The Friday before Halloween 2005, Jamira Burley walked to Overbrook High School like every other day. She went to her classes and ate lunch with friends like every other day. When her cousin picked her up from school and stared at Jamira’s blank face like she was crazy, Jamira realized she couldn’t keep pretending this day was like every other.
Earlier that morning, Jamira’s 19-year-old brother Andre had been murdered at the hands of a friend he trusted.
Youth violence wasn’t a new concept to Jamira, who had grown up in some of the worst Philadelphia neighborhoods.
But as one of 16 children, Jamira was protected by her 10 older brothers and always came inside when the streetlights turned on. Only two years older than Jamira, Andre had been like a father figure, teaching her to ride her first bike and climb trees.
Jamira was in complete shock, refusing to believe reality until seeing Andre’s casket at the funeral. For a time, she lost her faith in God, sharing bitter and angry rants with the school counselor.
Then it clicked. The streetlights came on, and instead of going inside, Jamira went out to stop the problems that were destroying her neighborhood.
She met with Principal Ethelyn Payne Young and other students at Overbrook, and they developed the Panther Peace Core, an organization that teaches students nonviolent ways to deal with conflict.
Photo courtesy of Kelly & Massa
Jamira was inspired to further empower young people and became a mayoral appointee and chairwoman of the Philadelphia Youth Commission. She is also a governor’s appointee to the Commission on Children and Family, as well as vice president of the SEPTA Youth Advisory Council.
Now 22 years old, Jamira recently earned the opportunity to grace a powerful stage at the 2010 Campus Progress National Conference in Washington, D.C.
After submitting an online video about the political and social change she wants to deliver, Jamira was selected as one of three students nationwide to speak to 1,500 young people in July about preventing youth violence and promoting education.
Although she gets nervous every time she speaks in public, Jamira takes the opportunity to honor Andre, whom she describes as “the life of the party, always the one to make people laugh and feel included.”
Jamira is the first in her family to graduate high school and go to college. She uses her education as a proactive example for her six younger brothers and sisters to know that they shouldn’t settle for less.
“When Andre died, a lot of people wanted vengeance,” she said. “But I realized I could help somebody who may have the same situation and try to change the direction of hate.”
- Julie Achilles
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