AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Raj Jayadev


To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Raj Jayadev, founder and director of Silicon Valley De-Bug

1. Why are you passionate about advocating for the AAPI communities/the communities you work in? (including those in criminal justice system)

I think it started with really young people that sort of grew up at De-Bug. I’ve known some of these folks since they were 14 or 15, so if there was any sort of harm going their way, we naturally had an instinct to protect them.  We then saw the fall out of incarceration on families. It was both debilitating and painful when it was occurring to people you cared about, so we had to find some way where we could protect the people we cared about. Secondly, what kept De-Bug growing was experiencing how inspiring it was, and really humbling, to see families fighting an intimidating court system that has judges and lawyers speaking in different languages and in an arena where there’s bailiffs with guns. The whole system seems to be bent towards trying to separate a loved one from their family. Witnessing a mom fight for their children or just a loved one feeling enough self-confidence to want to challenge a very powerful, entrenched system – it’s a spiritual experience to witness that and it is why we continue to expand beyond people we knew.

2. What do you believe are the most critical issues facing the AAPI communities/communities of color?

Incarceration has become such an expansive, devastating force in the communities that we work in. It just used to be something that felt distant and experienced by some families and some neighborhoods but now it’s knocking on the door. But I feel that it’s such a pressing issue because it has generational damage. You extract someone from the home or the community – it’s not just the person that gets locked up that’s suffering. The suffering is exponential and touches everyone in that the person is beholden to or is dependent upon. And you don’t get to see that. If a father goes to prison for five years, there isn’t really a measurement on what happens to a child that doesn’t have a dad in their lives for five years. And what does that do to their own future, or even as they enter into adulthood. What happens to the next generation? There are cycles of suffering that are almost invisible due to incarceration. The other part of it is that it’s just such a resource suck from other infrastructures and institutions that should be a stepping stone for communities such as education. When I say incarceration, I think what I really mean is the entire criminal justice system, meaning not just the phase where people get locked up, but what happens with interactions on the street with police, what’s happening in courts, what’s happening when people should be getting mental health treatment or drug rehab but are going to jail or prison, and how do people are trapped inside the criminal justice web after that.

3. Are you also working with folks who face deportation?

Deportation is a big issue. What we’re looking at when it comes to issues of deportation – I think it’s sort of a blind spot for even traditional immigrant rights organizations. We’re dealing with folks who are being delivered to detention and deportation through the criminal justice system. As such, they’re the ones that are highest priority for ICE, but also they’re the ones who have been, in some ways – a lot of the mainstream immigrant rights workers have sort of felt okay to sacrifice, and haven’t sort of stretched out their level of support to say “just because you’ve been targeted or processed through the criminal justice system doesn’t mean that you’re not part of the community, doesn’t mean your rights shouldn’t be protected as much as anyone else.” The ironic part for us is that the focus on immigration reform and deferred action has been important for some segments of our community but it has also pushed ICE to focus on immigrants in the criminal justice system which has made it harder for the communities we work closely with.

4. What are ways in which you strive to address these issues? Why did you help co-find De-Bug? How has your involvement in participatory defense evolved over time?

