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Palo Alto debate nonprofit empowers students to have a voice

Silicon Valley Urban Debate League hopes to reinvent debate

On a recent Thursday evening at Eastside College Preparatory School, 13 students' heads are bent intently over desks as a song by hip-hop artist Childish Gambino blasts out of a laptop.

Heads dip and bob to the beat of the song, but the students are focused on taking quick, detailed notes on the most important themes behind Gambino's wordplay. They jot down observations on the downside of fame and a failed relationship.

The students are using the hip-hop song to learn how to flow, a practice that competitive debaters use to keep track of all the arguments in a round. Flow requires digesting and documenting information as quickly and as coherently as possible whether it's hip-hop lyrics or an argument against a controversial government policy. The more a person gets down, the better prepared he or she will be to dismantle the opponent's argument.

It's a seemingly unconventional classroom activity, yet completely befitting of a program hoping to reinvent the world of competitive debate, typically an activity reserved for or associated with well-financed, high-performing schools and students.

The students sitting in that classroom, most of whom are from East Palo Alto, Oakland and South San Francisco, are pilot participants in the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, a Palo Alto-based nonprofit working to bring the world of debate to low-income youth.

The Silicon Valley league, which launched its work this fall at Eastside in East Palo Alto and Overfelt High School in San Jose, is a new arm of the well-established National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. With the goal of empowering traditionally marginalized youth voices, the nonprofit organization partners with Bay Area schools where 40 percent or more of students are eligible for federal reduced-price meal plans.

The league provides schools the necessary startup capital in this case, resources, training, curriculum and experienced volunteers to get full-fledged competitive debate teams off the ground. (At Eastside, the league this autumn helped to reinvent an elective speech and debate class that was started three years ago.)

"One of the things I've been really excited about over time and got me hooked as a teacher was this opportunity to say, 'Hey, there are all these young people who have creativity and voice and interesting things to say about the world and they haven't been listened to essentially their whole educational lives,'" said Dmitri Seals, the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League executive director and a former teacher. "Debate helps create a space not only as an after-school activity but also in the classroom for young voices to be taken really seriously."

The debate league teaches policy debate, a form of argument in which teams of two advocate for and against a resolution that typically calls for policy change by the federal government. So for the past several weeks, about 25 Eastside students have lived and breathed a resolution that calls for the government to develop and spread technologies for solar desalination.

During biweekly after-school practices, they have learned about the drought, read academic texts on desalination and emphatically discussed both the negative impact of the proposed resolution (cost, economic impact, environmental harm) and the potential benefits (increased global water supply, support a basic human right to water, energy-efficient solution). The practices are led by Seals or by a group of student volunteers from the Stanford University Youth Debate Initiative, who came to Eastside through the Urban Debate League.

Seals warmed the students up one Thursday evening with a speed drill, in which the class rose to their feet to read a dense academic text on California's water crisis as loudly, clearly and quickly as they could. The first time through, they read the text straight through at the top of their lungs for about 30 seconds; the second time, they had to say "uh" in between every word; the third, they read it backwards; the fourth, they held pens in their mouths; and the last time, they read it straight through again.

The goal? To get through as much as the text as possible by the fourth time while also digesting the meaning of the text.

"It's not just a class where you learn academically you're just here to learn things," said Eastside junior Nohely Peraza, who joined debate for the first time this year. "It's something that broadens your mind in that you can get a lot out of it."

The students participate for various reasons. Peraza said she joined because she loves reading and writing but is terrified of public speaking.

"It's something that's a life skill," she said. "It's something that you use in your everyday life in communication, in all your college classes and beyond. It's something that in any career you would need."

Sophomore Jacob Barrera said he wanted to try something new and then fell in love with debate.

"I also had a fear of public speaking and I just wanted to get over that because I knew it's an important life lesson," said Barrera, who's from South San Francisco. "Since I had a passion for arguing with almost everyone in my life, I always want to be able to back up my arguments with evidence."

When Barrera first heard about the after-school debate league from an Eastside senior whom the Urban Debate League enlisted to make a pitch to his classmates, he thought it would be just another thing to do, adding to his very full plate of activities. Barrera already had cross country every day and started an introduction to computer science class this year.

But the first debate practice he went to changed his mind.

"In a way, it brightened up my day after going through so many hours of school, just being able to relax. It doesn't feel like another class. It's something I can actually fully have fun with and be passionate about," he said.

Senior Jacob Adams, a gregarious, experienced debater that many of the other students look up to (and the one Seals asked to pitch the league to other students), loves the "invigorating feeling" that he gets during debates thinking on one's feet and being able to draw on background knowledge to both back up one's own claims and shoot down one's opponent's. He said he's not religious, but he channels a church preacher when presenting his arguments expounding with confidence, evidence and emotion.

