As the new executive director of the city’s Youth Commission, Jamira Burley hopes to engage both young people and adults in a conversation about the future of Philadelphia’s youth — bridging a generation gap that seems to be growing, to make the city and the lives of its young people better.
“There is no longer a village raising a child. A lot of young people in Philadelphia are raising themselves. Adults nowadays don’t realize the plight of young people,” Burley said. “They think they’re doing enough, but they’re not doing it the right way, so there are no results. There are a lot of genuine adults out there who care about youth but, unfortunately, they don’t know how to engage them.”
Keeping kids engaged is crucial to their success, she said.
“When people realize they’re being heard, they’re more likely to stay engaged,” she said.
Burley refuses to speak in sound bites and says others of her generation won’t be influenced by words — only by actions.
“This generation is not keen on catch phrases. They’re not swayed by words — they’re swayed by actions,” she said, noting that many adults talk but don’t follow through, particularly community leaders.
“They are so content with where they are that they’re afraid to let someone come behind them. Most people need to realize that when you empower a young person it doesn’t take anything from you,” she said. “You have to train the next generation of leaders; otherwise who is going to lead when you’re gone?”
Her advice to adults is “take a step back and listen, and consider how [young persons’] experiences impact the way they view the world.”
Burley started her new job as the executive director of the city’s Youth Commission on May 14.
The 23-year-old has taken all that a rough and tumble city like Philadelphia could throw at her and managed to overcome it.
“She is a role model in her family and throughout the community. I am confident that she will represent the values and priorities of Philadelphia’s young people,” said Mayor Michael Nutter.
The eleventh of 16 siblings, she grew up in Germantown and attended schools all over the city before graduating from Overbrook in 2007. Burley admits that for most of her time in school she was a poor student. Dyslexia made learning to read difficult. In the fourth grade she was reading at a first grade level. And, though he managed to improve, she entered her freshman year of high schools with F’s.
“My mom never went to high school, so sometimes bringing home homework was difficult,” Burley said.
Life at home was difficult.
Her father, who left the city to return to his native Virginia when Burley was a child, was in and out of jail. So was her mother and several of her brothers.
“My earliest memory in childhood was 5 years old, being in a courtroom watching two of my brothers being sentenced for murder. They were 15 and 16 at the time,” she said. “Watching that and my other brothers and both my parents go down that road made me realize in my neighborhood people kill or get killed — and you start to live the lifestyle that is projected in your neighborhood.”
The 2005 killing of another of her brothers forced Burley to re-evaluate some of the choices she’d made. By the time she graduated high school, a rarity in her family, she’d turned her life around.
She credits a string of mentors with helping her.
“At every segment of my life, I’ve come across someone who’s willing to take me under their wing,” she said.
It’s hard to say exactly how they influenced her. Some helped her iron out her reading skills, others assisted with college applications and the paperwork needed to get the $50,000 in scholarships Burley received when she enrolled at Temple University.
Others were just there.
“I started to realize that there was a life different from what I grew up with. There were people who were doing amazing work; people who looked like me — people who came from the same neighborhood I came from. So, for me it was just being exposed to those realities and life outside my zip code, my four block radius,” she said. “When you’re exposed to so much more, the idea of your possibilities and what you can do changes and expands.”
Before her horizons started to expand, she couldn’t see any further than the end of the block. It limited her entire outlook.
“If you’re used to people who only do drugs or get arrested that’s what you think is possible for you,” she said.
It’s a situation faced by many of the city’s 600,000 young people and one Burley hopes to change.
“A lot of it has to do with changing a young person’s perspective,” she said. “If you have a young person who doesn’t think they’re going to live past the age of 25, or much past 21, they don’t care much for the next person’s life. How do you make them think they have a future? That’s the biggest challenge.”
Burley is a perfect example of what can be achieved.
In May, she graduated with a dual bachelor’s degree in international business and legal studies.
Already, she’s thinking about going back to school for a degree in public policy.
“I actually want to work developing policy around youth development issues,” she said.
Asked if she’s optimistic about the city’s youth, Burley pauses.
“I’m very optimistic because young people are resilient. They will go through some of the worst experiences that people can go through and can’t even imagine and they are resilient,” she said, adding: “It’s really sad that young people don’t have the luxury of being optimistic … I know what I’ve done.”
The new director comes to the job with the blessing of her predecessor state Representative-elect Jordan Harris.
“I believe Jamira has what it takes,” he said. “With the issues of youth violence, education and unemployment and other facing our city’s young people, the Youth Commission is more important than ever.”
The Youth Commission is a panel of 21 young Philadelphians between the ages of 12 and 23 appointed by the mayor and City Council. There are currently seven vacant seats on the commission so Burley’s immediate task is to try and fill those vacancies. Commissioners offer recommendations and advice to the mayor and City Council on legislation and policies that affect youth and young adults.