The Barkley Forum has a strong commitment to providing debate opportunities for those in under-served communities, both rural and urban. The Emory National Debate Institute initially began in the 1960s to provide debate training for students from rural Georgia. That role expanded in the 1980s to provide opportunities for students from urban areas.
In order to bring debate to students in urban communities, the Barkley Forum pioneered the growth of Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs). UDLs began in Atlanta in 1985 in partnership with the Atlanta Public Schools and a few dedicated teachers. In 1996, Emory University received a substantial grant from the Open Society Institute to significantly expand the program setting up pilot UDL's in other cities. Within three years, over 2,000 inner-city high school students in more than ten cities nationwide were debating who had never had the opportunity to debate before. In 2007 Emory staff and faculty led outreach programs in South Korea, Jamaica, and Colombia. Today there are UDLs in 23 cities and over 35,000 students and teachers have received the benefits of this rigorous academic program.