Pro Se: Empowering Justice-Involved Youth and Young Adults with Disabilities through Speech & Debate Training

by Matt Saleh, JD, PhD

Pro Se Speech & Debate” is a new program at Cornell University that provides 3-months of virtual one-on-one and group mentoring and educational programming to youth and young adults who have current or prior involvement in the criminal-legal system, or multiple systems (e.g., foster care, child services). This is done through a free, online certificate program from Cornell University. The Program offers virtual trainings in speech, debate, and self-advocacy, delivered by Cornell undergraduates from the Cornell Undergraduate Mock Trial Association, Cornell Speech & Debate, the Advocacy Project, and pre-law minors and student groups.

Pro Se is a new collaboration between Cornell ILR’s K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (YTI), the Criminal Justice and Employment Initiative (CJEI), the Undergraduate Mock Trial Association, and the Advocacy Project (AdPro). In October, Pro Se began piloting in Central New York with twelve youth participants and seven Cornell University student “Speech & Debate Coaches. The Pilot Program is being implemented in partnership with the Central New York Health Home Network’s RIYS Diversion Program, with funding from Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives and the Community Foundation of Herkimer & Oneida Counties, and M&T Bank/Partners Trust Bank Charitable Fund.

Pro Se contributes to three known best practices for the participant population: (a) one-on-one peer mentoring; (b) supplemental educational programming outside alternative or home school settings; and (c) rebuilding of social networks and social/career capital. At program completion, participants earn a “Speech & Debate” certificate of completion from Cornell, which will provide additional cultural capital for participants looking to transition into postsecondary education and/or employment. The program aims to offer essential two-way service-learning opportunities, both for participants, and for future legal professionals from Cornell who can drive juvenile justice innovation and reform from within.

Members of the Y-ReCONNECTS Community of Practice who are interested in learning more about Pro Se should reach out to Matt Saleh ( or LaWanda Cook (