Jamira Burley

You just moved to New York about five months ago. How has the city impacted you?

Living in Harlem was a deliberate decision on my part. Having lived in DC for two years and being surrounded mostly by white people, I felt like to get my head on straight and re-evaluate how I showed up in spaces, I needed to be around Black people who get it and understand how much work we need to do in order to protect people who look like us. I think the impact has been amazing, because I feel much more centered in my purpose and much more connected to my roots.

What are your responsibilities in the role that brought you here, Head of Youth Engagement and Skills at the Global Business Coalition for Education?

I work with a wide range of actors including corporate leaders, leaders of traditional institutions like the UN, UNESCO & UNICEF and young people to try to forge a new reality around workforce development. Data suggests more than 50 to 80 percent of the jobs we're currently training young people for will not exist by the time they enter the workforce. My job is to help these stakeholders in authentic collaboration, re-evaluate what the research currently says and then create new models and modules for what the business community can do to be more invested in workforce development long term.

What are some of the barriers that you and your counterparts face in achieving that goal?

Largely the conversation on education has just been about access. It hasn't really been around quality and it hasn't been around what it means to have life-long learning. Politicians, both locally and around the world, recognize that more than 200 million young people still can’t access basic education. Coupling that with thinking about quality and technology is overwhelming for most people. So, one of the biggest barriers is just trying to get them to understand the sense of urgency and that a basic education is not good enough at a time when technology is changing and jobs are becoming obsolete.  

The second challenge is we often lack the political will for politicians and advocates to understand the benefits of education. If I was working in the health field, it would be easy for me to correlate an amount of money with an amount of vaccines and people that are going to be cured. In education, you don’t see the benefits for years, if not a generation, but data tells us that when you educate a child they’re more likely to be fruitful and helpful and less likely to have incidents of violence.

How do you and those that you partner with work to circumvent these barriers?

We circumvent them by bringing young people to the table and allowing them to share their stories. Not in a tokenized fashion, but really to ensure that they are part of the entire process: 1. raising the call to action for why it's important, 2. developing these new ideas for how to better engage their peers and 3. designing what education looks like for not only for themselves but also for the future.

How does today's current political climate impact what it means to protect the vision of what education should be, in terms of shaping children positively and properly equipping them to achieve in an ever-evolving world?

For the last five to ten years, conversation on education has been around technical skills, but what we are talking about today is how do we teach young people how to be critical thinkers? How do we teach young people how to be creative and to appreciate the arts? How do we teach them how to be compassionate with each other? I think that that is a reflection of what's happening around the world. If we can couple the ideology of universal compassion for everyday people that is lacking today, with creative thinking, what it means to be a global citizen and the traditional ideology around education (reading, writing and math), we can create better citizens to move our countries and our world forward. Until then we’re going to see this kind of breakdown of systems where people are feeling like their own lives are at risk and not looking at the bigger picture of how policy impacts a wide range of people from all walks of life. It’s not just about you or your family.


Diving into your personal experience in the political realm, you worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign as Deputy National Millennial Vote Director. What do you miss most about in that space?

I miss being part of a culture that understands young peoples' voices matter, that we need to think more critically about how we engage them and we must recognize the multitude of their identities as well as corresponding layers. Young people rarely have a seat at the table for their ideas to be taken seriously. The campaign of the first woman to receive a nomination from a major party for president created jobs for millennials, and not just in my department of millennial outreach, but in every single department to bring forth perspective. More campaigns and places of power, particularly in politics, need to incorporate young people from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences to provide some texture to the issues we hear about in the news all the time.

Can you share your background and how it shaped the woman that you are today?

I think the reason why I fight for young people, particularly marginalized youth, is because I felt my entire childhood people weren't listening to me. When they were listening to me, it enabled me to transform not only my community, but also transform any expectations people had, for people who look like me and those with my background. I grew up in a very violent environment where it wasn't a surprise your people got locked up or got shot. Watching so many of my relatives, my brothers specifically, get incarcerated, I realized the power of education and the power of incorporating the thoughts and concerns of young people to enable us to make realistic change.

My driving force every single day is recognizing that someone gave me a chance, an opportunity that was never meant for me. Not saying I didn't deserve it, but it was not for me under the current systems and institutions derived from oppressing people that look like us. Now it's my time to create space and opportunity for other young people so they don't have the experience the same kind of oppression or incarceration or violence in their livelihood.

What do you consider to be your proudest moment?

I was the first in my family to graduate high school and go on to college. Now my two little sisters have graduated from high school and are in trade school. It was one thing for me to achieve a certain level of success but through that my sisters also realized they could do and be more. I’ve been most proud when I recognized that my actions help change how others thought about themselves.

We share a love of travel.  What's value do you think experiencing different parts of the world adds to your life?

Travel has been an outlet for me but also a reminder of both the benefits and crippling potential of being an American. We assume what we’re going through is the best or worst possible scenario. I’ve learned in traveling there are people in much worse situations and the work I do has to go beyond these borders. I’ve become a much more conscious and inclusive person because of travel. I gained a better sense of how much history has been influenced by forces outside of Europe. It has shaped how I interact with and treat people because I realize our stories are so much more tied together than separate.

Of all the places you have visited, which was your favorite?

Ethiopia. I was traveling back from Rwanda and my connecting flight was cancelled with the next flight not being for another 36 hours. Figuring this may be our only time in Ethiopia, we decided to explore the next day and that 24 hours changed my life. One of the biggest struggles for African Americans is that we can’t point to a spot on a map that we’re from. After a year and a half of being consistently asked if I was Ethiopian while living in DC and only being able to say I wish I was. It was amazing to be told that I looked Ethiopian while there and to be called sister. It felt like coming home in a sense.

What is on the horizon for you?

One cool thing about New York is that you can literally do whatever you want to. While I’m here, I’m going to try to do everything I’ve ever had a passion for and a least say I tried. The next year and a half is really about taking risks. Whether that’s radio hosting or taking an improv class, just experiencing the moment versus letting fear get in the way.

How do you stay motivated and also just take care of yourself as you strive to achieve your goals?

I stay motivated, and humble, by keeping a very authentic set of people around me, particularly my friends. It’s helpful to me to be surrounded by a group doing dope shit but that can have fun, cry with you and also be willing to listen to your rant session as what's happening around the world. So I say to anyone, try to find your tribe. My friends remind me that there are good moments that occur even through moments of tragedy.