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How Students of Color Can Dream Bigger Through Debate

By Anthony Berryhill and Aaron Timmons on April 16, 2019 hst Print

Multiple academic studies demonstrate that competitive speech and debate fosters the essential life skills of critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. The National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA) works with more than 4,000 schools and 150,000 student members each year, but there are so many more students who need access to this life-changing activity.

Debate has a multiplier effect on the personal and long-term professional lives of students of color. In our combined 45+ years of debate, we have witnessed the transformative nature of the activity for these students.

Not enough students of color are encouraged to join or stay with their speech and debate teams. In many cases, especially African- American debaters, their families assume only the most visible routes to success – athletics, music and other entertainment forums – are viable.

This push can occur for several cultural and historical reasons. The result is many students of color never attempt debating as an activity. Yet the history and tradition of oratory, public speaking and solid argumentation for people of color is extensive. From James Baldwin, to Barbara Jordan, to Martin Luther King, to Malcolm X to Barack Obama, there are ample role models for the value of learning the skills that NSDA participation offers.

Next Steps: How to seize the opportunity

Thankfully, many students of color are given speech and debate opportunities. The NSDA, hundreds of teachers and various non-profit partners are working together to provide the necessary recruiting, training and financial resources to help schools provide speech and debate to all students, but especially students of color.

First, engage in an explicit, rigorous and public mission to promote diversity and inclusion. It is no surprise that many of the nation’s leading companies such as Google and Apple make concepts such as mitigating unconscious bias, preventing racial/gender discrimination and ensuring equity a central part of their business strategy and company vision.

If your school offers a speech and debate program, explicitly recruit more students of color. Free recruitment posters are available through the NSDA (www.speechanddebate.org/inclusion) to help teachers celebrate and recruit a diverse team. If your school does not offer a speech and debate program, reach out to the NSDA for assistance in starting one.

Second, make speech and debate a part of all your classes. Debate is an essential component of a solid education, but significant work infusing debate exercises and lessons into existing teaching and curricula remains to be completed. New strategies for promoting learning, such as e-learning, social media and blogging, offer tools for sharing debate in those neighborhoods and locations that have not been reached. Recent materials from various educational nonprofit organizations prove significant benefits for all students, especially students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Third, all parties must address the implicit bias that many times push students of color away from academic activities like debate, and into sports or other activities, because those activities are perceived as a “better fit” for those students.

While we are suggesting a very aspirational vision – the continued expansion of debate to entirely new environments and frontiers – we believe that now, in 2019, is the time to do so. We welcome future allies who would like to help achieve this mission.