Burley, 23, earned a bachelor's degree in business and legal studies from Temple University last week. She is the first in her family to graduate from college.
This week her life took another major turn when Mayor Nutter appointed her executive director of the Philadelphia Youth Commission, a post that will allow her to continue to be an advocate for young people.
"One thing I want to do is establish a network where the Philadelphia Youth Commission is a buffer between youth organizations and city government to create an outlet for young people to not only have their voices heard but to move forward and create programs to benefit young people throughout the city," she said.
The commission, which Burley describes as a mini-city council, advises the mayor and City Council on legislation and policies that affect the city's youth. The 21-member group, launched in 2006, is appointed by elected officials. The commission also creates public-service programs to improve the lives of young people, she said. Burley replaces Jordan Harris, who held the position for two years before leaving to run for state representative late last year.
Everett Gillison, deputy mayor for public safety, said Burley's resumé stood out among the 90 that were submitted for the $46,000-a-year position. "She's the best candidate for the job. That's why we hired her," Gillison said.
Nutter, in a statement, hailed Burley as a dynamic young leader. "She is a role model in her family and throughout the community," Nutter said. "I am confident that she will represent the values and priorities of Philadelphia's young people."
A graduate of West Philadelphia's Overbrook High School, Burley describes herself as a "citizen of the city."
"I grew up in a lot of different areas. When I was younger we moved a lot," said Burley, who was raised in a struggling family that has lived in North Philadelphia, Germantown, Olney, and West Philadelphia.
Burley speaks guardedly of her parents. She said that her father is serving a life sentence for murder in Virginia and that her mother lives in Philadelphia. Two of her brothers spent more than a decade in prison after being involved in a robbery in their teens, she said.
Before becoming executive director of the Youth Commission, Burley was a member of the group. She also has served as a national coordinator of the five-year-old Student Peace Alliance. The Washington-based advocacy group works to promote "evidence-based legislation and policy to reduce violence and promote peace." The group is part of the National Peace Alliance, which supports peace initiatives nationwide and abroad.
Burley has been a national spokeswoman, traveling to Washington and other cities to talk about youth violence and conflict resolution.
Burley also has served on the Philadelphia Daily News People's Editorial Board and as the governor's appointee for the Commission on Children and Families. She also worked for the Philadelphia School District as student leadership coordinator when she attended Overbrook.
"A lot of the people I grew up around either sold drugs or grew up in families that did," Burley said.
She said her 10 older brothers always protected her as a child and kept her on the straight and narrow, though they were sometimes involved in "the life" of the streets. She has two younger sisters and three younger brothers.
One devastating experience, when she was only 16, inspired Burley to take a stand against violence.
"In 2005, my brother Andre was actually murdered," Burley said. "He died a month before his 21st birthday. He had dropped out of school and he was selling drugs. I guess you could say he was in the life."
She said her brother had taken in a friend who had fallen on hard times. Andre Burley "let this guy live in his house. He fed this guy. He gave him clothes, and one night the guy shot my brother in his head while he was asleep," Burley said.
The grief was taking a toll on Burley when, she said, she went to talk to her principal, Ethelyn Payne Young, at Overbrook. She recalled that Young told her, "OK, this happened to you. What are you going to do about it? . . . There is only so long you can grieve as an individual. You have to do something about it or you're going to be a very bitter person."
That advice prompted Burley to start the antiviolence program at Overbrook. "I created the Panther Peace Core. It was an antiviolence and peer-mediation group where people monitored the hallways and did peer mediation," Burley said.
That initiative prompted the governor's representative for safe schools to give her a $50,000 grant to expand the program.
"I implemented the program in the top 10 persistently dangerous high schools," Burley said. "It involved everything from training students in peer mediation and introducing the Peace Core model. And they took bits and pieces of it to fit the culture of their schools."
Aaron Voldman, executive director of the Student Peace Alliance, said Burley's work with the organization has been outstanding. "She's been an amazing spokesperson for the peace movement. . . . She's one of our generation's most powerful advocates for preventing violence in our communities nationwide."
Asked about her new job, which she began this week, Burley said: "I'm extremely excited. This job will give me an opportunity to create and strengthen a platform for young people to not only be heard but respected in an environment that is normally not open to them."
Looking to the future, Burley said she is committed to working on youth advocacy, conflict resolution, and education reform issues.
One day, she said, she might just write a book about her life.
Contact Vernon Clark 215-854-5717 or firstname.lastname@example.org.