Duking it out in debate

Tuesday, June 28, 2005
Robin Ayers, left, and Joselyn Mathis, right, participated in an end-of-camp tournament at the Emory National Debate Institute on the Emory campus in Atlanta, Thursday. Roughly 120 students attended Emory's National Debate Institute, a two-week summer camp at the university. The camp gives debate team members a crash course on topics expected to dominate debate competitions in the coming year.

ATLANTA -- Adrienne Glover admits to getting emotional when her inner-city school's debate team faces experienced, well-funded squads from exclusive private schools.

The emotion? Joy.

"It's really fun when you beat them," said Glover, a rising 14-year-old at Benjamin Mays High School in southwest Atlanta, where all the students are minorities and half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. "They think they're so good."

Mays is part of the Urban Debate League -- part of a national program started by Atlanta's Emory University that instructs public school students from poor areas in the traditionally upscale art of debate.

Founded in 1985, leaders at Emory reasoned that debating would provide students in Atlanta's inner-city schools with communication skills useful in conflict resolution, advocacy and other aspects of their lives.

Since then, the program has gradually grown and now, through the National Debate Project, includes more than 2,000 middle and high school students supported by leagues in 17 cities.

A crash course

The leagues work with schools, recreation directors, public housing officials and others to establish, fund and support debate teams in areas where the competitive talkathons are far from traditional.

"Historically, if you're white and male and affluent, this is a game you play," said Melissa Maxey-Wade, executive co-director of the National Debate Project. "But when you level the playing field, everybody wins."

Students in urban debate leagues from New York City to Los Angeles made up about half the roughly 120 students attending Emory's National Debate Institute, a two-week summer camp at the university that concluded this past week. The camp gives debate team members a crash course on topics expected to dominate debate competitions in the coming year.

This year's debate topic was civil liberties and the U.S. Patriot Act.

One afternoon at the camp, Glover was acting as timekeeper in an Emory classroom as four students debated whether the act needs to be scaled back.

The two teams took turns stepping to a podium and making rapid-fire speeches, reading as much of their arguments into the record as possible in a limited amount of time.

When they were done, their opponents stepped up and, like defense attorneys, worked to poke holes in the other side's argument -- from questioning whether a speaker's opinions were backed by documented facts to making him prove he knew the definition of terms such as "pre-emptive arrest" and "military detention."

Life-changing skills

Fifteen-year-old Sarayfah Bolling, a rising sophomore at Atlanta's Southside High School, said the skills she's honed on her school's debate team have already led to at least one benefit -- she wins more arguments with her mother.

"I like to argue," said Bolling, laughing. "You can pull out those logical things she can't think about."

Glover says she's been teased by classmates who have never heard of competitive debating and don't understand why she sometimes misses basketball practice to attend debate competitions.

She says she just uses the opportunity to try to get her teammates involved.

"I tell them it's fun," said Glover, who described herself as a straight-A student. "I tell them, 'You should come; it'll help get those 'F's up.'"

For Ed Lee, debate did more than that. It changed the entire course of his life.

Lee was a student at Harper High School in Atlanta when he joined a debate team sponsored by the Urban Debate League. Before that, school had never clicked for him.

"I was not one of those students who saw themselves going to college before starting to debate," said Lee, who earned a master's degree from the University of Alabama in 1999 and is currently director of the university's debate team.

Lee, who was one of the instructors at the debate institute camp and will join Emory's faculty as a debate coach in the fall, said he enjoys working with urban debaters, even if they don't stay with the game.

"I consider myself training the next generation of community activists," he said. "Some will be lawyers, some will be teachers, some will be nurses and some will be on the custodial staff.

"But hopefully all of them will be enabled to make their voices heard."

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