By the 1970s, budget deficits led 80% of urban schools to eliminate their debate programs and abandon civics education. Since modern debate requires funding for computer access, research materials, travel to tournaments, and training at summer institutes, the primary population that has historically participated in competitive tournament debate can be characterized as white, male, and affluent. Committed to changing this demographic and using debate to nurture the potential for all children in our educational system, the Barkley Forum of Emory University founded the Urban Debate League (UDL) in 1985, in partnership with Atlanta Public Schools. Similar programs developed separately first in Detroit in the 80s followed by new initiatives in California, New York and elsewhere all dedicated to using debate as a tool to produce educational justice.
After an extensive search, the Open Society Institute discovered the Barkley Forum model and developed plans to replicate it in New York City. When looking for a local partner to manage the program, OSI selected Will Baker and the IMPACT Coalition. A partnership between the Open Society Institute, Emory University and the IMPACT Coalition resulted in the creation of the New York Urban Debate League, a high school policy debate league focused on neediest students in the neediest schools. As these students began to defeat students from wealthy private schools and elite public schools, the NY experiment proved instantly successful and drew the attention of educators, politicians, debate experts and funders nationwide as they flocked to New York to observe this education phenomenon. The Urban Debate movement has been featured in the Baltimore Sun, Chronicle for Higher Education, BET's 106th & Park and on CBS' 60 Minutes. With the expertise gleaned in both Atlanta and New York, programs emerged in Baltimore, Fullerton, Los Angeles, Austin, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis, Boston, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Newark, Providence, and elsewhere. According to the National Debate Project, "Over 100 colleges and universities now recruit intercollegiate debaters in UDL populations with substantial scholarship support".
Expansion led to innovation and experimentation especially in NY, Baltimore and Providence. In those cities, debate moved from solely a competitive activity into a communitry activity with debates as likely to occur at a local mall or in front of the City Council as at a competitive interscholastic tournament on the weekend. Teachers inspired by the powerful effect that debate competitions had on their students, deployed debate in their math, science and history courses to reinvigorate curriculum. Like their counterparts in Newark and Atlanta, they brought debate to younger students creating middle school leagues and courses for elementary schools. Activists seeking new avenues for change brought debate into prisons, elder care facilities and community-based organizations, anywhere where the ability to listen to others would be useful. Leaders in Burlington and Austin began experimenting with debates over the web connecting urban students with their peers in Japan, England, Russia and China. Artists fused debate with music and art to incorporate their daily lives into a new reality of youth expression.
Urban debate had matured from a group of competitive debate leagues into a fluid global network of debate partner programs that functioned as well in competitive arenas, classrooms as they did in the public square. The goal was still to serve children and help them transform their lives but the instruments had moved from pure leagues to debate communities led by visionary leaders. Their reach now extends beyond urban centers into ex-urban and rural areas to help young people discover their voice.
Today, urban debate means much more than just competition. It promulgates debates in the classroom as a learning tool, in the public square to build community awareness, in middle schools to foster self-expression among adolescents, and in community-based organizations where different formats of debate will emerge. Debate should be everywhere that young people face difficult choices and need more tools to overcome barriers.
In 2005, a gathering of leading urban debate thinkers, lawyers and executives led by NYU president John Sexton developed a plan to support and advance this movement and help make debate available to larger numbers of young people. The Associated Leaders of Urban Debate (ALOUD) was formed. At the helm was Will Baker, a former NGO representative turned award-winning social entrepreneur and debate coach who ran the IMPACT Coalition's New York Urban Debate League from its inception. Featured in US News & World Report and the NY Times, Will helped young people learn to express themselves, think critically, and use words rather than fists to settle conflicts for over twenty years. He brought debate into prisons and faith-based communities, coordinated college scholarships and international exchanges for hundreds of kids and ran the country’s largest urban debate initiative. His decades of experience in nonprofit management, debate, and youth development made him an easy choice to direct the Associated Leaders of Urban Debate.
With over 20 partners in cities from Seattle to Miami, ALOUD began to invite programs using other forms of debate, civic engagement, reasoned discourse, hip-hop, and public speaking to join as partners in a movement to bring youth expression to the attention of the American public. Colleges interested in new models of debate also became partners led by NYU, the University of Vermont and Emory University joined by schools in Eastern Europe and Russia. ALOUD partners shepherded the development of traditional leagues in Miami, Nashville, Milwaukee, new debate communities in Tacoma and Columbus and hope for thousands of students nationally.
Powerful solutions require dedicated oversight and a visionary narrative. ALOUD’s global network builds local capacity and educates stakeholders about the potential of debate. Through our experiences from other cities, ALOUD presents empirical data and sensible options to help young people find their voice.