.
So, I really had to work hard and be prepared and really locked in. I had to know what I was talking about and I have to keep a calm head at all times. So that it was easy for them to see that I deserved to be in that place of leadership. I had earned it and that was a space where I belonged. I really had to work hard at that.
I have been in leadership positions with my sorority and in other phases of my life where the leadership is a little bit different because you are leading different kinds of people.
So, being aware of how folks operate, knowing your materials and really being focused on being kind in your leadership and leading from within, was important to me.
The Empress Dee: I love it! I know that if I read correctly you started doing pageants as way to get money for books for college, what persuaded you to keep doing them?
Chanda Branch: I fell in love with the process. The very first time that I competed in a pageant was for the title of Ms. Black and Gold on the campus of Tennessee State University and I won, I was Miss BO they called me, the chapter there is Beta Omicron. I thought that I was just going to get the little $300 in book money but what happened was that I built relationships with the other young ladies that I was competing with.
I built relationships with the Alpha brothers who gave me an opportunity to be a leader in my own right.
They made sure that I had appearances and that I was able to go with them when they went to events and represented the chapter. They made sure that I was prepared and ready to compete for the next level.
So, when they had the statewide competition, I got prepared and I felt that same rush and excitement as I was reading and studying current events making sure that I was aware of what was happening socially in addition to finding just the right bathing suit because it takes both parts (laughter).
I really just fell in love with the process of preparing because I really felt like I was fine tuning myself every time I went back into competition mode.
The Empress Dee: So what would you say is the weight that comes with being Miss Black USA?
Chanda Branch: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” (The origin of this saying is unknown, but William Shakespeare has been known to use it).
There is a lot…there is a great need in our community to have positive role models and representation but I think that when people see a beauty queen coming, they see all the sparkles, they see all the glitter and the made up face and they do not assume that there is anything more underneath.
I have been really conscious of the fact that I need to express myself in ways that show my intelligence; that revealed that I have a platform that would connect with people on a truthful and honest basis. There is more than just fluff, I think that the assumption that I am just a beauty queen is one of the things that weighs heavy on me.
The Empress Dee: I can understand that…I could absolutely see that. Once you won, did you feel any new obligations or responsibilities to the generations after you that you may not have felt prior to winning?
Chanda Branch: I think that as a woman I have always felt that responsibility. As a Black woman, I have always felt that I owe my best to the present times so that the young women that come behind me will have an easier path. I do not think that that was anything new but again when you show up with the crown and sash on, it is almost like a Disney princess has walked into the room…when there are little kids involved.
So, something that I am always careful of is that I always make time and make space for the kids who are in the room, that younger generation. I am never going to be too busy for a hug and a handshake, a smile…I know that we are living in the time of Covid-19 now but when personal appearances were an option I really went out of my way to make myself available and to ask them to tell me something wonderful about themselves because it is not all about me.
I really take pride in that and I really feel like that is what is necessary. They have these role models but to know that the role model is within proximity, is somebody real, is somebody that I can actually touch and talk to, I think that puts it on a different level for kids.
The Empress Dee: Yes, I agree and that warms my heart to know that there are women like you that are playing that position and are doing that to inspire them. Why would you say it is essential during this time in this climate that Black women have leadership or have women in their lives that carry themselves with grace and poise?
Chanda Branch: I think that we have been fed a false notion of ourselves. We see women who do not always fit what you just described, women who you would assume to be a role model or who are carrying themselves with poise. Our sisters have to realize that there is a place for all of us.
I am not the one to scream and yell in the streets, but I am the one to walk into the boardroom and sit down and negotiate on terms that are actually going to move the issue forward. I am not one who is going to run for office, I do not have that temperament. I would rather compete and win outright but I have to be supportive of my sisters, those who are that type.
There is room for everybody in the progress that we are trying to make. I think that being supportive and creating space and uplifting each other’s voices is the only way that we are going to get there. Female leadership is the norm and not the exception.
