“Through debate, our young people are learning about the world while learning the skills to change it.”
At the Washington Urban Debate League, we’re trying to make accessible to everyone an activity proven to be one of the best things you can do as a young person. Gen Z doesn’t want to sit around and take it anymore–they are activists, campaigners and protesters. We help them develop the skills and confidence needed for effective advocacy. It’s easy to complain about a problem, but debaters also have to present a solution.
Debate combines the social emotional benefits of a sports team with a rigorous academic program. It teaches you about the world around you, current events, and who you are in relation to the world and those events. Debaters read literature they would never have otherwise read and become more civically engaged. Debate teaches you to think strategically instead of reactively, asking questions like, “What is this information?” “What is it trying to do?” “Where does it come from?” These are questions we need to ask and skills we need to learn as citizens, especially when we’re surrounded by propaganda and misinformation. No other activity focuses on interrogating sources like debate does. When we hear or read something, we explore where the author is coming from and what bias might be built into their evidence.
There are misconceptions about debate, including that it’s just for affluent white kids. When Washington Urban Debate League started seven years ago, the only public school in the District with a debate program was in upper Northwest. Now we have debate in 60 public schools in DC and nearby school districts. About 75% of the schools where we operate are Title 1 schools. We go where we’re needed the most, to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be part of an intellectual community. We recruit a lot of young people who might otherwise be overlooked. One of our first debaters was a rising junior with a .7 GPA who was frequently suspended. This young man was brilliant but wasn’t engaged with school because he was bored. His mom signed him up for our summer debate program–despite his protests–and he found a challenge that motivated him. For his last two years of high school, his GPA was 3.8. He received multiple full scholarship offers for college. More than 300 colleges offer scholarships for debate.
We would love to expand, but need more staff. Currently we have several schools we’d like to partner with if we had more capacity, and we are eager to launch our Spanish-language debate program. English language learners are too often excluded from out-of-school-time enrichment activities. Because debate is a language-oriented activity, many English learners don’t have the confidence to try it. Last year, two of our seniors who are native Spanish speakers became the first local debaters to participate in a Spanish Language Debate, winning Harvard University’s Debate En Español Tournament. This year, through a grant from the Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs, we are running workshops to kick off our Spanish-language pilot program. This program should be available to hundreds of students instead of a handful. We’re working with these young alumni to design the program, but we will still need funding to hire someone to run it.
Debate is for everyone. Our school-based debate coaches advertise the program to recruit students and talk with their fellow teachers about students who might especially benefit from or thrive in debate. Sometimes the debate coach will go into detention to look for students who got in trouble for talking too much. These students have lots of potential but they’re not engaged. In debate, they become good debaters and good students and they really grow and benefit from the program.
There are multiple ways that young people can get involved in debate with the Washington Urban Debate League. Our primary program is afterschool debate, located in schools across the area, led by an educator at the school with support from a WUDL staff member or volunteer. We offer curriculum and training for teachers who are new to debate. Our summer program serves as a training session for school-year debate, to recruit new students and get everyone excited about the topic for the year. We also have a partnership with DCPS that brings debate into eighth-grade classroom discussions of To Kill a Mockingbird. And for students who are hungry for more opportunities to debate, we have a travel team that hosts a national tournament, and supports participation in regional and national tournaments. Our middle schoolers have won Nationals for the past three years. Finally, we also hold public debates where we invite panels of decision makers to serve as judges, so debaters are engaging in real advocacy–speaking to people who might act on what they hear.
The topic for this school year is water policy. Each year debaters address a broad question of public policy from a variety of perspectives. With each debate, students are exposed to different opponents, refine–or even change–their arguments, and strengthen their skills, all while developing expertise in a meaningful subject. In their efforts to answer the question about whether the government should increase its protection of water resources, debaters are discussing issues related to racial equity, tribal ownership, environmental stewardship, agricultural development, mining, fracking, feminism, colonialism, and the anti-Blackness in US water policy we’ve seen in Flint, Baltimore, and surrounding the Anacostia River. Through debate, our young people are learning about the world while learning the skills to change it.