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Small But Mighty; How Local Organization Empowers The Hearts And Minds of Broward County Students

The debate program promotes creativity, intellectual thought, and self-discovery.

Proud Debater, writer, and activitst. Prefers nice long weekends with tea and the Economist

It’s not every day that you see floods of tiny legs bustling about in black suits. But if you were at Everglades High School that Thursday, you would’ve found yourself lost in a sea of colorful ties, tiny backpacks, and sheets of paper at every corner. On December 13th, 2018, The Broward County Debate Initiative held its second and largest Elementary After School Tournament, commonly referred to as the EAST. The EAST Tournament is a countywide debate competition, offering elementary schoolers the opportunity to find their voices and learn the art of argumentation. For students, the months leading up to the tournament were filled with weekly training, engaging with coaches, and memorizing their pieces to perfection as well as developing key arguments.

Although Speech and Debate is popular at the high school and college levels, The Broward County Debate Initiative is making waves to expand this activity to middle and elementary schoolers alike. The previously mentioned EAST Tournament alone hosted over 700 schools with nearly a 1,000 students all under Grade 5. On the other hand, things weren’t always like this as the Broward County Debate Initiative has come a long way.

The Broward County Debate Initiative is a public-private partnership between Broward public schools and local businesses. In order to maximize outreach and resources, the two work hand in hand to fund Speech and Debate elective courses for disadvantaged communities, sponsor and run local tournaments, financially support low-income kids to compete at national tournaments, and overarchingly, introduce young students to public speaking. According to the Florida based, Hollywood Gazette, “BCPS (Broward County Public Schools) has the largest Debate initiative in the nation — with approximately 12,000 participating students”. Through the Broward County Debate Initiative, hundreds of students have embraced their inner talents and have found a community of belonging.

Zac Jacobson, a competitor in Dramatic Interpretation from Wellington High School, shares that “The Broward Debate Initiative has changed my life because I’ve been able to have a platform where I can have a voice and opinion on controversial topics that I never thought I would have the opportunity to speak out against. The initiative has helped so many other kids find their voices and to find a spark in their mind to make a change.”

For context, Interpretation is a speech category that the Broward County Debate Initiative frequently promotes. Interpretation is where students cut, memorize, and perform a 10-minute performance arguing a social, political, or cultural issue. The category ranges from dramatic to humorous and has several different forms. In fact, Daniel Bishop, a student who competes in a multitude of interpretation events and hails from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, has found that even in the wake of tragic events such as the Parkland School Shooting, the Broward Debate Initiative has “allowed [him] to use [his] voice in a way no other activity can”.

It’s clear that the Broward Debate Initiative offers a gateway to the community for both private and public school kids.

Ella Marshall, a student from NSU University School (a private institution) who competes in Extemporaneous Speaking (Extemp) and Original Oratory, admits that initially, “[She] was kind of apathetic about politics before speech and debate, and extemp forced me to be aware of it. [The Broward Debate Initiative] has also made me a better public speaker, plus I have made a lot of really good friends through speech.” Often times, teenagers lack a sense of community and belonging, which in turn allows us to feel isolated and turn towards harmful outlets to numb the emptiness.

The Broward Debate Initiative offers students a sense of purpose, pride, and friendship. The Brookings Institute writes how,” I know it’s unconventional and possibly counterintuitive, what with all the partisan shouting matches we see on cable TV or (if you can bear them) in congressional floor speeches. But those are not the skills taught by competitive debating in school, namely how to: research; think critically and do it on your feet; back up arguments with evidence (not fake news!); work collaboratively with partners; speak persuasively in a civil fashion; and, perhaps most importantly, being able to argue both sides of most any issue or subject”. It is true, as our political society turns more polarized, the Broward Debate Initiative stands as a beacon of unity and hope.

That same Brookings report goes on to explain that, “One county in America, Broward County in Florida, recognized this to be the case in 2013, when it became the first and only county — so far — to require all high schools, middle schools, and even elementary schools (beginning with fourth grade), to offer speech and debate classes. After getting off to a slow start, this “Broward Initiative” is now thriving, with over 12,000 students currently participating. The county proudly touts how its debate initiative is improving educational performance of its student-participants. It should be no surprise, therefore, that two of the leaders of a movement for gun control who emerged after the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County, David Hogg and Jaclyn Corin, debated competitively. Several other students from the school had been preparing for debates over gun control before the tragic shooting took place”.

Not every child has the red carpet leading to state of the art education and resources readily at their disposal. But the Broward Debate Initiative fights back at this social norm by offering speech and debate services to all students within the county. Personally, as a competitor for 3 years, it is an absolute privilege to represent this county, nothing makes me more proud than knowing my journey in speech and debate was more than just winning trophies and traveling around the country. No, the highlight of my journey, that the Broward Debate Initiative made possible, was by being able to coach and support those who were learning how to spread their wings, so that they too can reach their true potential.

The Broward Debate Initiative is truly unique and holds a special place in the hearts of hundreds if not thousands of Broward Students by creating a safe haven that promotes creativity, intellectual thought, and self-discovery. That being said, Florida and other states across the nation need to foster like-minded organizations within their local communities. While the Broward Debate Initiative started as a diamond in the rough, the US is a fountain filled with local communities ready to become shining gems in exploring Speech and Debate programs. When I eventually graduate from High School I will continue to serve the Broward Debate Initiative and other organizations like it, because Speech and Debate isn’t a world exclusive to the wealthy and privileged but rather to every child that has a voice and story, ready to be heard.