The Art of Argument

The Urban Debate League, launched at Emory, gives inner-city students a voice

By Mary J. Loftus

Michelle Parks always knew she had a lot to say. She just never realized how far this trait would take her.

When First Lady Laura Bush and U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings visited Atlanta's Benjamin Carson Honors Preparatory School in March to view a demonstration of computer-assisted debate, fourteen-year-old Parks was selected to give an introductory address about the program.

Being on a debate team, said Parks, has increased her desire to attend college as well as her determination to work toward change in her northwest Atlanta community, where the poverty rate is nearly twice that of the city as a whole and the vast majority of students are being raised by single mothers.

"I'm learning about the power of words," Parks says. "We should all work to replace weapons with words."

The First Lady was impressed.

"Michelle Parks told us that debating helped her find her voice," Bush said. "Anyone who has raised a teenager knows they are searching for ways to express themselves."

Parks is a beneficiary of a program sponsored by the Urban Debate League (UDL), which was founded at Emory twenty years ago by Director of Forensics Melissa Maxcy-Wade 72C 76G 96T 00T (left) in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools.

Shortly after Mrs. Bush's visit, White House staff called Maxcy-Wade to say the Computer Assisted Debate Project had been selected as a signature program for the Americans Helping Youth Initiative.

Parks flew to D.C. in October to speak at a White House summit, and other Atlanta students were featured in a video about the program that will be shown nationwide.

"We are all about community partnerships, research-based outcomes, and building student confidence," says Maxcy-Wade. "Our idea is to grab them early and keep them interested."

Maxcy-Wade first had the idea of starting a debate league for inner-city students after visiting several struggling urban schools in Atlanta in 1985 as an Emory graduate student in educational studies.

"I obviously believed in debate," she says. "I had been doing it since I was thirteen, and I was head coach at Emory. There were very few women and people of color in debate at the time. I saw these students in need of a better education and debate was a vehicle to provide that--a quick, competitive way of giving kids incentive to build critical thinking and research skills."

Initially, funding was scarce. "We were running the program on six rubber bands and a gerbil," Maxcy-Wade says. "We turned down a hundred kids a summer who wanted to be involved."

She worked with educators, government officials, and parents to secure the considerable resources needed to launch and maintain the league, eventually securing funds from universities, the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute, federal grants, Boys and Girls Clubs, and urban housing authorities.

After two decades, the UDL has grown into a national education reform movement that has successfully reached thirty thousand inner-city middle and high-school students.

Seventeen cities and more than three hundred schools now have Urban Debate Leagues, and the movement represents the most explosive growth in high-school debate in the sixty-eight year history of the National Forensic League.

"We are opening the conversation across the socioeconomic divide," says Maxcy-Wade, who is in constant demand as a speaker and consultant and has spent years helping to develop UDLs in New York City, Baltimore, Miami, and Nashville.

Not only are Urban Debate League teams taking part in tournaments across the country, facing off against teams from upscale private schools--they are winning.   

"We took the Carson Prep UDL team to their first tournament in October 2004, and the results were stunning," says Maxcy-Wade. "They won six medals."     

Parks, a member of the victorious Carson team, wore her medals to school under her shirt for a week.

Everyone has the capacity to debate, regardless of educational background, race, gender, or class, says coach James Roland, who joined Emory's debate staff five years ago. A star debater in college, Roland says he came to Emory because its debate program, the Barkley Forum, is one of the best in the country and because it takes an active role in starting debate programs in schools that serve impoverished neighborhoods.

"We've seen the positive transformation debate has had in students' lives," he says. "It's a real, authentic, life-changing experience. Students involved in debate become better human beings--more tolerant, better able to understand the perspectives of others, and more informed about the world in which they live."

The payoff to involving inner-city students in debate programs is easily quantifiable, Maxcy-Wade says. Poor readers become speed-readers. Troublemakers begin using words instead of fists and weapons. Shy teenagers become confident speakers.

"Reading scores are up by 25 percent after one year in the program," she notes. "Sixty-eight percent of urban debaters are on the honor roll at the end of their first year."

About three-fourths of urban high school debaters graduate and attend four-year colleges or universities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education .

"But the best results we're getting are in the affective domain," Maxey-Wade says. "Self-esteem goes off the charts for these students."

Ed Lee, an Urban Debate League alumnus from Atlanta who joined Emory's debate staff this fall, sees debate as a way out of hopelessness for youth who have felt alienated from school, from the political system, and from society itself. Urban debaters, he says, will become active, informed citizens.

"Imagine graduating from high school each year millions of underprivileged teenagers with the ability to articulate their needs, the needs of others, and the ability to offer solutions," says Lee.

This image inspired scholar Henry A. Giroux, Waterbury Chair Professor of Secondary Education at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Abandoned Generation: Democracy Beyond the Culture of Fear , to champion the UDL as a way to reenergize civic responsibility.

"The message that appears to unite this generation of youth--and it is a message that resonates deeply with the Urban Debate League movement--is that a more democratic and just world is possible," Giroux writes. "The Urban Debate Leagues provide a tangible reason to be hopeful."

Barkley Forum alumni are involved with Urban Debate Leagues across the country. Calling debate an "extreme intellectual challenge for young minds," New York attorney Yvette Valdez 00C says her participation is both a public service and a personal mission, especially in the Latino communities.

"The small revolution Melissa Wade created is regenerating itself," Valdez says. "Former students of mine are judging rounds, leading labs, and teaching debate at various institutes. Watching how so many of us give back selflessly to this organization speaks volumes about how it impacted our lives."

Florida's first UDL, which started this fall in thirteen struggling Miami-Dade public schools, will be facing first-year expenses estimated at $275,000. Miami attorney Richard Garrett 70C 73L , Wade's former debate partner, is helping to raise the funds.

"We've been setting up the organization with Melissa's support and constant guidance, working with the school board and Miami Dade College," says Garrett. "My whole family is involved."

Garrett's son, Jon, a second-year JD/MBA student at Emory, and fourteen-year-old daughter, Lena, have both attended Emory's National Debate Institute.

"Debate is awesome," says Lena Garrett. "It's an adrenaline rush, like taking six SATs in a day."

More than half of the three hundred students who took part in Emory's National Debate Institute this summer were from public schools serving impoverished areas. Many attended on full scholarship, with meals and transportation provided

Parks, who attended this summer's institute, admits she was intimidated at first, but soon found she could keep up with her private-school and suburban peers.

On a steamy afternoon outside her mother's modest apartment in Atlanta's Bowen Homes, Parks gathers with her family while waiting for the electricity to come back on after a summer storm.

A thoughtful teenager who takes great pride in being a member of the debate team, Parks jokes with her mother, Brenda, about her gift of gab, apparent even when she was a toddler.

"I always knew Michelle could talk, but I never thought it could turn into something positive!" Brenda Parks says. "My baby introducing the First Lady, imagine that."

Then she looks askance at her daughter. "Of course, when that reporter asked if you would like to ask Mrs. Bush any question what would it be, and you said you would ask her about the war . . . oh my goodness."

Parks, for once, doesn't say a word--she just smiles.






© 2005 Emory University