Lift Every Voice: Student Empowerment through Debate

by Olivia Veira '17
December 10, 2014

Olivia is a sophomore concentrating in Public Health. She is community fellow for the Rhode Island Urban Debate League and debate coach at Paul Cuffee Upper School and Alvarez High School.  

“Don’t be salty.”

During one of our last practices of the semester, the teachers I co-coach with at Paul Cuffee Upper School and I decided to ask our students for feedback. We wanted them to create norms for both themselves and for  us. The students were quick to chime in and their instructions were clear.

First on the list: don’t be salty.

Salty; a person who is the opposite of sweet. Someone who is cranky, irritable, and generally uninterested and distant.

My students laughed as they wrote this on the board, and I laughed along with them. They jokingly pointed this to one of the teachers and continued with the list, jotting down their opinions.

Last on the list: have faith in us.

Nearly all of the schools within the Rhode Island Urban Debate League (RIUDL, pronounced “riddle”) have less than a 70 percent 4-year graduation rate. Classical High School, a public school just a mile and a half away from Brown, has a 97 percent 4-year graduation rate, the highest in the state. Just a few yards away, Central High School has a 56 percent graduation rate. Further up the street, off of Elmwood Avenue, Alvarez High School’s student body of about 486 sits atop a former Superfund site a place deemed so full of hazardous waste that it is a national priority to clean.

Students from these schools, who are constantly reduced to their low standardized test scores yet consistently denied educational support, are not only completely aware of the faults within their education, but also extremely capable of articulating them when given the opportunity. Some of these students were recently named champions at the RIUDL’s fourth debate tournament of the semester, the Annual Ugly Sweater Bash on December 6th.

The RIUDL’s mission is to empower urban students to expand their minds and project their voices through debate. The nonprofit, which has been operating for 15 years, equips students with the academic skills, leadership abilities, and ambition to succeed in high school and graduate well-prepared for college, employment, and engaged citizenship. The organization sends college students from Rhode Island to work with a teacher at one of 12 schools in the state. About once per month, students from all 12  schools convene to compete against one another.

I joined the RIUDL hoping to share my passion for an activity that I loved in high school: competitive debate. I wanted my students to be able to understand capitalism, debate about the economic value of a policy, and argue about the social implications of political decisions. I stayed because I found that debate means much more to the students: it is a place where they can express themselves, be heard, and challenge social and political norms. I decided to coordinate because I wanted to contribute - even in a small way - to the amplification of student voices rarely heard.

I want my students to know that their voices are important and deserve attention, and that they have the power to make substantive change, despite what some “salty” people may tell them. I want them to know that I do have faith in them.