JAMIRA BURLEY

Youth Activist & Co-Founder of Gen Y Not|2018 Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards Nominee

Walk me through your journey from the age of 15, the experience you had with gun violence and how you came to this point today.

I grew up in an environment where for many people it was normal to see individuals go to jail or to get shot by gun violence. And it wasn't until my 20 year old brother Andre was shot and killed in Philadelphia did I realize that although these things are normal, to some extent, that didn't make it right. And so I was empowered by the adults in my life, particularly my principal and my mentor, to develop an initiative or an idea that can help to transform how those who are impacted by gun violence or different forms of violence could actually heal, but also take the power back.

 

We created the Panther Peace Corps, which was an anti-violence program, peer mediation program where we trained high school students how to be peer violence interrupters. And that allowed young people to really feel like they were a part of the solution and not just the problem. Since then, I continue to put young people at the center of change, whether it's working on initiatives around gun violence or criminal justice reform or even around education, which should be vital and it should be accessible to all students around the world. And my job is to ensure that young people are at the table when decisions about them are being made, especially around a range of issues that directly impact them.

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It's interesting to hear you say that in some communities what you just talked about is considered almost normal. I'm a mom and to hear that I say, woah, wait a minute, that's not normal. That should never be considered normal. Talk to me a little bit more about what that was like for you because you're one of 16 siblings and you're the one who stood up at such a young age and said, "I can't let this happen anymore. And because partly that catalyst to that was what happened to your brother.

I think oftentimes people, in particular communities like mine, feel such a sense of hopelessness. They've been suffering for so long. They've been impacted by a range of different issues for so long. And for my family in particular, I have family members. 13 of my brothers have all been incarcerated. Both of my parents had been incarcerated and so watching that happen at a young age, I almost assumed that my trajectory through life would be incarceration.

 

And with the death of my brother, it was a moment for me to realize that if no one else was going to change what was happening in my community, then I had to be that change agent, even if I didn't have a lot of money, even if I couldn't vote, I had to do what I could do from my point and place in the world. And that was working with young people and ensuring that they could create solutions that could transform how their peers, how their families and how their communities dealt with trauma in a way that was actually conducive to healing and reconciliation.

 

And I think for me, since the start of that work, I've just become more passionate about young people because oftentimes they have no control over the zip code they were born into or the family that they have. But what they can control is how they respond, how they act and what their contribution is to the world.

Take me back to that time because how is it that you at age 15 realized that you could get yourself out of this - and how realized you could be that agent for change for youth that are dealing with the same situation.

I remember a mentor telling me once, you could either be a victim or you could be a survivor. And as a stubborn 15 year old with 10 older brothers who was constantly feeling like people were making decisions about my life, I grabbed onto that moment and really thought about, well, I want to be a survivor. I want to ensure that no one else feels the pain, the anger, the helplessness that I felt as a 15 year old.

 

And I didn't know what I wanted to be when I grew up; up until I was 15 years old, all I knew is that I didn't want to be hungry, I didn't want to live paycheck to paycheck. But unfortunately with the death of my brother, it gave me a purpose to realize I could take this moment and really decide something different from my own trajectory, but also use it as an example to other young people who feel like no one is experiencing what they're experiencing, no one is going through what they're going through, but showing them there is a community of people who have went through similar situations and we have survived and we have thrived and we have contributed to society in a way that, hopefully big and small, we've changed someone's life.

We are the generation, we are young people, we have great ideas where we have energy, we have passion, we care about these issues. Why not? Why can't we do that then? Why can't we run for office? Why can't we raise money for an issue?

                                  

-jamira burley

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You're creating this community of hope, of possibility. Tell me about Gen Y NOT.

Gen Y NOT was created under the ideology of oftentimes we put limitations on young people. We say, you're not old enough or you don't have a lot of money or you can't vote, and Gen Y NOT was really created to say, well, why not? We are the generation, we are young people, we have great ideas where we have energy, we have passion, we care about these issues. Why not? Why can't we do that then? Why can't we run for office? Why can't we raise money for an issue?

 

And so we really want it to tell the stories of young people around the world who are dealing with similar issues but are separated by borders, that are separated by religion, that are separated by culture, and really show the intersectionality of all these issues and how systems - larger systems than we ever had the power to control are actually deciding the courses of our lives and how can we be more innovative, how can we be more compassionate, how can we be more aware in working with people across borders to actually alleviate that pain and suffering.

There's a lot happening right now in our country - with gun violence, a lot of issues with youth and race, we could go on and on. It's a tough time. Do you feel that there is, especially with what you're doing, it couldn't have come at a better time.

I think what's happening with the US and also around the world, young people in pockets and communities are doing transformative work and I think what's different about this population than past generations is the sense of intersectionality, right? It's the sense of "yeah, I'm impacted by this issue, but how is this issue also impacting marginalized communities who don't have the same platform, don't have the same resources?"

 

And I think this generation particularly is thinking about how do they work across sectors, across issues to really help elevate those issues and create better solutions for all communities and not just a chosen few. So I'm inspired by this population. I'm inspired by the young people who are coming after me because I think they're utilizing the tools of my generation and past generations to set the standards for how we treat each other in a way that's never been done before.

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What's the challenge? What are you challenging them to do today? Now?

It's not what I'm challenging young people, it's what I'm challenging adults. I think there is something innocent and amazing and transformative about young people and really a sense of fearlessness and I think we lose it as we get older, and I think we lose it as we kind of funnel through these institutions or systems that either are supposed to educate us or govern us.

 

And my challenge for adults is, find a way to cultivate that energy that young people possess, that passion, that sense of responsibility - and not squash it because I think that will create great leaders for the future and not these cookie cutter robot leaders who haven't served any of us well in the past.

Can I show off about you a little bit? First of 16 siblings to graduate high school and college, youngest leader in Philadelphia for the Youth Commission, White House Champion of Change. What is next for Jamira?

What is next for me? I don't know. Oftentimes, I think that my success isn't in any award that I get, but if I meet a young person who says that my story resonated with them, that they saw themselves in my story or that I created an opportunity for them to also share their story to a community that was welcoming, then I think that is my version of success.

Describe a moment that you felt powerful in all that you've done in your life.

A moment that I felt powerful is when I was selected by the general secretary Ban Ki-Moon, who was the United Nations General Secretary, for the youth advocacy group. And I felt powerful in that moment because I was entrusted with the ability to identify young leaders around the world, train them to be advocates in their country and to help elevate their stories on a global level. And I think that responsibility sits with me very deeply because I can't get their stories wrong.

 

I think it's really important that the issues that we're facing are layered with stories and ideas and impact and faces. And so I feel powerful when I'm able to create space for young people who normally aren't invited to the table, and kind of open doors for them to enable them to create change. And I know that power has come through my years of experience, particularly the more than 15 years that I've been in this work. And so, if I can provide some level of legitimacy or access to young people then I feel somewhat powerful, if I can give them the power back.