Transforming Pain into Power

Jamira Burley

Jamira Burley is being honored as a Gun Violence Prevention Champion of Change.

We live in a world that constantly tells young people that "we are the future," and in doing so, we forget about the contribution that youth can make right now. However, young people can’t make that immediate or eventual difference if there are endless barriers to their success.

Since the murder of my brother Andre in 2005, I have worked to prevent other young people from experiencing the same adversities that I didwhether that means training the next generation of city leaders through my job at the Philadelphia Youth Commission, or meeting with members of Congress regarding comprehensive gun reform.

My whole life, I was surrounded by people who couldn’t see beyond their own zip code; people who didn’t know how to be more because no one in their family ever was. That is why I am honored and appreciative to be selected as a White House Champion of Change for Gun Violence Prevention. I accept this recognition not for myself but for every person who stands beside me in this work. We recognize that everyone is affected by gun violence and if we’re going to prevent another young person from losing his or her life to the barrel of a gun, we have to work together.

Nine years ago I didn’t choose this work, it chose me. I like to think that I was a pretty normal student. Like many, I faced my own share of adversities, but nothing I thought I couldn’t handle—even after the repeat incarcerations of both my parents and all 10 of my older brothers. That is, until I received a phone call that changed not only the way I viewed the world, but also my place within it.

My brother Andre was murdered one month before his 21st birthday. Since Andre’s murder, stories like his continue to happen every single day in America. Stories in which young people are dying before they are even old enough to vote; where the price of leaving your home may be death. Our streets are becoming battlegroundswe have made kid soldiers out of our youth, criminals out of the disadvantaged and funeral attendees out of all of us.

Thirty-four Americans die every day because of guns. Guns are becoming more accessible than textbooks and supermarkets. Yet we continue to serve them up to the unfit and unqualified, resulting in mass murders and mass shootings. So I ask: what can and must be done?

Shortly after the Sandy Hook school shooting, as a member of the Roosevelt Institute, Millennial Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, we developed a list of policy recommendations addressing gun violence in America. I also have the privilege of helping to lead the Philadelphia youth engagement strategy for the National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention and Cities United. Cities United is an initiative created by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, with a goal to reduce the homicide rate for black men and boys. Through this work, Cities United has partnered with more than 50 different mayors, foundations and federal agencies across the country.

My brother’s death set the foundation for the work that I devote my life to, but I also recognize that this is bigger than Andre. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and allow gun lobbyists to place band-aids on gunshot wounds. The time for change is now. The body count continues to rise. Gravesites don’t lie and bullets end lives, but we can change that; we can do something about it.

Jamira Burley is the Executive Director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. She is also a member of the United Nations Global Education First Initiative, Youth Advocacy Group and co-founder of GenYnot.

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