I barely recognized the young men in front of me, though I’ve known them for nearly two years.

The three — Jaden Burnett, Frank Gillis-Corbitt, and Quadir Gamble — are all Parkway Center City Middle College students. They’re in 11th grade now, but I first met them as ninth graders when I walked into their school auditorium on a cold March day to hear the class read essays about how gun violence has impacted their lives.

Who could have guessed how all of our lives would be affected that day?

Ever since, I’ve watched them evolve into passionate activists, calling attention to the gun violence in Philadelphia that’s too often reduced to a mere footnote in the national conversation on the epidemic.

They’ve traveled to Harrisburg and D.C. to call attention to the issue. Last year they led the way to the Art Museum for the fourth annual Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence gathering.

Even if I weren’t already biased, I’d find them among the most impressive and inspiring young people I’ve met in Philly. They continue to amaze — me and their teacher and biggest cheerleader, Maureen Boland.

And yet I was still awed by the confident young men sitting across from me when we recently met at the school. The trio talked beyond their years, as usual, about the toll that violence takes on their lives and their community, and what they plan to do about it.

Women — in their neighborhoods and even their class — have often taken the lead on the issue, they conceded. That had to change.

“In a lot of ways, we have been affected the most,” Burnett said, referring to how gun violence disproportionally impacts young black men. “It’s time for us to step forward and put our foot on the gas about this.”

So when their sociology teacher at Community College of Philadelphia (Parkway students earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree in four years) asked them to create a community outreach project, they didn’t have to think hard.

They had already been plotting to bring the community together after two teens were shot at a high school football game outside Simon Gratz High School in September.

With the help of Boland and other dedicated Parkway staffers, the students planned an anti-violence basketball tournament scheduled for Monday, Nov. 25, at CCP. Teams of Parkway students will play one another, with the final winners going against a team of police officers from the Ninth District led by Community Relations Officer Jesse O’Shea. (In the future they want to open the tournament to other schools, but for now it’s limited to Parkway students.)

The goal, the guys told me, is to send the officers a clear message: They not only want a better relationship with police, they need one.

“They don’t know what we go through,” said Gillis-Corbitt, “but also, we don’t know what they go through on a daily basis either, so we’re trying to build that bond so we can hopefully work toward ending gun violence together.”

Though, in full disclosure, Gillis-Corbitt is also looking to settle an old score. Gillis-Corbitt, who hopes to play professionally one day, played a team of officers a couple of years back in his neighborhood. His team lost by a couple of points. “They caught the best of me,” he said, laughing.

A $1 entry fee will go toward helping the Moms Bonded by Grief support group buy Christmas gifts for children affected by violence. The students have also set up a GoFundMe page in the support group’s name and invited two former Parkway students, twin brothers who barely survived their gunshot injuries last year, as a show of support and solidarity against the gun violence that continues to affect the students at their school.

In 2018, 60% of ninth graders at Parkway reported losing a relative to gun violence. But these three astonishing young men remain undeterred.

“I’ve learned to stay patient and focused,” Burnett said. “You never know what it’s going to take, you never know when the positive is going to come. All you can do is keep hope and keep working.”