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Q+A Gregory Corbin

Gregory Corbin, director, AFSC's Philadelphia Social Justice Leadership Institute Photo: Tony Heriza / AFSC

We talked to Gregory Corbin about AFSC’s Social Justice Leadership Institute (SJLI), a new program helping young people in the Philadelphia area to develop as social change leaders.

Q: Tell us more about SJLI’s approach to supporting young leaders.

A: SJLI is about helping young people cul­tivate an understanding of systemic op­pression while providing them with skills to dismantle it. Youth take part in inten­sive trainings that include exploring power analysis, self-development, leadership de­velopment, how government works, and community organizing and campaigning. The curriculum is designed to not just make them better advocates and activists but better people. Many of our youth are dealing with trauma and other issues. We want to make sure they’re aware of them and have the tools to address them on the personal level.

In addition, we also help youth with re­sources to make their campaigns happen. If they’re planning a protest, for instance, we can show them how to apply for a permit.

Q: Why did AFSC see a need for this program?

A: Many of the young people in this area are disenfranchised, disconnected, or don’t have opportunities because of economic circumstances. Our current presidential administration is amplify­ing a lot of the things we don’t like about America—racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.

Young people are struggling for a sense of hope. They want to do something, and they’re ready to do the work if they have the tools. SJLI presents them with a space for healing, conversations, and op­portunities for development.

There also aren’t enough spaces for youth to express themselves. When gov­ernment talks about policy, they don’t put youth at the table. When schools talk about curriculum, you don’t see youth at the table. We need to make space for youth because they’re tomorrow’s leaders.

Q: What are your hopes for SJLI?

A: The immediate goal is to help youth understand how the system works for and against them and how they can chal­lenge it. I want them to bring their ideas to fruition. Beyond that, I want them to take what they learned and become resources for their communities.

I would also love to see more cross pol­lination among the youth organizations we partner with, so we can support each other, march with one another, create with one another—and have a greater impact.

Q: You’ve been working with youth for more than a decade, including founding the orga­nization Philadelphia Youth Poetry Move­ment. What drew you to SJLI?

A: I went to a high school in Philly where violence wasn’t uncommon. I was there when they brought in metal detectors, and I saw everything start to shift and a kind of prison mentality sink in. Experiences like that inform what I do today.

I was a kid who didn’t have access be­cause I didn’t have support, mentorship, relationships with educators who cared about me. I’ve seen family members strug­gle to get good jobs because they don’t have things like college degrees. I was bullied as a kid and silenced.

I’m that kid, and I see that kid every day. I think the best educators always see themselves in the students they work with. That’s what bridges the gap, builds empa­thy, and creates the love and connection. I see how important it is to give young people space to explore their identities, to learn how the world works, and to find ways to change it.