Peer Defenders is a youth-led response to the joint crises of segregation, resource inequity, and the criminalization of students in New York City. This initiative emerges from the organizing practices and victories of our parent organization IntegrateNYC. For the past five years, INYC has been committed to developing youth leaders to recognize and respond to injustices in their schools.
In the United States, age is not seen as a suspect classification and education is not a fundamental right. Students are the only constituency that can be disciplined with a foreign object, and for which the government can ban books and educational materials. And the legacy of “separate but equal” continues to reverberate throughout young people’s lives.
The lived experiences of the growing INYC community have taught us that segregation does not exclusively exist within and between schools. Some of the most vulnerable students, especially students with disabilities, are systematically excluded even from entering our educational institutions.
Peer Defenders sees this knowledge as a catalyst for action. We are developing a supportive program for youth who have been harmed by court involvement and other types of carceral response to mental illness, neurodivergence, and disability. Our initiative elevates court-diverted youth to leadership positions, where they will receive expert mentorship as they learn how to be community defense workers and legal observers within their school communities.
We intend to welcome our inaugural cohort of youth in January. They will work with Peer Defenders to fulfill community service and education requirements for non-carceral rehabilitation programs. For this to be possible we must establish an anti-bias, anti-racist, and trauma-informed curriculum that empowers and educates multiply marginalized and disabled young people and invest substantially in recruitment and supportive resources for retention.
What our grantee is saying: "This award will let me work with other student organizers to develop a meaningful restorative curriculum for court-involved young people with disabilities. We will be able to connect with legal experts, educators, and community members with lived experiences of disability and of the criminal justice system. I am so incredibly grateful. It means so much to me to know that other members of the disability community believe in this work and want to support it."
Funded by Disability (August 2020)