At 15-years-old Jamira Burley reduced the violence rate at her West Philadelphia high school by 30 percent. Her successful anti-violence program was then incorporated into the most dangerous schools in her area. Over a decade later, Burley still believes that there is no age requirement to change the world.
The White House (under the Obama administration) recognized Burley as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change and she was named a Forbes 30 Under 30 honoree in law and policy. In 2018, Burley was the first United States citizen awarded the Global Leadership Award for Vital Voices and selected as an MIT Media Lab Fellow.
Today, Burley consults with public/private companies and organizations on how to authentically engage impacted communities. She also hosts a show on SiriusXM, titled HSTRYRemastered where she and leading youth/young adult experts reexamine this country’s history and the reemerging of past conflicts, to create real change through solution-driven dialogue.
Even still, if you ask Burley what her biggest accomplishment is she’ll tell you it’s becoming the first among her 15 siblings to graduate from high school. The early stages of her activism work began during that time. Never forgetting how she started, it’s evolved into helping youth activists develop their own voice in the space.
Her Agenda: It looks like your career started at the age of 15 when you created an anti-violence program, Panther Peace Corps, in your high school. What advice can you give to young activists who want to create change locally in their own schools/backyards?
Jamira Burley: The ideology that I live by is that there is no age requirement to change the world. I always tell young people that it’s better to start small to really figure out what’s happening locally, what they uniquely can bring to help solve that problem, and then create sustainable change within their community at a localized level versus thinking it has to be national or international.
Her Agenda: Did you see any young activists at that time that were doing something similar to what you were doing?
Jamira Burley: There was no one I knew personally, but through the process of learning more about the Civil Rights Movement and those who were leaders within that space, I learned about Claudette Colvin. She was a 15-year-old girl who was the first person to refuse to give up her seat on the bus. In learning and experiencing how imperfect she was in her ability to use such a moment to bring awareness to a much bigger issue, I was inspired. It made me realize that I could still be impactful even if I was 15 years old at the time.
Her Agenda: You recently shared a powerful video on Now This News where you said, America has been waging a war against Black communities “from cradle to cell to casket.” What do you think the people can do or continue doing to avoid this “life sentence”?
Jamira Burley: It’s easy for us to think about how we work to gain access and move through levels of success individually. But what I was trying to get across in that op-ed is that it’s so hard to do so with all of the roadblocks. If you actually make it out, you are often the exception to the norm. When I share my story people are like, ‘oh you pulled yourself up out of your boot straps.’ The reality is, no I didn’t. Every single step of the way there were women who held the door open to me, who gave me opportunities, who lended their credibility to me. It was by a stroke of luck that enabled me to reach the level of success that I have.
Every single step of the way there were women who held the door open to me, who gave me opportunities, who lended their credibility to me.
So for young people who are trying to figure how they navigate that: I would say figure out what you’re passionate about. What is your purpose and what are the values that really represent who you are as an individual? How do you hone the skills that you have and how do you hone your story? That way when opportunities present themselves you’re ready for them. Yes, you should be proactive and seek out opportunities and explore ways to get engaged and explore ways to better yourself. But 90% of the opportunities that I’ve ever been given are because people saw something in me, they saw me doing the work, and they recommended me or they made me aware of an opportunity. And so it’s really hard as young people, particularly young people of color, particularly as women of color, to try to navigate this landscape when there are literally entire governmental systems set up to make you fail. But the goal is to know who you are, the values you have, hone your unique skills. And that’s how you enable yourself to be as ready as you can when opportunities present themselves.
Her Agenda: What were some of those values or skills you saw in yourself or other people saw in you to help get you into this career?
Jamira Burley: At the core people saw that I wasn’t just trying to make change for myself. I wanted to better my community. I wanted to ensure that young people who look like me didn’t have to experience death, poverty, and homelessness. I’m a firm believer that individuals are the experts of their own experience and so I’ve tried to create pathways for people to share who they are to the world, to add texture to the real-life issues that we’re facing in our community – beyond just individual statistics of this amount of Black women are impacted by rape or this amount of young men are impacted by gun violence. No, who are the faces, what are the stories, who are the people? They understood that I was trying to create something that was not just about a moment, but really a movement of young people who could be the voice for their own selves to transform the world around us.
I’m a firm believer that individuals are the experts of their own experience and so I’ve tried to create pathways for people to share who they are to the world, to add texture to the real-life issues that we’re facing in our community – beyond just individual statistics.
Her Agenda: With the current movements and your background in gun violence and criminal justice, what projects are you working on to continue sharing insight on the change we all need to see in our communities and the whole country?