Adams' sermon-like debate style was on full display two weeks ago at Eastside, as the young debaters competed against the other pilot students from Overfelt in an all-day scrimmage event.

"Creating desalination facilities would increase our amount of water, but ... the problem is that people aren't using their water effectively," Adams challenged his opponent, his argument gaining speed and volume as he went on. "California can meet its water needs for the next 30 years by implementing cost-effective urban water conservation. Increasing the amount of water will not solve the true issue of water usage, nor the drought, but will merely drain water from another source, and people would not learn to conserve."

Adams told the story of a young girl named Sally, who lives in the Bay Area, who had to shower and wash her clothes at school because her family didn't have enough water at home. They also had to purchase take-out food and plastic water bottles since they didn't have access to water to wash their dishes.

Adams has clearly heard what Seals pounded into the students at many practices: Illustrate for the judge what is at stake in your argument. In this case, make the judge feel how people's lives change with decreased access to water or with the creation of desalination plants.

This kind of thinking and approach is part and parcel to debate and helps students not only become confident public speakers but also improve academically.

"(Debate) helps me write passionately," Barrera said. "Now, other teachers recognize me as a debater."

Jaya Subramanian, one of the two Eastside teachers the league enlisted to be debate coaches, said that debate makes students better all-around. In subtle ways, debate teaches students how to be discerning readers, listeners and interpreters.

Subramanian and the other teacher-coach, AP government teacher Betsy Cepparullo, said they're grateful for the expertise and support Urban Debate League provided. Eastside's previous iteration, the speech and debate elective, was popular, but neither teacher had experience in debate. At some point in the year, the class turned into study hall.

"We both know how to research and write and articulate arguments, but debate is its own crazy wonderful world," Cepparullo said. "It's so nice to have someone come in and say, 'This is what it feels like when the other side comes up with a really hard argument,' or 'This is what it feels like to flow,' or 'I used to practice flow with rap songs; see how many things you can write down.' I would have never thought of that."

The Urban Debate League claims impressive statistics about the lasting impact of competitive debate. Nearly 65 percent of high school students from East Palo Alto drop out, and fewer than 10 percent attend a four-year college.

But more than 95 percent of urban debaters graduate high school, and more than 90 percent go on to college. They are also 80 percent more likely to graduate college than their peers.

The league estimates that in its first 10 years, it will serve more than 5,000 youth. The Silicon Valley league plans to expand into five schools next year that are currently on a waitlist.

"Schools are hungry for (debate)," said Jennie Savage, one of the Bay Area Urban Debate League's founding board members and director of speech and debate at Palo Alto High School. "For some reason I'm not sure why it has exploded."

And it's exploded at schools across the board, among all demographics. She said she normally gets about 15 to 20 new students signing up for the Paly debate team and had 47 this year. One of her sons attends The Harker School in San Jose, a college-preparatory school that offers debate starting in sixth grade.

"Debate reaches kids in a way that traditional classroom pedagogy hasn't," Savage said. "That's important for students no matter where they are, even if they're privileged but particularly for students who traditional classroom teaching doesn't reach. ... Debate reaches those students in a very unique way."

And more and more schools are getting on board, as more students make it clear to their schools that there is a demand that they want to be met.

The Eastside students have seen an increase in interest, too.

"This is the largest group of people that have joined speech and debate ever," said sophomore Taylor Longmire. "Being here for the past three years, I'm just really happy to see more people being interested. Hopefully since the team is growing, even more people will become interested and see what speech and debate is and how we love it, and maybe they will grow to love it, too."

Peraza said when she participated in her first official competition as a freshman, the Eastside students were some of the only minorities there.

"Seeing now how much the Eastside club has expanded, it's fun to see that all these other minorities want to join with us," Peraza said. "You feel more community, diversity."

It's this feeling of community that almost every single Eastside debate student said draws them to and keeps them participating.

"We all get so close," Fernanda Marquez said. "It's different grade levels, and you don't see that with many other clubs. That's part of the main reason I have been coming back."

"We've laughed. We've cried. We've had dance competitions, rapping competitions," Longmire said of the debate tournaments. "They're just fun. There's no other word to describe it but 'fun.'

"Even though (other students) are different or they look different from you, they're all coming from the same (place). They're like, 'I just memorized a 10-minute speech, and I'm pretty sure I know like eight minutes or nine minutes,'" he said, laughing.

The Eastside and Overfelt students will face off with other Bay Area debate teams from schools like Gunn High School, Bellarmine College Preparatory and Saint Francis in their first official tournament this fall on Sunday, Dec. 7. The Coast Forensic League novice tournament will be from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Overfelt in San Jose.

Watch online

See a video about the students in the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, including excerpts from their debates, produced by Staff Photographer Veronica Weber here.

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