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.