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Denzel Burke

Co-Founder and Co-Director

Denzel Burke is a community builder, facilitator, organizer, and the director/founder of REAL Youth Initiative, a program which develops revolutionary consciousness and community among currently and formerly incarcerated youth in order to work towards the abolition of prisons and the conditions that (re)produce them. He is a consultant for the Justice 20/20 Network and an Ambassador Fellow of the Illinois Prison Project. Upon his release from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice in July of 2019, Denzel began studies at Chicago State University and co-facilitated 32 convenings inside Illinois state youth prisons for the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University. Denzel collaborated with Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center and a collective of abolitionists to launch the Final 5 Campaign, which he served on for a year before launching the REAL Youth Initiative. Today, the REAL Youth Initiative runs programming for youth in facilities across the state of Illinois. Denzel currently lives in Northbrook and plans to receive a PhD in Africology and African American Studies.

Thomas Hagan


Thomas Hagan is the Co-Director of the REAL Youth Initiative. Thomas has spent the last 8 years working to build power with currently incarcerated people in the United States. As a high school student in New York City, he co-founded an anti-racist reading group with incarcerated youth at Bronx Hope Passages Academy and co-led a mutual aid donation drive for people incarcerated at Rikers Island titled Regis & Rikers. As a student at the University of Chicago, he helped launch the Bridge Writing Workshop, a weekly creative writing workshop at Cook County Jail. Thomas also participated in and co-wrote a published report on Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center’s Reimagining Youth Justice Project, a project which hosted over 30 convenings with over 180 incarcerated youth on how they would reimagine youth justice. From this report, Thomas helped launch the Final 5 Campaign - a coalition fighting to close the 5 remaining youth prisons in Illinois. In a part time capacity, Thomas has also served as a legislative organizing lead for Parole Illinois and helped launch a number of iterations of the Humans of Life Row Project. With family in the North of Ireland, Thomas is dedicated to ending practices of settler colonialism, imperialism, and military occupation. This personal history strongly informs his efforts to abolish prisons and the conditions which (re)produce them. In his free time, Thomas loves cheering for the New York Knicks, reading about Irish history, and long distance running.


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