Emory Report
November 27, 2006
Volume 59, Number 12



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November 27 , 2006
The gift of gab

By Kim Urquhart

Too often, children are told to be quiet in school, instead of being encouraged to express themselves, says Emory’s Director of Forensics Melissa Maxcy Wade. Wade was no such child; at age 12 she talked her way out of a home economics class and into a speech class instead. It was there, in Houston, Texas, where Wade first “fell in love with debate,” a passion that has shaped her career as a top debate coach and national expert.

The high school where Wade would go next happened to have one of the best speech and debate programs in the country. By graduation, Wade had emerged as the top high school debate and speech student in the U.S.

A college scholarship brought her to Emory, where she was a star debater with the Barkley Forum, Emory’s nationally ranked intercollegiate debate team. Wade now heads the Barkley Forum, and has since 1972, the year she graduated from Emory. Three decades later, Wade has coached Emory’s Barkley Forum to more than 30 intercollegiate debate titles and has introduced thousands of students — many of them at-risk youth — to the power of words.

“Debate is a quick, competitive way of giving kids incentive to build critical thinking and research skills,” Wade says. “It’s a vehicle for a better education.”

Because competitive tournament debate requires funding for research materials, travel and training, its primary participants have historically been affluent, white males. Committed to changing this demographic, Wade set out to transform the face of debate.

She began by recruiting more women and people of color to the Barkley Forum. Her desire to level the playing field extended beyond the college arena and into the public schools, where she believed debate could be used to nurture the potential of all children.

“Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that ‘the world is in dire need of creative extremists’ has always resonated with me,” says Wade. “I couldn’t change the world, but I could garden my little corner of the universe.”

Planting the seed of change in education, Wade founded the Urban Debate League in 1985, a partnership between the Barkley Forum and Atlanta Public Schools to bring interscholastic debate opportunities to under-served populations. The UDL has grown into a national education reform movement that has successfully reached more than 40,000 students and teachers in 20 cities around the U.S.

Wade says she first had the idea of starting a debate league for inner-city students as an Emory graduate student in educational studies. As part of her research for the project, she visited several struggling schools in Atlanta. “It was clear to me that education was unequal,” she said, and she approached the school system with her idea.

“I cannot tell you I sat down with some vision of what was going to happen,” she admits. “The UDL evolved because it was a partnership; it was teachers working with teachers and then with students. It is what happens in a grassroots movement when the right people happen to land together.”

Today, Wade acts as the national advisor to the Open Society Institute, a principal funder of the urban debate network, and has been the lead investigator for more than $3 million in grants to support UDL projects. One of these is the Emory National Debate Institute, which Wade directs each summer. More than 300 middle and high school students and teachers from around the country come to Emory for debate training. For some students, it introduces college as a possibility not previously considered.

“The experience of living for two weeks on a college campus demystifies the college experience for students for whom prison was more knowable than college,” says Wade.

About three-fourths of urban high school debaters graduate and attend four-year colleges or universities, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Debate has also been shown to improve student educational performance, strengthen communication skills, foster leadership skills, and enhance knowledge of important social issues.

“Debate is a very empowering activity in terms of finding your voice, and that, for our inner-city kids, has been one of the most amazing things,” Wade says.

Wade’s research shows that after one year in an urban debate program, student reading scores improve by 25 percent and disciplinary actions decrease by 50 percent.

“We are getting good assessment data,” she says, “but we need it to be more long-term, and it’s expensive.”
The need for funding led to the formation of a group called the Associated Leaders of Urban Debate, which is raising money to create multiyear, multicity assessment opportunities. The group plans to collect five years of “hard assessment data” and then seek federal funding for urban debate programs. “We don’t have small ambitions here,” Wade says.

“I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘wow, 40,000 kids have been through this [UDL] program, you must be really, really proud,’” Wade says. “And I am proud, but it should be 10 million kids doing this program. It’s hard to get enthusiastic when there is so much need.”

To support and expand programs such as the UDL, Wade works with the National Debate Project, a consortium of Atlanta-area universities that have partnered to promote debate as a tool for empowering youth living in socio-economically challenged communities. Wade serves as co-executive director of the NDP, which she hopes will serve as an incubator of urban debate innovation and programming for secondary school students and teachers that can be replicated nationwide.

Wade also leads a host of other community outreach activities through the Barkley Forum. Her program targeting secondary students in Atlanta Housing Authority communities, the Computer Assisted Debate Project, was selected as the nation’s signature education program for the White House initiative “Helping America’s Youth.”

Her most recent project is helping to develop college and secondary school debate programs in South Korea. Wade has run workshops in Seoul with Ewha Womans University, made presentations at the Korean Development Institute’s graduate schools in public policy and business, and is developing exchange programs between Korean, U.S. and UDL debate students.

Debate has become a “big deal” in Korea, says Wade, thanks in part to the efforts of Jason Jarvis, an Emory alumnus who has helped build the college debate program in Seoul. “In Korea, debate is a great way to teach English with the bonus of critical thinking,” Wade says of debate’s global scope.

Back in the U.S., Wade serves as a political debate commentator for various media on local, state and national elections. For every U.S. presidential election since 1976, Wade has served on the National Associated Press Presidential Debate Evaluation Panel — one of only three U.S. university debate coaches to do so. She says that today’s political debates pale in comparison to the serious, in-depth policy discussions of the Kennedy-Nixon era, which she considers “real debates.”

Even in her free time, Wade says she is a “political junkie, addicted to news.” This is a passion she shares with her family, for whom debate is a family business.

Wade and husband Jim, a retired high school debate coach who now teaches communication at Georgia State University, work side by side at the Emory National Debate Institute each summer. Their two children participated in the Urban Debate League as teenagers and went on to attend Emory as Barkley Forum debaters. “We’re an unusual family,” Wade says. “We are a lot alike, and we all work together.”

Wade’s daughter, a doctoral student at Ohio State, now works with the Urban Debate League in Milwaukee; her son, a doctoral student at Northwestern, helps with the Miami program. Debate events around the country now serve as occasions for family reunions.

Throughout her decades of service to the Barkley Forum and to the community — for which she has received dozens of awards — Wade has also managed to earn four degrees at Emory and teach generations of students in the Division of Educational Studies. She is also involved with the National Campaign for Civic Discourse, a project of the Associated Leaders of Urban Debate created to spur civic engagement, public debate and reasoned discourse in schools, religious institutions and society.

“A lot of the value of debate discussion is not to be ‘Crossfire,’ but to engage thoughtful, research-based, nuanced conversation to advance our culture,” Wade says. “But we have to learn to talk to each other, and the heart of good communication — and good relationships — is respect.”