Over the past few months we've been working to “Increase the Peace” by highlighting youth activists who are doing their part to combat gun violence in our country. We've shown you how Snoop Lion is using jewelry to repurpose weapons and how D-Real works to keep kids off the streets through dance. Now we’d like to introduce you to Jamira Burley, the 24-year-old who overcame tremendous odds and personal loss to get where she is today.
Burley, one of 16 children, was introduced to the dark side of Philadelphia at an early age. After she lost her brother to gun violence, she became determined to help eliminate the problem from her community. Now she’s serving as the executive director for the City of Philadelphia Youth Commission, and she’s working to help Philly’s youth live better lives.
To find out more about her work with the PYC and how she hopes to end gun violence in Philadelphia, check out the interview below:
ACT: You're a Philadelphia native. Do you remember seeing a lot of gun violence in your city when you were growing up?
JAMIRA: The amount of friends and loved ones lost over the years is unexplainable, but gun violence for me became that much more of a reality in 2005 when my 20-year-old brother was shot and killed by one of his friends. As a result of that, I became more engaged with thinking of ways that I can help eliminate the problem (of gun violence) from my community.
ACT: How did you go from being the first one of the 16 children in your family to graduate college to serving as the executive director for the City of Philadelphia Youth Commission at just 24 years old?
JAMIRA: Growing up with 10 older brothers and me being the first girl, I was surrounded by drugs, violence and incarceration. By the time I was 16 years old, I had watched both of my parents and all 10 of my older brothers become repeat offenders. In 2005, when my brother was murdered, which happened to be the same year I found out my father had been convicted of murder in Virginia, I knew the life I was born into wasn't the one I wanted to live any longer. So at 17, I went to live with an older cousin and later my aunt, both of whom helped to provide me with the direction I needed to build a life I was proud of.
I was hired as the executive director of the Youth Commission a few weeks before graduating from Temple University. I have previous experience working in this capacity because of my six years at the School District of Philadelphia and my work with a number of local and national youth organizations.
Photo: (Burley with Vice President Joe Biden)
ACT: Can you tell us a little about the PYC?
JAMIRA: The PYC is a city commission housed under the mayor’s office; it’s made up of young people between the ages of 12 and 23 years old. There are 21 commissioners — 17 are appointed by city council members and four are appointed by the mayor. The mission of the commission is to help represent the nearly 600,000 young people in Philadelphia and make sure that young people are always at the table when decisions about them are being made. We work with the city, nonprofits, community organizations and private entities to develop strategies to improve the lives of Philadelphia’s youth. The Commission serves as a conduit for youth action no matter a young person’s background. The Commission also advises the mayor, city council, Philadelphia public schools and other key decision makers inside and outside of city government.
ACT: Why do you think it's important for young people to get involved in speaking out against gun violence?
JAMIRA: To be honest, I don’t think the problem is young people not speaking out about gun violence because I have met people across the country who are standing up and creating solutions. I think the problem is making sure that politicians and mainstream media are listening to their concern and are using it as a blueprint to advise how we decrease gun violence before we lose another person to the barrel of a gun.
ACT: For those young activists in Philly who want to get involved, what organizations should they check out?
JAMIRA: Philadelphia Youth Commission (www.phila.gov/youthcommission), Youth United for Change (http://www.youthunitedforchange.org/), Philly Core Leaders (http://www.phillycoreleaders.com/) and Young Involved Philadelphia (http://www.younginvolvedphila.org/).
ACT: For those of us around the country who want to get involved, what are some specific ways we can take action? Can you recommend some national organizations we should look up?
JAMIRA: The Roosevelt Institution's Millennial Gun Violence Prevention Task Force (http://www.scribd.com/doc/120428543/Millennial-Gun-Violence-Prevention-Task-Force), Young People For (http://www.youngpeoplefor.org/), Generation Alliance (http://www.generationalliance.com/) and League of Young Voters (http://youngvoter.org/).
ACT: What is your hope regarding gun violence in Philadelphia? In the United States?
JAMIRA: My short-term hope for gun violence in Philadelphia and around the country is that we stop looking at this issue as “us vs. them,” “black vs. white,” “right vs. left” or even “young vs. old.” We are all affected by the loss of even one person to gun violence, and we can no longer stand divided in the face of people who are losing their lives to something we can all prevent.
Long term, I hope that we are able to develop solutions that don't limit a person’s right to bear arms but also doesn't take away someone’s else right to live a long, healthy life. I've been working with the Millennial Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, organized by the Roosevelt Institution, and we came up with a series of recommendations.
Now, this is by no means going to solve all of our problems with gun violence, but I think it’s a step in the right direction toward making sure that we are no longer a country held at gun point.
Increase The Peace is an ongoing series dedicated to celebrating young people who are coming up with creative ways to fight gun violence. For more on the series and the MTVxCaliber efforts, visit Increase The Peace.