We started from the assembly rooms and manufacturing warehouses of Silicon Valley where there was a lot of attention on the promise of Silicon Valley but there wasn’t really an understanding of who are the people there who were actually holding the Valley and building the new economy up. That was sort of being replicated globally. There was this blind spot in the larger imagination of what Silicon Valley is like for temp workers, for assemblers, for people not necessary on the fast track to dot com stardom. We just wanted to create a platform, so what we did was make a magazine, and we had people share their stories. What we found was that people wanted to share because – their realities didn’t really exist in the public space. So allowing people to share the complexities of their lives and their identities and their hopes and future aspirations became really important – it was pretty life defining for some people. What we found was that this process really created an intimate bond between people. What De-Bug became was – we would meet once a week, we still do it. The same meeting that we started is the same meeting that’s going to start in about two hours. We just ask anyone to come who feels they want to be heard and maybe hasn’t been asked to be a thinker or to reflect or to give their opinion to actually be heard, and that becomes the content in the magazine and on the website. We stay disciplined to that process of creating a space. We became a touchstone for a lot of communities in Silicon Valley that didn’t feel like they were being heard. That means the person who got out of prison wasn’t sure where they would feel welcomed or be supported. Or the person who has been living in the shadows as an undocumented worker would come. Folks who had been labeled as the “other.” We built a community out of that what otherwise could be viewed as isolated experiences. The question evolved from what do you want to write about, what story do you want to tell, to what do you want to do. The common denominator was that people wanted to grow to help the larger community. The stuff around participatory defense – even though you’d say – some outsider would say “Oh they’re working on criminal justice on Sunday, but they’re talking about doing art and music on Tuesday. How’s that the same umbrella organization?” But to us, there was a foundational, philosophical glue which was this full faith and belief in the power of the collective to uplift the personal experience and the personal struggles. People sometimes peg us as a political entity. We never saw ourselves solely that. I’ve always considered ourselves – as a sangha.

Buddha said on the path to liberation, you need the eyes to see the path and the life to walk it. As an organizer, I saw that as theory in practice, but he also said the path acquires a sangha, which is a Pali word – and Pali doesn’t exist anymore – but sangha meant a community of practitioners who are all seeking their own liberation. That’s essentially what we do. That’s essentially what De-Bug is – a community of practitioners who are all seeking their own liberation in their own way. And what liberation looks like may be different. For the 18 year old graffiti writer, it might mean how to convert a talent into a livelihood. It might mean someone who is trying to deal with an addiction problem. It might mean a mom who is trying to free her son from jail. There’s a common ethos in our work. It just manifests in different ways. So we call the approach, which is fundamental bread and butter community organizing, we call it “participatory defense”. The only thing that’s really different about it – I mean, we’re not inventing anything. We’re using the same science of community organizing that has allowed communities who have felt under the boot of large institutions – how they’ve used community and collective action to fight back in things like education and health care – we just apply that same ethos over an institution that has been insulated from community organizing, which was the courts.

5. What keeps you inspired?

I think because of the unique way De-Bug operates – the whole notion of burnout totally feels foreign as a concept to me. This whole notion that the work is depleting is a totally foreign concept to me because being at De-Bug is everything I could dream of doing. I have this really rare opportunity that very few people get to do, which is, I get to see if the values and beliefs that I say I believe in or am attracted to – whether they actually are true, whether they actually are real, and not just a bumper sticker or a flag I wave. I get to see – do these romanticized values and principles that I admire – can they actually be exercised? And what happens when they do get exercised? That’s what I get to see happen at De-Bug everyday. I really can’t think of anything that would be more inspiring and challenging as well, but I can’t think of anything more authentic. So I get to see it. I don’t need to – I get to actually see what courage looks like. Every Sunday, at De-Bug, when I see families sitting around a table and they’re trying to figure out how to muster up the courage to actually challenge a prosecutor that went to law school, that has been practicing for 20 years, who is putting in vast amount of time and resources to separate their children from them, to lock them away for 20 years – I get to see what courage looks like when a mom is digging her heels in and saying “I’m going to fight back.” That sort of thing is incredibly humbling.

Raj Jayadev is the founder and director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a media, community organizing, and social entrepreneurial collective based in San Jose, CA. Through De-Bug, Jayadev started a family organizing model called the Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project – a methodology for families and communities to impact the outcome of cases of their loved ones and change the landscape of power in the courts. They call the approach “participatory defense” and are now training organizations and public defenders on the model nationally. Through participatory defense, Jayadev also created the practice of “social biography videos” to impact sentencing and charging, which in 2014 received the Silver Heart Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for giving “voice to the voiceless” in the court system. Jayadev is recently an Ashoka Fellow, joining their national and global network of social entrepreneurs as he scales participatory defense into a new national practice. Jayadev has written for dailies across the country, and his work has been profiled in outlets such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR.