Debate, at least the way most of us think of it, is a tool used to change someone’s mind.
This story, though, is about debate being used to change peoples’ lives, just like it did for Dmitri Seals and Shauntrice Martin. Although each in very different ways.
For Seals, it happened during an interview for his very first teaching job.
“The principal called me into his office at the end of the interview day and he was like, hey, you're teaching these four classes and you're the debate coach,” Seals said.
“And so that was my introduction to debate.”
For Martin, introduced to debate in college, the change happened when she realized she could win fights with her words and not her fists, which she admits, she had done many times in the past.
“That’s the point where I was like, oh my gosh, I can do this for life. This is really great,” Martin said.
From such different beginnings, though, Seals and Martin have now found themselves in the same place: running the recently-formed Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. Seals is the Executive Director, Martin is the league’s Program Director.
The league helps organize debate classes and competitions for students at low-income, high-poverty schools that often have no tradition of debate. They have signed up five schools on the Peninsula and South Bay so far with more on a waiting list.
“One of the things we're really trying to do is enable young people who are kind of at the bottom of the social ladder to have the skills and the encouragements not only to climb up for themselves, but to heal the whole system as they do,” Seals said.
The first step in achieving that, Seals and Martin say, is convincing the students they not only a have a voice, but one that matters. Something, they say, many of the students they encounter are not used to hearing.
“Seeing them take on their power and realize, oh my gosh, I'm brilliant, now I can change something, is something I love about this job,” Martin said.
Martin says she has seen it happen many times with students who are new to debate in the past. It is something she has seen most recently happen to East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy sophomore Blanca Valencia.
“It gives me the motivation and the voice to advocate for my people and myself,” Valencia said.
Valencia walked away with multiple awards from the most recent debate championships. And a new-found confidence that words can make a difference. Especially hers.