Debating Their Future
Every month dozens of city kids gather for a competition. Not on a court or a field - but in classrooms throughout Providence, for all-day debate tournaments sponsored by the Rhode Island Urban Debate League. Jim Hummel finds the tournament is only part of the equation, as the students have to spend hours getting ready for their opponents.
It is a coup d'état of sorts on this Saturday in late October - a peaceful coup as dozens of high school students have overtaken classrooms throughout Mount Pleasant High School, where they will spend the day....debating.
They are part of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, formed in 1999 for high school students from Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket. The tournament in October had a Halloween theme, with the participants encouraged to arrive in costume.
Belanger: ``I so firmly believe that there is no activity that can better prepare a young person for virtually anything they want to do.''
Ashley Belanger came to Rhode Island six years ago to become the organization's first executive director. She watches a similar transformation year after year.
Belanger: ``I've now seen students come from a shy freshman to the most advanced form of debate at the national tournament.''
Torres: ``Debate is...amazing. It's literally changed who I am.''
Rafael Torres was one of those shy freshman. To listen to him at a tournament held at Brown University last month, you'd never know he had overcome a huge stuttering problem.
Torres: ``It wasn't until about sophomore year when I started debating, that that grew from not being able to say a sentence without stuttering to the point now where I can give these speeches at debate without having a problem.''
The league's format is what's called policy debate - a resolution created at the beginning of the season and debated throughout the year. It is not easy. The participants have to put in hours of preparation, then during the day-long tournaments stand up before an adult judge and opponents - and give four 8-minute speeches in each round, sometimes going three or four rounds on a single day. And they face cross examination from the opposing side.
Torres: ``You can plan as much as you want for a debate but at the end of the day they're going to throw this at you, they're going to throw a card they didn't know they had at you. They're going to pull up a piece of evidence that's more recent than yours. And you just gotta pretend it didn't happen or you gotta argue something different, argue it better. It's a lot of on-your-feet thinking.''
This year's resolution: ``The United States government should substantially increase economic engagement with Mexico, Venezuela or Cuba.''
Belanger: ``If you told most high school students, hey do you want to join this thing and go out and research 30 pages of new material in this format that is so foreign to anything you've done I don't think there you would get a lot of takers.''
Hummel: ``So what is the sell? Do you offer them food?''
Belanger: ``Well food certainly helps get them in the door. But you know it's really interesting talking to students about why they join debate. Some of them will say I fully recognize that this is going to increase my likelihood of getting into and doing well in college - others will say I didn't feel like I had a place in any of the other after-school activities and I really feel like I found a community here and I found a group of friends.''
Then there is Genesis Sanchez, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republican at the age of 10.
Sanchez: ``English was a foreign language to me. I had no clue it even existed.''
Hummel: ``How did you learn English?''
Sanchez: ``I'm still learning English. I feel like I learned English because of the determination I had to finally understand what people were saying. I just didn't want to be there clueless. I wanted to know because I wanted to partake in all of these things.''
Sanchez, now a freshman at Rhode Island College, is studying to become a criminal prosecutor. She viewed debate as critical foundation to someday reaching her goal.
Hummel: ``How is debate laying the groundwork for what you want to do?''
Sanchez: ``Honestly, I feel like debate, it shows me about policies. We don't just debate about random things, we debate about policies and policy making, we debate about executive orders, and just all of these things that have to do so much with how we make policies in this country. But also the moment that you go into the room, usually dressed up. You have to have your case and you have to have preemptive answers to what the other team is going to say against you. It's very formal as well you're not just coming in a room and yelling at someone. And at the end of the day you have to sway a judge, usually in the courtroom of course you have to sway a jury, but in this case a judge has a final decision and is the only person that can vote for it, whether you win or not.''
She went to both state and national tournaments during her time at Juanita Sanchez High School, where her debating skills become well known - and the little girl who didn't know how to speak English was long forgotten.
Sanchez: ``The teacher would ask a question and everybody was like Genesis this is not debate. Stop. I'm like everything is debate, what are you talking about.''
Hall: ``You have to speak well, you have to read well, you have to really know what you're talking about.''
Kendall Hall, a high school sophomore, participated in a summer camp the Urban Debate League runs in August. The kids spent a week at a building on the Brown University campus getting a taste of what they can expect in the fall. Call it boot camp with a lot of fun added in.
Hummel: ``How have you changed since when you first started doing it?''
Hall: ``I think I've changed a lot. I can actually speak in front of this camera now. I would never have been able to do that in 9th grade. I've become more social. I can talk more I can do public speaking better.''
Hummel: ``Do you see a lot of yourself in some of those kids coming up?''
Torres: ``I think I definitely do, there's kids who just come in and they're shy and don't want to talk and they're just like I don't know policy is and they just thrown their hands in the air. Then after a few weeks, after a few months I step into their classes and they're arguing with their teacher, like, no this isn't right. And a lot of that growth is because of debate.''
Belanger: ``In high school with all this talk of NECAP right now you don't have time to be talking about critical race theory in a high school classroom.''
Sanchez: ``I consider it a debate family. And you just get to know all of these different people that you have otherwise not have met because you would have stayed in the circle of your school.''
Torres: ``I've done plenty of other things, but everything stems from debate. Debate gave me the ability to speak my mind, speak clearly, think about what I'm' saying before I say it. All the speech practice before debate became the foundation for where I am now.''
In Providence, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.