The moment Asya Branch made history, becoming the first Black representative from Mississippi to win the Miss USA competition, her mind went blank. After confirming the announcer had actually said her name, Branch told CBS News that "it was a moment of just pure joy and gratefulness."
On Monday, the 22-year-old Bonneville native was crowned Miss USA at Elvis Presley's Graceland in Memphis. The pageant, which normally takes place in the spring, was postponed due to the. But for Branch, the circumstances of her crowning makes her win that much more special. "There was a point where we were wondering if the pageant would be able to even happen. And so it truly is just exciting and just sort of liberating to have won during this time, because a lot of people have this belief that 2020 won't bring anything good but, you know, it restored my hope that good things can still happen."
Branch has only been competing in pageants since 17 years old, an experience she says has taught her "a lot of different life skills" and enabled her to embrace who she is. But an important part of coming into her future was embracing her past. The sixth of eight siblings, Branch's life was changed forever when her father was incarcerated for charges of conspiracy to commit robbery and kidnapping. She was 10 years old at the time, causing her to "grow up at an extremely young age" and to help her mother take care of her two younger siblings.
"My father was incarcerated for 10 years of my life and it affected our family drastically," said Branch. "He was the foundation of our home and our main source of income, so we faced extremely difficult times losing him." She said the experience inspired her to begin advocating for prison reform.
"I think that people forget about the family that's left behind after a parent or guardian becomes incarcerated," said Branch. "I always say it's a shared family sentence. My father may have been the one incarcerated, but we suffered as well in the outside world. But I realized that there are so many other people suffering from the same circumstances as myself. And so that gave me the motivation to really want to be a voice for the unheard and to set an example for other children who may not have had the same mindset and motivation and that parents had given me."
An Ole Miss graduate, Branch used her experience to launch an initiative titled Finding Your Way: Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents. One of her proudest initiatives is called Love Letters, which donates stationery to inmates so they can communicate with their families. In one of her fondest memories, the program enabled a female inmate to reconnect with her estranged son, a story that Branch says "shows the successes" of these programs.
While her activism aims to help families of incarcerated individuals, she considers it a healing measure for herself. "Being able to help others helped me heal and that's really what keeps me going, is hearing other people's stories and being able to share mine with them to show that, you know, we've been through the same things. I really think that it takes someone that can relate to you, for you to really hear what someone is saying."
"It doesn't matter where you come from, your background, what you have, what you don't have. You can make anything happen if you set your mind to it and you really work hard and do what it takes. And so often, children of incarcerated parents fall into these negative statistics because they don't have any guidance, and what I want to do, is to help them find their way and keep them on the right track, have someone who cares about them and wants to see them succeed," she said.
The next few months will mark Branch's transition to her new home in New York City and her new responsibilities as Miss USA. While her main goal is to spend her reign spreading positivity, her focus on criminal justice reform is still on the top of her mind. She hopes to bring her Love Letters program nationwide and wants to continue advocating for the abolishment of mandatory sentencing, which many activists consider a proponent of mass incarceration. "Just like no two people are the same, no two crimes are the same and they shouldn't be treated as such," said Branch.
In 2018, she attended a roundtable with President Trump and other lawmakers to discuss the First Step Act. She said she hopes to continue working with lawmakers on prison reform. "I'm happy to be in any conversation where decisions are being made and opinions being heard," said Branch. "I would be excited to meet with President-Elect Biden to speak on criminal justice reform."
In recent days, Branch has received criticism for that meeting with Mr. Trump and for singing the national anthem at one of his rallies, which she said was a contractual agreement with Miss America. Some considered these endorsements of the president, but Branch disagreed.
"I would not consider it an endorsement," she said on CBSN. "I never voiced my personal political beliefs but people have assumptions and their title to their opinions but I expected the backlash and it is fine. I just hope that people will stop making the assumption that I do support President Trump because I have never stated whether I do or not."
Branch said her new role gives her the opportunity to be a role model for young girls who see themselves in her. "I'm excited to be that example for other young minorities because I think that we need to see more diversity being normalized in the world," she said. "I'm grateful to be a part of this movement. It's so wonderful to just be that example for someone and to know that I have other young black girls looking up to me and that I can be an example to show that they can accomplish any of their wildest dreams. To me, that's just so heartwarming."
And to all the young Black girls who can now look up at Mississippi's first Miss USA, Branch has one thing to say: "Stop doubting yourself."
"I feel so often we feel inferior to our dreams and aspirations and we don't give ourselves enough credit. We think that we don't have what it takes. I would tell (myself), and any other little girl looking up at me, that you have everything that it takes. Stop doubting yourself and really push yourself to become all that you aspire to be."