Jamira Burley: I’m so inspired by this moment because a lot of it is being led by new voices. Many of them are extremely young and operate under this ideology of ‘why not?’ I continue to do this work no longer from a lens of ‘I’m a youth voice’ but as a lens of ‘I am a supporter of youth voices.’ [Young people] have the new ideas that are going to create the change that we all need. I see myself as a connector and a resource provider to help them to create the world that they think needs to exist.
Her Agenda: You kind of went from being the voice to enact change and now you’re lending that voice to young people.
Jamira Burley: If I’m honest with myself, it’s what other women did for me. They lended their credibility so that I could be at the table. I think too often when leaders of the movement become elders, they become afraid to give up that power. And for me I only feel more empowered when I’m able to share that with other young people who want to enter this space and actually do real work.
Her Agenda: You grew up seeing 10 of your older brothers and your parents being incarcerated. Have there been any projects you’ve worked on that made you feel like you did their circumstances justice?
Jamira Burley: To this day when people ask me what my greatest accomplishment is, it would probably be graduating from high school. I was the first in my family to do so. I say that not for myself, but because it created a new reality for my younger siblings where they also saw themselves being able to do the same thing, and they did. One of the things I struggle with is that I grew up in a very poor community, in a very poor household, where my family was deeply involved with the criminal justice system. Now I find myself in a place of extreme privilege. The spaces that I’ve been, the people I’ve been able to meet, the places in the world I’ve been able to go to has given me insight into this world of privilege. Now I find myself in between those two worlds and not really fitting into either. I will not consider myself successful until I can move my community out of the circumstances in which they live. I’m not successful until my family and my community is successful.
Her Agenda: The very system that should be protecting Black and Brown communities makes them feel vulnerable and unsafe. What do you think safety would look like in these communities?
Jamira Burley: I want us to reimagine safety. I want us to recognize that police do not make Black and Brown folks feel safe. What safety looks like for me and my community has to be a reinvestment of our tax dollars into actual systems that are going to provide pathways for folks to get jobs, to get access to resources, and to get mental health access. That is recognizing when folks are dealing with drug addiction that they shouldn’t be automatically incarcerated. They should actually seek mental health access. So it really is a reinvestment in communities, it’s taking back those resources and putting it into places that will have a much more substantial and long-term implication for communities of color. That looks at communities of color not as a problem, but as a community valued to our overarching country. There’s so much potential, so many young people who can add so much to the world. But because they don’t have the opportunity and are constantly faced with violence outside their front door, they will never be able to reach their full potential until we create a better world in which they can exist in.
I want us to reimagine safety. I want us to recognize that police do not make Black and Brown folks feel safe. What safety looks like for me and my community has to be a reinvestment of our tax dollars into actual systems that are going to provide pathways for folks to get jobs, to get access to resources, and to get mental health access.
Her Agenda: You have worked with corporations, nonprofits, and government leaders to better engage impacted communities. Have you noticed any mistakes organizations have made when trying to achieve that goal?
Jamira Burley: Organizations and companies like to project something publicly that they are not internally mimicking. They’re advocating for human rights externally, yet their employees are fearing their workspace. They are working in very toxic environments and their human rights are not being upheld. Or it’s very surface level – you have companies writing one-off checks to organizations (oftentimes national organizations) and it’s not trickling down to local communities. As someone who now works with companies around how they can better engage impacted communities, I always ask them to think about what they can offer beyond monetary compensation. A lot of these companies have so much technology, insight, and talent that can really help communities improve the conditions that they live in. I also ask them to really think about who they are listening to, who the communities they’re engaging with are, and what stories they are listening to beyond a level of empathy. So it’s definitely internalizing what you’re offering externally to the world around your policies and practices. It’s making deeper investments beyond one-off checks. And then it’s ensuring that they’re listening to authentic voices from the communities that they’re trying to engage.
There’s so much potential, so many young people who can add so much to the world. But because they don’t have the opportunity and are constantly faced with violence outside their front door, they will never be able to reach their full potential until we create a better world in which they can exist in.
Her Agenda: Your activism work spans over 15 years and it seems that all of the injustices you have been fighting against are just now coming to light. How has that made you feel?
Jamira Burley: A part of me is definitely frustrated. When I was 15 asking people to care about Black folks and asking people to look at gun violence in urban communities as a systematic problem, it wasn’t sexy. I wasn’t given the huge checks by people like Oprah. I wasn’t given a pathway to have a national speech or summit on the Washington Mall. But I am empowered, I am inspired that over the years the work that each and every one of us has done for so long is finally coming to fruition and it’s being taken seriously on the national stage. So I could continue to live with a level of bitterness, but it goes back to recognizing that this is not about me. It’s about the people who are still suffering, who are still dying, the communities that are still losing who they are and the potential that they could be. So I am both sad it took this long because people died in the process, but I’m also hopeful that we have reached a new level of consciousness where we’re not just going to go back to things as usual.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]