MEET THE REAL TEAM
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.
Co-Founder and Co-Director
Destine Phillips is a Chicago native, activist and entrepreneur. Through adversity, Destine learned the power of people, intentional change, and support. Destine’s goal is to transform the lives of those victimized by oppression into realities of strength, business, and sustainability. By building community, Destine understands her path as being one with a mission to dismantle oppressions deepest roots. In 2016, Destine published an anthology of creative writing and artwork. In 2019, she attended the College of DuPage. Destine’s vision, despite circumstances of incarceration continued to exceed expectations. Destine has been identified as young, gifted, and black, a force in her community and beyond. Upon release from the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice in 2019, Destine studied at Central State University and is continuing her education to receive her bachelor’s degree In Philosophy. Destine was offered a position with Free Write Arts and Literacy as a Program Coordinator. This position marked the beginning Destine’s professional career. Destine experiences, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence guided her to a collaboration which would change the trajectory of her next phase of love. Destine, along with Denzel Burke collaborated on a project that would support the needs of youth growing and living in Chicago. The duo founded R.E.A.L Youth Initiative in August of 2021. R.E.A.L develops the consciousness and commitment to building abolitionist communities. The hope is for communities to foster an environment for youth to thrive rather than survive. Through the pedagogy of workshops on anti-capitalism and socialism, revolutionary movement history, abolition of socially constructed gender, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism, radical change will flourish. In 2021, Destine served as a Re-Entry Coach Specialist and Case Manager with the National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI) and Save One Life Foundation. In 2022, Destine continues to serve on the Inaugural Youth Advisory Board of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission. Destine is also a member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice In Tacoma, Washington. CJJ 2022 Youth Summit | CJJ (juvjustice.org). In 2022, Destine offered her knowledge as a spokeswoman on a panel centered on “Getting to the Root: Perspectives on Violence, Restorative Justice, and Criminal Justice Reform in the Black Community” Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice (uchicago.edu). In 2022, Destine joined the Justice 20/20 network as a consultant, which is an inclusive community for policy advocates, grassroots organizers, community members, those directly impacted by the criminal legal system, and all new learners. Destine is an ambassador fellow for the Illinois prison project. Destine’s aim is build a world that is conscious of trauma, open to restorative practices, and sustainable for all.
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. Part of the Northern Irish diaspora, 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.