This Gates scholar started in Philadelphia politics at age 14 and drafted 62 bills

To encounter Jemille Duncan, a recent Philadelphia high school graduate, a legislative aide to city council member Cindy Bass, and a new Gates scholar.

• Permanent company: “I always say that nothing thickens your skin as quickly as working in Philadelphia politics. You learn to get really tough and take everything with a grain of salt, to stand up for yourself, to stand firm in your beliefs and ideals, and not be shy about it.

• In Philadelphia: “This city, I am more and more disappointed every day. I didn’t have the privilege of growing up in the suburbs. Gun violence has always been a concern for me.

When Jemille Duncan applied for a Gates scholarship last year, he kept his expectations low.

Sure, he’d served as an aide to two city council members and a state senator when he was a high school student, but Duncan wasn’t sure how he’d compare to the 37,000 other applicants for the highly competitive scholarship. which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“My friends were always very encouraging – they were like, ‘What other 18-year-old has written laws for a city of 1.5 million people since he was 14,'” he said. “And I would say, ‘Good point, but I don’t know everyone in the country. ”

So when Duncan – who his friends nicknamed him “Grandpop” because he “goes to bed early” and “doesn’t listen to the loud ** music they’re playing today” – learned by e-mail that he was one of 300 Gates scholars this year, he did something completely out of character: he acted like a kid.

“I lay flat and just rolled on the floor,” he said.

Her mother, Sakia Duncan-Campbell, started screaming and crying.

“I was so proud of him,” she said. “Sometimes I just find myself sitting in awe of him, crying.”

With a four-year career in Philadelphia politics already under his belt at 18, very little fazes Duncan, a bright, confident and articulate teenager who quotes everyone from John Adams to Johnnie Cochran; who readily quotes Supreme Court decisions; and who carries a hard copy of the Constitution at all times.

“It’s a word I’ve never used with a teenager before, but Jemille has gravity,” said State Sen. Sharif Street, who hired Duncan as an intern during his freshman year. “And Jemille has been serious since he was 14.”

On Tuesday, Duncan, from Nicetown, graduated second in his class from Multicultural Academy Charter School with a GPA of 4.24 (he topped 4.0 taking AP classes), second only to his girlfriend, who scored a 4.29.

This fall, Duncan, who has been accepted to 13 schools, will attend Swarthmore College, where he received a full scholarship. He plans to study pre-law and become an appellate lawyer and law professor.

“People ask me all the time, do I want to be a politician?” he said. “No, I don’t want it to stress my life.”

The eldest of three brothers, Duncan showed a love of history and critical thinking from an early age. When other children wanted toys for Christmas, he asked for story books, his mother said.

“He always had good grades, but he was a challenger,” Duncan-Campbell said. “If you told him the color was orange, he was going to figure out if it was really orange or not.”

Duncan’s interest in politics stems from his fascination with the United States Supreme Court, the Constitution, and “the political process that flows from the authority that the Constitution delegates.”

“I’m as much of a political and legal nerd as one could be,” he said. “At one point, I was writing very long bogus court decisions.”

But at the same time, Duncan also grappled with the relentless gun violence in Philadelphia. On his 12th birthday, he witnessed a shooting while on his way to the corner store.

“The shooter was one meter from my face. I was scared, but I thought about what I should do at that moment to get out of this deadly situation,” he said. “No child should ever have to endure this trauma, but it’s the reality for too many Philadelphians.”

After a chance meeting with Street at a school assembly in eighth grade, Duncan reached out and got a political internship in Street’s office for three years. He has written 104 legislative analyzes and four legislative texts, two of which have been adopted.

“One of the things I immediately fell in love with about this work was the writing,” Duncan said. “I have to write about politics and share those opinions with people who matter.”

Duncan then worked as a legislative assistant in City Councilman Bobby Henon’s office until Henon was convicted of federal corruption charges in November. In December, Duncan was hired as a legislative assistant for Board Member Cindy Basswhere he now works part-time.

During his tenure on city council, Duncan drafted 58 bills, 28 of which passed, including a bill changing the fine for curbside parking from $50 to $300 and a resolution authorizing hearings to investigate racial bias in development.

“It is very rare for someone so young to have such a broad command of political issues as well as an ability to craft strong and impactful legislation which has a high probability of being supported by the whole of the Council. and be adopted forever,” Bass said. “When I was his age, I certainly didn’t have the skills to do what he seems to do effortlessly.”

But being the youngest person in the room isn’t always easy for Duncan. Some have been threatened by a teenager doing the same job as them, and others underestimate his abilities.

“I’ve never seen anyone not underestimate Jemille because of her age,” Street said. “Some people have a rude awakening, but more likely I see people satisfied beyond expectations.”

Duncan is also director of research for the nonprofit education group UrbEd; member of both the Philadelphia Police Department Youth Advisory Board and the SEPTA Youth Advisory Board; and a published writer who wrote plays for the teen magazine and the citizen of Philadelphia.

He credits his work ethic to his mother, who had him as a teenager and worked her way up to a manager position at McDonald’s to support her sons.

“Even when she didn’t explicitly say, ‘You have to work hard to get what you want,’ she lived it and still lives it every day,” Duncan said.

And when her mother wanted to pursue her dreams of becoming a pharmacist and dental assistant, Duncan was her biggest support, helping her with her homework and getting her career back on track.

Duncan’s top college choices were the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore College, both of which accepted his application. His decision to attend Swarthmore was sealed when he returned from a public safety event this year to find his block cordoned off with crime scene tape because a triple shooting occurred near his home .

“I said, ‘I can’t be in town anymore.’ Nothing is happening in Swarthmore, so that’s where I’ll go,” Duncan said.

Since he already got a full scholarship for Swarthmore before the Gates Scholarship came, Duncan can use the latter to cover any additional costs, like technology, and he’s excited about the networking opportunities it provides, like an upcoming conference with fellow Gates Fellows in California.

And while Duncan’s co-workers are proud of him, no one is prouder than his mother.

“I feel like part of my purpose in life was to have it,” she said. “I feel like he’s the next generation of young people who will have a positive impact.”

Know someone in the Philadelphia area whose story is worth telling, or someone whose story you would like to know? Send suggestions for We the People profiles to Stephanie Farr at or call her at 215-854-4225. Send tips via Twitter to @FarFarrAway.

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