The topic up for debate was domestic surveillance in the U.S. and whether it should be curtailed.
As the newly-formed debate team at Booker T. Washington high school in Overtown prepared its talking points, Takia Ragin was brought back to a courtroom in Albany, Georgia.
There she was again, watching her father tried on federal drug and weapons charges, as hours and hours of his wiretapped phone conversations filled the courtroom. Every now and then, Ragin’s own voice would come in over the speakers.
“For me it was a real invasion of privacy, like family things played for everyone there in court,” said Ragin, now 17. “So when I heard the topic, domestic surveillance, I was ready to debate against it.”
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For the first time this year, the Urban Debate League has taken root in 18 of Miami-Dade’s neediest public schools. With chapters from Los Angeles to Chicago and New York, Miami-Dade was, until this year, the largest urban school district without a league.
The national nonprofit hopes to help kids debate their way to better school grades and maybe even a college scholarship. The league’s own peer-reviewed research shows that is often the case: Urban debaters tend to improve their GPAs and are more likely to graduate from high school and college.
“The whole goal is to get these kids to college, basically, and pursuing careers,” said Nalisa Saati, program director for the Miami-Dade league.
The league’s inaugural debate in Miami was held last month. The next, dubbed the Martin Luther King Classic in honor of the upcoming holiday, takes place Saturday at the University of Miami.
When Booker T. was getting its first debate team off the ground, college prep teacher Anthony Jennings seemed like the most obvious person to coach it. A former lawyer, Jennings knows how to argue a point. After graduating from Georgetown, Jennings came back to his hometown and started volunteering at Booker T. Soon, he left his “boring” job as a contracts attorney to teach full-time.
“I just enjoy what I do,” he said. “Here, students keep me on my toes.”
The Urban Debate League focuses on policy debate, meaning students have to pull from research and other sources to back up their points. They have to debate both sides of an argument and also work collaboratively since they debate in teams.
For John Leverston, who co-coaches with Jennings, debate is about teaching students how to think critically.
“Mostly, I want to teach them just how to think for themselves,” said Leverston, who is also a program manager for the volunteer organization City Year. “It’s easy for us to be influenced by our day-to-day routines. We see these things and we adapt them as our own culture. But how often do you think about why you vote the way you vote and watch the things you watch?”
Leverston said it’s easier to do that if he can show students how the debate topic relates to what they are already learning in class and their everyday lives.
For Ragin, president of the debate club, it wasn’t hard to make that connection. Being forced to research and argue the case for domestic surveillance was difficult but eye-opening, given her father’s case. He is awaiting sentencing as Ragin wraps up her busy senior year as an active member in 13 different clubs and sports.
“He was wrong,” she said of her dad. “I had to realize that he was wrong, and domestic surveillance helps. It was hard because I love my father. I love my dad.”
Debaters from each school face off each month. Booker T. students were stunned when they placed second in the inaugural event in December.
“You should have seen their faces,” Jennings said. “The students were told they were from Booker T. They were from an inner-city school. They probably weren’t going to be prepared as other students.”
Instead, four of Booker T.’s six debaters placed in the top 15 out of dozens of competitors.
“They sort of got confidence,” Jennings said. “It was sort of an ‘aha’ moment.”
There was plenty of celebration, but Leverston was surprised by how the students reacted. On the bus ride home, team members eagerly read through the judge’s comments on their performance.
“Literally, they were going through their comments — someone criticizing them — and figuring out how to do better. That’s an incredible thing, to be able to take feedback,” Leverston said.
Saati, the league director in Miami-Dade, is working on growing the program. She is looking for donors to help pay for buses to debates and feeding the students once they’re there. Each event costs about $5,000, she said, but is completely free for students. Debaters also need to be provided with professional clothes, she said.
Already, Florida International University, Miami Dade College and the University of Miami are on board as partners. Each has agreed to host debate competitions, which happen once a month. The judges are all volunteers — local lawyers, business leaders and university representatives.
Saati hopes the debaters will form relationships with the league’s partners that will help students get to college.
“Debate provides students with access to scholarships everywhere. There are a lot of schools that go around the nation and recruit,” she said.
Saati is proof it can happen. She was offered a scholarship to the University of Texas at Dallas after a recruiter watched her at a debate tournament.
“I’ve never found one forum to do so much,” she said. “We really need to open up the doors for these students.”
How to help
To donate, visit http://bit.ly/1RHJ2U2. Make sure to designate your donation to the Miami league in the comments section.
To volunteer, email Miami program director Nalisa Saati at email@example.com.