I think that we just have to carve out that space and be intentional about lifting each other up and highlighting each other and supporting each other for whatever is going to be the best path forward in that moment.
The Empress Dee: I love that! Can you tell me about your StArt Strong platform?
Chanda Branch: I was always involved in the arts and saying StART Strong out loud I realized after I had already committed to this platform that it falls a little bit flat but when you see it on paper, the ART is capitalized. So there is a strong focus on the arts.
I was fortunate, my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, my village saw a talent in me, they saw interest in me, and they supported it out right. They paid for lessons and they paid for travel team. They brought batons, special shoes, costumes…they brought tickets to recitals, they really invested in the art that I was interested in and that is what has groomed and shaped me into the woman that I am. It gave me my confidence, my ability to communicate with people and to be comfortable in my own skin.
But I realize that it is not the truth for everyone. That is not the truth for all kids of color, that is not truth for kids with disabilities in all circumstances.
So, what my platform does is to seek to bring access and equity to those kids who otherwise would not have access to art in the form of performances, where they can just go and enjoy the art form or museum exhibit trips but also in creating art because that is where the next generation is going to be lifted from.
So, making sure that kids get pre-professional training, high quality training and the materials and support that they need to continue on that path.
The Empress Dee: Obviously, you have a great understanding of how important it is to invest in our children because I know that there are so many parents and families where they always talk about, yea my child is advanced and they have this quality and they have that quality.
Sometimes they may not invest, like you said, in those dreams that the child has or those behaviors or talents.
So, what advice would you give to those parents that see that their children have these great qualities and characteristics that should be invested in?
Chanda Branch: That is actually one of the things that I focus on. I do not just work with kids; I also work specifically with parents.
What I do is, I try to connect them to people who are working with different art organizations so that they really understand what the investment is that they are going to be making. I went to school on a performance-based scholarship because I could sing, because I could dance, because I had that training my parents did not come out of pocket for out of state tuition at Tennessee State University.
I think that there is a level of education that comes along with that and that will not necessarily be true for every child who gets into ballet or picks up an instrument, but your chances are greatly increased.
There are only so many football scholarships to go around, there are only so many basketball scholarships to go around and so I think that cultivating different things in our kids, cultivating that artistic spirit because it is innate to us, to who we are.
But cultivating and training that talent is critical because it opens opportunities down the line.
I really try to focus on conversations with parents to make sure that they know that yes you are going to have to buy shoes every month but when you offset that with the cost of college tuition or when you offset that with the cost of a trip to Europe that they are going to go on and perform, it evens out and it is well worth the investment in your child.
The Empress Dee: Might I just say that I love the way that you speak, it is so beautiful! What inspires you to hold so many positions in the community?
Chanda Branch: I think that it is a necessity. These are things that have been put in my path and I believe that I am led by God.
He has taken me on some winding paths and there have been some short cuts, but I think that every position that I have come to and every opportunity that I have come to has been divinely destined for me.
So, I do not have the right to refuse it, I do not have the right to say that I am too busy for that right now or that I do not think that I can fit that into my schedule.
My job is to bring my best to every single moment and if I can just bring myself to the next moment with my best and then the moment after that is the only way that I can manage all of the things that are happening around me.
The Empress Dee: Your being is just gorgeous! (Chanda thanks The Empress Dee). I know that in the Black community and I absolutely appreciate what you are doing, in the Black community we obviously lack a lot of extracurricular activities, a lot of community centers that our parents used to have that are not there anymore; so, what can we do as a community to maybe restore some of these places or to get back to those extracurricular activities?
Chanda Branch: I think that there are a couple of paths to that. One is through the church. I know that I learned to speak and to sing and to pray in religious settings very often. I think that the church has been a safe space for us culturally.
