The standard picture of a debate team looks something like this: white students in jackets and rep ties from schools like Dartmouth and Princeton. But that’s changing, especially in Baltimore, which has developed a reputation for producing some of the most accomplished high school and college debaters in the country.
Take rising 10th grader at Baltimore City College, Nicolas Broaddus, who stands in front of the judges at the Eddie Conway Liberation Institute’s debate competition. Clad in a dashiki he’s talking about things that "...constitute the domestic aspect of the US transnational network of secret prisons and black sites..."
The institute’s two-week camp for high school students at Towson University teaches young people that knowing how to engage in critical policy discussions is a powerful thing. And it’s all the more powerful when looking at racial inequality, like the long and challenged history of students of color debating.
The institute encourages black debaters to bring their personal experiences and issues of social justice into debate competition; 90 minutes of two teams arguing for or against different resolutions. Students learn the core skills of policy debate: how to engage with an idea in-depth as well as how to form an argument and substantiate it with evidence.
"It’s all about how you know what you know," lectures Daryl Burch, a debate coach at the camp. "You have to mature your outlook on life. If someone says, 'that’s a chair,' you should be able to trace back the reality of how you know that’s a chair. Keep interrogating."
Besides lecturers from local professors, activists and historians, students go on field trips to places like the Hampton mansion and historic site to explore the history of slavery there.
Adam Jackson, who was a debater at Towson a decade ago, directs the institute, a project of the advocacy group, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle. He says during his time debating, African American students were beginning to up-end traditional debate that favored the approach of predominantly white teams from private schools.
"A lot of people like myself chose not to debate the topic because it was disconnected from the community that I come from and there’s a lot of different styles and ways to approach it," explains Jackson.
So black debaters began focusing their arguments on their own life experiences to determine their positions on issues. At the camp, they were debating the resolution “the U.S. should increase its diplomatic and economic engagement with the People’s Republic of China.” Students talked about neo-colonialism in Africa and the prison-industrial complex.
"The reason why we always talk about black identity and structural racism is because it is important they have a 360 degree view of the world so they can see all the different structures and systems and how they operate," Jackson says. "So you should never blindly debate a topic without asking deeper questions."
It was in the ‘90s that significant numbers of minority students started debating in Urban Debate Leagues. One of the first successful debate programs in an urban school district started in Atlanta 1985 empower underserved students to learn some of the skills debaters master.
James Roland, who worked for the past 15 years with the Atlanta organization, says the ability “to critically reason, critically think, to critically read, and communicate; and also, in the process learn how to formulate an argument and put it in either written or oral presentation, those are the things that I think no doubt puts a person on a trajectory for success.”
Debate also teaches students to work with team members and interpret their opponents’ arguments on the spot; and it means a lot of time spent out of school on academics and with mentors.
A 2011 study of students in Chicago Public Schools, a district that is mostly poor, black and Latino, found that debaters were 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school than students with similar backgrounds. They also scored higher on college entrance exams than their peers.
Roland attributes some of this success to the way “debate engages the person” and “meets students where they are.”
15 years ago, CBS’ 60 Minutes highlighted the growth of urban debate leagues and the success of the program at Baltimore’s Walbrook High School, which is now closed. Lesley Stahl introduced Baltimore’s Walbrook High School Warriors as “the champion debaters of that city.”
The 2002 episode looked at how the program was turning around Baltimore City students. It described one student, Regina, as “thinking about dropping out of school” before she got involved with the debate team, and then deciding she wanted to become a Supreme Court justice.
Over the last decade, debate has grown around the country. In Baltimore local debaters Dayvon Love and Deven Cooper made history, becoming the first African American students to win a national debate championship in 2008 with Towson University’s debate team.
Now Baltimore debaters frequently make it to the highest levels. Love is director of public policy with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and Adam Jackson, who was on the same Towson team, is CEO of the organization. He says debating shaped what he does today.
“Because of the level of rigor we had to do on these different foreign policy issues and just learning about ourselves as black people in America… For me, the experience prepared me for a lot of the advocacy we have now, even after the uprising - being able to be on a national stage talking about these issues locally,” explains Jackson. “We were already doing that in debate.”
Back at the camp, students compete in a camp-wide tournament. Jackson announced the 2-1 decision and intense cheering ensued before coaches provide feedback.
Elon Collins, a rising 11th grader from Riverdale, New York, and a first-time debater made it to the finals, but didn’t win. She says being in this academic environment with other black students has given her a different sense of herself as a student.
“There was this mindset that in order to survive, I had to be two times better than,” she says. “I had to practice two times better, perform two times better on tests than my average white peer so I could be seen as a force within the community.”
She says she’s leaving the camp ready to write and share what she learned with other students.
Ultimately, Adam Jackson says, debate is a means to an end.
“You go to debate, you learn these issues,” he says. “You debate at high speeds; you research things you never heard of and don’t know that much about.”
The whole point, he says, is to “craft yourself into a scholar, leader or activist to empower your community.”
Lady Brion of Leaders of A Beautiful Struggle performing at the debate camp's final tournament: