‘We’re a platform for people to tell their stories or live out their dreams.’
When Raj Jayadev took a temp job after college to fund his world travels, he never dreamed it would morph into Silicon Valley De-Bug, a 1,000-member community support network and one of San Jose’s leading civil rights organizations.
It was year 2000 and high tech companies used temporary employees to perform the low-wage drudge work that has since been shipped offshore. Raj Jayadev’s new co-workers were youths and elderly immigrants struggling to make ends meet at a Hewlett-Packard printer plant on $8 an hour, with no job security or benefits.
In Silicon Valley’s early days, temp work was a pathway to full-time employment and a ticket to the middle class. If you worked hard, crappy temp jobs led to permanent positions with educational benefits, which qualified you for better jobs at that same company or at others. By Jayadev’s time, they had become low-wage limbos, dooming a new generation of workers to poverty.
Talks about workplace hazards and shortchanged paychecks grew into lunchtime meetings at a pho spot on First Street, inspiring them to turn these discussions into an action group that confronted management and got them fairer treatment.
Today, Silicon Valley De-Bug is located in a former speakeasy at the corner of Lenzen and Stockton Streets in San Jose. Eight paid staff and about thirty-five volunteers operate De-Bug’s Community Center where their darkroom, video production, and sound studios are available for little or no cost.
Funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and The California Endowment and with referrals from Santa Clara County’s Sentencing Alternatives Program, they conduct writing and media-making workshops at high schools, colleges, juvenile halls, prisons and community organizations, and provide legal aid services. They have after-school arts programs and offer computers and hangout space to anyone who walks in.
How are disadvantaged, underemployed youth able to do so much with so little? Adrian Avila, 28, calls it “De-Bug Science.” Says Avila, “After eleven years I still don’t know how it works, but it does work.”
Born in Mexico City, Avila’s mother brought him to San Jose when he was six. He discovered De-Bug when he was a Lincoln High School student working at a hot dog place. Today, he’s De-Bug’s art director, a mentor, and owns and operates After Dark Prints, a silk screening and design house. He manages De-Bug’s media-rich website, and has traveled with Jayadev and other staffers teaching video and media skills to youth around the country for the Marguerite Casey Foundation.
“We’re a platform for people to either tell their stories or to live out their dreams,” says Avila. “People feel like they can do it here because they see others doing it. You walk in as a blank slate and find out what you like to do—writing, design, video, music—and if it’s not here you can create it. That‘s what I did.”
“When I came here I created a graphic design business, so I started the screen printing and someone gave me most of the equipment I needed. I also wanted to write and travel and address the immigration issue. It’s the opposite of the commercialized co-opted youth culture we see on TV, at the mall, and social networking’s fake freedom.”
At De-Bug, it’s not what you do, but how you do it, and the “how” is collaborative and inclusive. Those hanging out soon find themselves writing for the magazine and website, creating art, producing videos, and taking part in political action as they connect their challenges to economic and societal inequities.
Organizing marches, community meetings, and City Hall speak-outs in 2009 against the San Jose Police Department’s public intoxication arrests and profiling record won De-Bug a membership on the city task force that lobbied unsuccessfully for a community-based selection process for new police chiefs. From that collaboration with the Silicon Valley NAACP, the Asian Law Alliance, SIREN and other groups, De-Bug co-founded the Coalition for Justice and Accountability and the Santa Clara County Forum for Immigrant Rights and Empowerment, watchdogging County and city law enforcement agencies for civil rights violations.
The Invisible Become Visible
Elegantly dressed and fashion model-pretty, it’s hard to believe that Steeda McGruder, 29, was plagued by drug use and spent 18 months at Elmwood Jail fighting a charge that was eventually dropped.
Today she’s founder and director of Sisters That Been There. Headquartered at De-Bug, it’s a peer lead support and re-entry program of the Santa Clara County Probation Department that helps women released from jails, rehab centers and prisons to not go back.
“I had a plan to form a support group before I got out,” says McGruder. “I saw that we needed to do better for ourselves, but we didn’t have examples. No one who had ever succeeded ever came back to jail to tell us how to do it. We only saw the failures. So I decided to be the first example and if I were to make it, I’d turn around and teach other women to do it and we’d just keep helping the women coming behind us.”
She says it wasn’t by accident that she found her herself walking by De-Bug’s Community Center on a Sunday afternoon. It was divine guidance. She noticed people inside and found herself at a meeting of De-Bug’s Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project.
“What they were talking about sounded familiar to me, because of my own incarceration. I felt comfortable. So I sat down and just listened, and then I introduced myself and said what I was doing. I had just started a weekly support group that was meeting at the Billy DeFrank Center, but I spoke about the group as if it existed the way I wanted it to. It was alive to me and they got really excited about it. It was the first time anyone acknowledged it and believed in it.”
“Most kids have people who nourish their dream. Women like me who come from the institution lifestyle didn’t get their dream nurtured. We got shot down so we shot ourselves down. De-Bug was that family unit that nourished and supported my dream.”
“What I needed at that time in my journey was someone who could see my same vision. Because at that time, it was just me and God with this business plan I was carrying around. De-Bug handed my dream back to me and said ‘It looks good, go out and do it, we’ll support you.’”
About sixty people crowd into De-Bug’s Community Center on Sunday afternoons and on Tuesday evenings at the East Valley Pentecostal Church for more De-Bug Science at their Albert Cobarrubias Justice Project, a “families and folks that been there” style of peer support and free legal aid that co-founder Gail Noble says works miracles.
In 2008, Noble, Jayadev, and former Santa Clara County public defender Aram James met at a juvenile justice conference and joined forces. Noble, a medical assistant, was trying to navigate through Santa Clara County’s criminal court system to save her 17-year-old son from a first strike and long sentence at a juvenile detention facility. Multiple witnesses attested to his innocence, and James and Jayadev’s research indicated that Karim was one of many African American first-time offenders railroaded into incarceration by county and national policies that failed to consider all of the evidence. That process of helplessness inspired Noble reach out to other parents and form the ACJP.
Noble says spirits are low when people find them. “We give them a game plan. They’re in overwhelm but we know the process and help them communicate with their attorneys, probation officers and judges,” says Noble. “We help them build cases that enable the court to see a person, not a number, and we go to court together. An attorney does the best he can to represent this person but when a whole community is behind someone, that makes the outcome different.”
“We see three strikes cases going to early resolution to time at County Jail. Many times our clients face significant sentences and get probation, which is amazing. We see them walk away empowered and that’s the most exciting part.”
Jayadev calls it “time saved” versus “time served” and says 1,377 years have been saved since the ACJP began. He says by using family and community engagement to save someone from incarceration, many more people benefit. He cites a single dad who got probation instead of jail time. His young daughters weren’t placed in foster care, which would have been catastrophic for them. Those helped by ACJP become closer to their families through its process. They get their lives back and on track and want to give back and become ACJP peer counselors.
“This is De-Bug Science,” says Adrian Avila. “People come in and we pay attention to what they’re saying and what they need. We help anybody with what we know.”