It has been a place where we have gathered and planned and where we have done a lot of the work that has brought our communities forward. So, I think that engaging the church and saying that these are the things that we need in our community, these are the things that we need to support our youth, I think that is one way that we can develop some additional programming for our kids.
The other thing that we need to do is to get our municipalities involved. We have to get our cities, our counties, our local governments in that as well. I know that here in the city of Raleigh, non-profit art organizations are supported through grant funding through the city.
Part of what I learned about when I was on the art commission and that is part of where my leadership really stretched and grew because I had to get a deeper understanding of how grant programs work. Where is the grant funding, where is it not, who is getting it, who does not have access?
So, I think that citizens have to go to their local governments and begin to say, we have this community center but there is no programming that we desire in that space, what can we do?
How can you support this particular non-profit because they are willing to come in and do the work with our communities, but they need your support?
So, I think that the churches and the municipalities are probably the first place that we need to look in order to start growing those programming opportunities.
The Empress Dee: Agreed. I know that you work with youth and I know a lot of people who have different non-profits and organizations where they want to work with you but sometimes there is a disconnect especially with this being the technology age, people want to be on their phones.
So, what advice would you give to people who are in these positions that are trying to engage the youth but are having some difficulty?
Chanda Branch: I think that they need to do exactly what you said, they need to engage the youth. Very often what is happening with programming is that they design this program and then they push it out.
They have not consulted the community, they have not consulted kids specifically to say, what would you like to do this summer? What do you need in order to feel supported?
I think that we have to reverse that notion and that folks who are planning and programming, really have to get in touch with what it is their communities need and they have to hear the voices of the people who they seek to serve, otherwise they are…you can serve chocolate cake all day but if I want strawberry (she shrugs) it is not going to work out.
The Empress Dee: Understood…absolutely. What advice would you give to young women who wish to be in multiple arenas of business, like yourself?
Chanda Branch: I think that the key is to do your homework, to do your research but not to overthink it. I know that I struggle sometimes with perfectionism and I can sit at the computer for hours and hours and really dig down into the weeds and into the details of something but then I look up and I have not actually made a decision.
The word of caution that I would give would be that you do need to know exactly what it is that you are getting into and you do have to be aware of your options but at some point you have to pull the trigger and make a decision and move forward. Do not get bogged down in the perfectionist tendencies that I know a lot of Black women carry.
The Empress Dee: Do you have any new projects or any other opportunities or just anything that we should be on the lookout for?
Chanda Branch: I am in development for a Podcast. I do not want to talk too much about it yet because it is still blossoming but keep your eyes peeled. I am also going to be getting back on stage which is something that I have longed for. When Covid-19 hit, some opportunities were sort of pulled off the table because no one was doing live theater, there were a couple of performances on Zoom and for on-line media that did pop up so that was an extra added opportunity; sort of a tradeoff. I am going to get to be in a piece that is not typically done, and I am going to portray a role that was originated by Melba Moore on stage. Melba Moore as you know has some serious pipes and she is a terrific actress as well. So, being able to step into that role in “Purlie” which was written by the late Ossie Davis, is really an exciting opportunity for me.
To know that there are small theaters here in my area, in Raleigh, N.C., I will be performing with Pure Life Theater and it is a new organization and they have a new approach to how theater is generated, how theater is made and who gets to participate and I am really excited that they have taken on this project because the show addresses issues of racism head on. It addresses the Jim Crow era and it does it in a fun tongue n’ cheek way, with an absolutely amazing musical score to go with it but essentially what they are doing is generating social change, they are inviting people into this space to come and see this show but now, let us have a serious conversation about what you have learned.
The Empress Dee: Well I am so happy for you, congratulations! Thank you so much for allowing us the opportunity to speak with you today. I am so excited and this interview has been so full of gems and I really do appreciate your presence and your being and hopefully we have the chance to follow-up with you soon so that we can hear more about that Podcast and everything that is going on with you.
The Empress Dee Thank you so much! I hope that you have a wonderful day.