Debate skills make a difference in the world. The more voices we include in civil discourse, the stronger that discourse becomes. That’s why the MNUDL exists: to amplify student voices so that they can access power and create change in our communities. For this to work, it’s crucial that debate skills leave the classroom and that the building blocks of research, argumentation, and public speaking get put to use solving real world problems.

This past July, we launched The Advocacy Unit: a program where high schoolers can learn to apply basic debate skills in the context of social justice and advocacy. TAU is designed as a guided exploration in partnership with the students. Discussions were facilitated by MNUDL alums and Augsburg students Dua Saleh and Tiana Bellamy, whose input was essential to the program design. During the pilot session, only a week after the shooting of Philando Castile, issues of police brutality and racism weighed heavily on everyone’s mind as they discussed whether hope or change were possible.

Genesia Williams, TAU’s director, wanted to make sure she brought in “kids that might not self select,”she said, so that the program could “catch that intersection of kids that a lot of people don’t pay attention to.” The program confirmed for her what she had suspected before: that intelligent teens whose value is dramatically underestimated only need a little prompting to explore their potential.

One example of this was how Markell, a sophomore at North High School, was able to explain sophisticated concepts like “symbolic interactionism,” despite not knowing the academic term. Developing a shared vocabulary for concepts like these was a cornerstone of TAU. This was particularly helpful for Janae, a St. Paul resident heading into her freshman year who found herself equipped with tools she hadn’t known she needed. Genesia recalls her saying, “If school was like this, I’d be at school every day happy.”

The discussions also benefited from the wisdom of experienced students. Sideena, a high school senior from Robbinsdale, was the oldest of the group. She liked how the program allowed her to explore familiar issues in a new context. The same could be said of Michael, a high school junior from North Carolina who was used to personally dealing with racial profiling and police brutality in his home state. At TAU, he was able to connect the dots about his experiences and look at them from a new perspective.

The learning environment would not have been the same without the diversity of the voices. Students brought their backgrounds with them, like Rachel, a debater from Hong Kong who had lived with both a different educational system and a different racial and ethnic context in East Asia. She worked on the issue of environmental justice with Mihret, a student at DeLaSalle High School. Mihret had already learned about social issues in school, but at TAU she was exposed to other ways of looking at the same causes.

Debate is more than just arguing – it’s about talking to each other and building empathy across identities, communities, even nations. Watching the students connect with each other and learn from one another over the course of the week made organizing the whole program worth it for Genesia. Not only have the students learned more about advocating for themselves and their community, but they’ve got new Facebook friends from across the world.

For more about The Advocacy Unit, listen to Rupa Shenoy’s Otherhood podcast.