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Community Organizer Raj Jayadev | 2018 MacArthur Fellow

Community Organizer Raj Jayadev | 2018 MacArthur Fellow


When people come to us, they’re facing the darkest moment of their lives. Someone they care deeply about is facing the possibility of being incarcerated. They feel alone. They feel isolated against this behemoth of a system. My name is Raj Jayadev, and I am a Community Organizer. We decided to be irreverent to this idea that only lawyers can make changes in the courts. What we developed was a way to layer the criminal justice system with the power of community organizing. Participatory defense is a model for families and communities to better the outcome of cases of their loved ones, and to transform the
landscape of power in the courts. Families come here once a week, and they bring their case to this group. Everyone that’s in the meeting is there because they themselves may have a case, or their loved one has a
case. And rather than having to face that system alone, they’re going to do it with the support of everyone else sitting around this table. They find out tactical ways to impact the
outcome of the case. A major piece of that is also finding a way
to tell the fuller story of their loved one in a way that the court just hasn’t understood or had access to. When people face a criminal charge, they are defined by a case file, by a singular event. But people are so much more than an alleged incident. We have two fundamental ways or tactics. Families are putting together letters, certificates, photos, and they’re saying I’m going to
tell you what their future could be if they’re not sucked in and taken to be another statistic in mass incarceration. Another way is 8 to 10-minute mini-documentaries of who someone is, or here’s where they’re going to live and here are the job prospects that are awaiting them. One example of participatory defense is the story of Ramon Vasquez. A father, a truck driver, and someone who
was wrongfully charged with a gang-related murder. He was totally innocent. He wasn’t even at the scene, but because
of sloppy police work was facing life in prison. His family came to these meetings and through the model of participatory defense, found out ways that they could actually secure evidence that proved his innocence. We got Ramon free after six months, and actually got a factual finding of innocence from the court, something that hadn’t been seen in
our county in 25 years. We work really closely with public defenders now all across the country. When we started, public defenders were unsure what we were and what we we’re trying to do. When they saw that we were trying to achieve the same goals they were, and could actually help them fulfill the kind of promises that
they wanted to when they became a public defender, and that they don’t have to fight alone,
they are fully bought in. We’re operating in 21 different cities. And it looks different in every situation,
so It’s a church in Pennsylvania, it’s a reentry center in Tennessee, it’s a youth
organization in Southern California, and almost every night of the week in this country, there’s now a participatory defense meeting of families sitting in a circle and supporting each other to do exactly what we are doing here in San Jose. What our model is doing is bringing in compassion, empathy, but also intelligence and power from people that had no seat at the table before, and that’s family members and community.

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