Racine Public Library Helps Launch Wisconsin’s First Participatory Defense Hub

Written by Tovah Anderson | February 29, 2024

Racine Public Library (RPL), working collaboratively with a coalition of community partner organizations launched Wisconsin’s first Participatory Defense Hub on January 8, 2024. Participatory Defense is a community organizing model for people facing charges, their families, and communities to impact the outcome of cases and transform the landscape of power in the court system.

Anyone navigating a case themselves or helping a loved one navigating a case (pre or post-conviction) is welcome. For more information or to get involved come to a meeting, call 262-770-5051, or email racinepdnhub@gmail.com. Meetings are held each Monday at 5:00 PM at Racine Public Library.

Developed at the First National Participatory Defense Gathering in October 2016, Participatory Defense is guided by three principles:

  • FAMILY and COMMUNITY STRENGTH can play a pivotal role in stopping and reducing incarceration for a loved one and a community.
  • Families and communities can be even more powerful when taking the role of ORGANIZER AND AGENT OF CHANGE, rather than service recipient.
  • By working on individual cases, communities can BUILD THE MOVEMENT of directly impacted people to hold the actors of the court accountable, make systemic change, and ultimately end mass incarceration.

“The purpose is to help defendants in court cases become more literate in the complicated legal process they are going through,” says Nick Demske, Interim Director of Racine Public Library. Many defendants across the country are unable to afford private legal representation, which can lead to less favorable outcomes.

“Ninety-eight percent of criminal cases in federal courts end with a plea bargain instead of going to trial. It’s a practice that some say prioritizes efficiency over fairness. And with a shortage of both prosecutors and public defenders on the state level, plea deals are frequently used in places like Wisconsin.”

John Yang of PBS News Weekend (April 1,  2023)

Racine’s Journey to Hosting a Participatory Defense Hub

RPL, The Johnson Foundation, and nearly a dozen additional local organizations have worked on this effort on and off for years. Significant momentum took time to build and the first major convening was scheduled for April of 2020. The pandemic hit, canceling the meeting and wiping out momentum. Fast forward to October 2023, and the coalition restarted planning meetings, which eventually led to the first public meeting of the Participatory Defense Hub in January 2024.

Demske also applied for and was granted one of twenty-five coveted national spots in UCLA’s Radical Librarianship Institute based on RPL’s role in this project. “The program kind of works like a year-long, remote fellowship, with a week-long, onsite intensive at the UCLA campus,” said Demske. Acceptance into the program also comes with a $10K grant to be used to support the proposed initiative.

The Convening of Library Staff Working with Incarcerated People, hosted by San Francisco Public Library and American Library Association, took place in Chicago this past June. The organization identifies information professionals across the country who provide great library services to incarcerated members of their community and invites them to this summit and provide a $500 honorarium–2023 marked Demske’s second invitation.

Organizational Partners:

Racine Public Library, Johnson Foundation, State Public Defender’s Office, a local private law firm, Black Leaders Organizing Communities (BLOC), Ex-incarcerated People Organizing (EXPO), Racine Interfaith Coalition, and several other nonprofits.