I walked into sixth grade with a whole lot of confidence. While my friends could talk about their trips to Bora Bora and Cancún, I had something even better to say because guess what I spent my glorious summer doing: speech and debate. That’s right, little eleven-year-old me went to speech camp over the summer. I could not have been more thrilled when my parents broke the news about my fabulous future summer plans. But while I had the privilege of going to speech camps every summer and attending classes during the school year, millions of students across the country don’t have the same opportunities. Unfortunately, students with money and resources have more opportunities to attend and succeed at tournaments, while those without those privileges are left struggling to keep up. Speech and debate is the catalyst for promoting equity. In fact, as the American Debate League explains, while only 50% of students at urban high schools graduate, that number rises to nearly 90% for debaters. By not making speech and debate more accessible for minority students, they are left struggling to get their voices heard. So it’s time we have a much-needed conversation about equity in this activity. Because at the end of the day, speech and debate is about using our voices to spark change. If we are unable to call out inequities in our own community, we will fail to empower people to do the same with the rest of the world.
Though extemporaneous speaking gave me a platform to talk about Boris Johnson’s hairline…and other political issues, not everyone is granted that privilege. Despite equity measures by the NSDA, elite speech and debate tends to be dominated by financially privileged students. According to a study published in the Journal of Community Health, students at private schools are three times more likely to have debate opportunities than students at public schools. With more funding, private schools and wealthier public schools are able to hire multiple high-quality coaches, afford competitively advantageous resources like Prepd or Extemp Genie, and have more opportunities to attend travel tournaments critical for technique improvement. In addition, data from the Ohio Speech & Debate Circuit show that private school debaters in public forum, Lincoln Douglas, and policy debate advance more often than debaters from public schools do. Once these debaters graduate, their knowledge is passed down to the next generation of students at that school, creating a closed cycle of success. Not only that, but many students can’t afford resources that are seen as the expectation for high school debaters, like suits and laptops. According to a study conducted by Kelton Research, men who wear suits are seen as smarter, more successful, and more well-liked. This is the reason we all wear suits to compete: by dressing the part, we take another small yet measurable step to earn the judge’s 1. However, these suits can get rather pricey. In fact, the average men’s suit costs around $300, while the average women’s suit costs around $250—at minimum. For students without these resources, advancing at larger tournaments can be significantly harder. This means that those who go to schools with significantly lesser funding are left at a disadvantage, and are forced to work twice as hard to even dream of achieving the same success as wealthier debaters.
Considering that hundreds of speech and debate students go to tournaments every weekend fearing for their safety, it’s time we reevaluate the culture in speech and debate, and how it exacerbates inequities. According to the Huffington Post in an article written in October of 2020, high school debate is an event that far too often fosters a culture in which sexism is left unchecked. The hero-worshiping culture surrounding elite debaters allows many of them to get away with inexcusable behavior. In 2016, a 15-year-old female debater hung out with a debater from another school on a seemingly harmless night at an overnight tournament. However, later that night, the boy continually made unwanted sexual advances toward her. The next morning, she didn’t even tell her coach about the incident, because she didn’t want to hurt a debater who was doing so well in the tournament. Experiences like these can have devastating mental impacts on competitors, harming their ability to compete and share their voices. When elite debaters are shielded from the consequences of their actions by their competitive success, victims of sexual violence are put at a disadvantage, and are often forced to stop competing to prevent further interactions with their harasser. This pattern of being forced to remain quiet is once again present when looking at the treatment of women in the community. Women are constantly undermined by fellow competitors, told that their arguments are “too emotional” or that they only won a round because a judge found them sexually attractive. When female debaters, like the ones at my school who were told not to wear dress skirts to tournaments because they were “too sexy”, are continually faced with harassment every weekend, they are forced to make a decision: Either conform to societal standards of how a woman should act, or use their newfound platform and raise their voice, risking backlash. Though incidents of inequity and misconduct continue to occur, elite debaters, coaches, and judges are rarely caught, and if they are, they are punished discreetly. This quiet way of dealing with dangerous behavior allows it to be replicated. Speech and debate is supposed to give voices, not strip them away.
Now, let’s retreat to what we do best, by S-P-E-A-K-ing our way to a brighter future:
S: a shared database. Sexual misconduct and harassment often go unpunished, mainly because of a lack of a standardized reporting system. By creating a database to track misconduct, the NSDA can ban certain competitors, coaches, and judges from attending tournaments in the future.
P: prioritizing training for judges and coaches. It is vital that they receive background checks, anti-bias trainings, and sexual misconduct trainings for every tournament.
E: engage students. The best way to create a more equitable community is to learn about its problems, which the NSDA can do by increasing student representation in the organization. By raising awareness about the Student Leadership Council, change can occur more quickly, and students will have more control in a community they play such a big role in.
A: algorithms to scan for discriminatory language. To prevent harmful language on ballots, the NSDA can work with Tabroom to create an algorithm that scans ballots after they are submitted. If these ballots contain derogatory language, the algorithm will report the judge to tournament officials, so that students aren’t being held back from advancing at a tournament simply because they were discriminated against.
K: knowledge. To break the closed cycles of success that continue to exist at wealthier schools, knowledge about speech and debate events needs to be made more accessible. By making resources like the Extemper’s Bible, speech and debate camps, and student-led consulting organizations more affordable, students from schools with less funding can still have opportunities to succeed.
While these solutions may not be the perfect way to achieve true equity, they are a step in the right direction. As extempers, promoting equity starts with us, and just by teaching a novice from an underfunded school or sharing the world of speech and debate with people who have never heard of it, we can take the first step to fight inequity in our activity, and in education as a whole.