Supporter Spotlight: Kathryn Hoffman
How Debate Helped Kathryn Hoffman Become a Powerful Environmental Advocate
In Kathryn’s work as the CEO of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, she works with a team of litigators and lobbyists who work to protect Minnesota’s air, water, and climate. As Kathryn looks to hire new team members, one line on the resume stands out: debate.
“I personally consider it a strong resume characteristic. If we get an applicant and they have a debate background, that’s appealing to me, because I know that’s somebody who has done the hard work that’s required…”
“Policy debate is hard work. My coach used to always say that it’s, 90% hard work, and 10% natural talent. Knowing that people that apply for our positions have done the hard work of being involved in policy debate, including the research, structure, arguments, and really digging into topics- that’s appealing.”
Kathryn would know – she took on the challenge of debating on a highly competitive high school and college team. In fact, as Kathryn did policy debate in high school at East Lansing High School, she found big success- and worked with a debate partner you may recognize.
“One fun fact is, my high school debate partner was Nate Silver, who was the founder of FiveThirtyEight,” says Kathryn. “We won a lot of rounds together. We were a really strong team… our school won the state championship one year and were runners up another year.”
The topics Kathryn debated have come back again over the past decade: immigration, healthcare, climate change, and US-China relations were in the mix.
“It almost didn’t matter what the topics were in some ways, because by the time the year was over, I became such an expert- everybody did. We all became such experts that it became fun…”
The structure of debate set Kathryn up for success in her chosen field.
“I liked the very substance-oriented nature of it and the very granular, ‘let’s talk about the policy impacts of x, y and z’ aspect of debate… In terms of the structure of the arguments and the logic, it’s powerful. I think it probably led directly to my interest in law because the logical structure of argumentation is very similar to the way that people are taught to think when they go to law school.”
Paving The Path to Law
After Kathryn finished competing on the policy debate team at Michigan State University, she graduated and moved to Minnesota, where she ran a recycling program in a neighborhood in St Paul.
“There are actually a lot of constitutional issues involved in solid waste management and regulation of solid and interstate commerce. And so, through that work, I met some lawyers and thought about environmental law for the first time. It brought my passion for the environment and my interest in using law and logic that came from debate, together.”
Kathryn attended the University of Minnesota to receive a law degree as well as the public policy degree in environmental policy from the Humphrey Institute. She began her work in environmental law at MCEA in 2010.
The Persuasive Power of Debate
At the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Kathryn and her team constantly refine their environmental messages to meet different audiences and factor in their perspectives. It requires complex skills that debate can help students learn in a low-stakes setting. Kathryn tells us:
“Being able to articulate the other side’s best argument is a really powerful tool. One of the things I loved about policy debate is that you switch sides. You can decide that you agree with one side more than the other, and there’s nothing wrong with that – but you still have to take the other side. There’s a really special mental skill involved in being able to say ‘here is the best and strongest argument that can be made, and I can articulate it as effectively as anybody – I still may not agree with that, but I can win on that argument.’ And then, if I flip sides, I can beat it. If you can do that, you can win any debate. You can be the best lawyer in the courtroom. What’s more, I think you can develop a lot of empathy and understanding for people that don’t agree with you…”
“…I really do understand when people don’t agree with us on our environmental advocacy. Because of my debate experience, I have a better ability to stand in their shoes and see how they see it and what the most persuasive arguments are for them. Ultimately, I may not agree, but I understand where they’re coming from. Being able to articulate and understand the strongest arguments on both sides is an extraordinary skill that serves everybody really well.”
Kathryn’s Advice to Current Debaters
While Kathryn values debate for its impact on her career path, she also sees value in the relationships she built within the activity.
“You still feel that connection years on because of those experiences that you share. Spending that much time with other people, whether it’s in the van driving to tournaments or cutting cards together or hanging out in between rounds, it’s a really good setting to create strong bonds.”
Her advice to debaters?
“Keep doing what you’re doing. It’s an amazing activity and you will learn so much. You’ll make some lifelong friends in debate as well. Get to know people and hold onto those relationships. Some of them might be people from your team, but they might be from other teams as well. Those are great life-long friendships.”
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