The 22-year-old, who has been competing in pageants since she was 17, said her life changed forever at the age of 10 when her dad was incarcerated.
The new Miss USA winner Asya Branch, the first Black representative from Mississippi to win the title, wants to use her crown to push for prison reform.
The 22-year-old, who has been competing in pageants since she was 17, said her life changed forever at the age of 10 when her dad was incarcerated after being charged with conspiracy to commit robbery and kidnapping. She said that because of it, she had to grow up quickly to help her mother care for her two younger siblings. Her dad spent ten years in prison. Now, she hopes to fight to help change the prison system.
"I think that people forget about the family that's left behind after a parent or guardian becomes incarcerated,” Branch told CBS News. "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.”
Branch had previously launched an initiative called Finding Your Way: Empowering Children of Incarcerated Parents. As part of that project, she has an effort called “Love Letters,” which donates stationery to inmates so they can write with their families. She told the news station she hopes to bring the program nationwide during her reign as Miss USA. Branch said her activism is healing for her.
"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."
She wants her story to show children you can do anything you want, no matter your background, and that is a message she thinks is especially important for children of incarcerated parents.
“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.
Branch also plans to continue advocating for the abolishment of mandatory sentencing, which many activists consider a proponent of mass incarceration. She expressed hopes to meet with President-elect Joe Biden on the matter.
"Just like no two people are the same, no two crimes are the same and they shouldn't be treated as such," said Branch.
She hopes her new role helps her to set a role for young minority girls and to see diversity normalized.
"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."