Friday, April 10, 2015

Why Newark Science Left the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL): The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

The following was a letter written to Linda Listrom, the Executive Director of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues on March 13. To date there has been no response. Well meaning white missionaries can do insidiously harmful and racist things. I believe that the movement of urban debate is important. Hopefully this is something we can learn from:

Dear Linda LIstrom: 

My name is Jonathan Alston. I am the director of debate at Science Park High School in Newark, NJ. I have coached there for 22 years with considerable success locally, regionally, and nationally.  I find recent attempts by the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL) to control and distort high school academic debate for Black and Brown children insulting, anti-intellectual, and condescendingly racist. Your organization, which considers itself important to Black and Brown debaters all over the United States, is doing the debate equivalent of telling our championship debater, SunHee Simon, that she debates too white. Your organization is telling her and the rest of the Newark Debate Academy (NDA) that her consistent and unrelenting national and international excellence disqualifies her from participation and recognition as an Urban Debate League (UDL) debater. The NDA educates the same population you claim to want to target. It seems that the difference between our organizations is that we understand that students can be financially poor, from underserved communities, but still among the best debaters in the United States. 

At issue is the NAUDL's insistence on defining what tournaments SunHee and Adegoke can participate in to make them eligible for NAUDL Nationals, and the NAUDL debater of the year. SunHee is a proud product of the Newark Debate Academy and has debated for us since the 7th grade. She participates in fund raising drives, scrimmages, and she helps train our younger debaters. The excellence she has shown this year, through winning the Greenhill debate tournament in LD, being a co-Champion of the Berkeley Tournament in LD, and being — along with her debate partner Adegoke Fakorede — the only students in the history of debate to double qualify for the National High School Tournament of Champions in both policy debate and Lincoln-Douglas debate, has been extremely valuable to the NDA. We nominated her for the NAUDL Debater of the Year because we believe that she is a role model and inspiration for Urban Debaters throughout Newark, and, unlike your organization, we believe that she is an inspiration to Black and Brown debaters throughout the United States. Her visible leadership on the United States debate team has been ground-breaking. Our young, Black woman from Newark was in the top 8 in Germany, the top speaker in Minnesota, the top speaker in Los Angeles, and an important part of the first place USA Debate team's success in Slovenia.

In spite of having the full support of the Newark Debate Academy, SunHee Simon and Adegoke Fakorede are told that they do not qualify for NAUDL Championships and the NAUDL Debater of the Year because the National office will not consider scrimmages, fund raisers, local State and District tournaments as counting toward your new 3 tournament local NDA participation rule. Militza Diaz, the program director of the Newark Debate Academy, clearly explained to your organization that the regular season NDA tournaments are training tournaments for our less experienced debaters. The NDA encourages its more experienced debaters to push themselves and debate at larger regional, national, and even international tournaments. Should we have told SunHee that she should not have been Champion at Greenhill or Berkeley because she should be debating first and second year debaters at our local NDA tournaments? Are the scrimmages she had against more experienced UDL debaters in Newark and New York in front of Rutgers Debate Team coaches less meaningful than debating three rounds against the novice and junior varsity debaters from our local league? 

When Brent Farrand first started our team in 1980 he was told by local officials that they did not want us to debate against students from the suburbs because they didn't want us to get our feelings hurt. Brent smiled and told them that it was the kids from the suburbs who needed to worry. Your director of debate programs, Luke Hill, helped coach Northwestern University to a National Championship in College policy debate. We train our top debaters to beat Northwestern. And we have succeeded in doing that. Our local league tournaments train novices, junior varsity debaters, and varsity debaters who want fun, educational local experiences, but for whatever reason may not have the desire, time or energy to invest in more integrated and rigorous regional or national level debates.  Forcing students and programs to choose between regional and national competitions and local NDA tournaments is to pervert our local league from being a training ground of opportunity to a forced space of segregation. SunHee and Adegoke must be banned from your tournament because they debated too many wealthy white students this year. Their consistent national (and international) success make them no longer Urban Debate League members in good standing. Their excellence is what disqualifies them. You make "Urban Debate" mediocre. 

I find that well meaning white liberals who work with Black and Brown children must really think about the assumptions they have when they try to implement their vision. Though my politics is very different from his, George Bush had a point when he criticized white liberals as having the "soft bigotry of low expectations." I read an email that your office sent to Sharon Hopkins, the coach of University Prep in Detroit, last year explaining to her that the NAUDL "Debater of the Year" was not simply about debate accomplishments, but about a "personal story" of overcoming "obstacles". In other words, they had to find a story of struggle to include in the application. Because of course, being excellent in debate is not enough of a struggle for Black and Brown debaters. We have to prove our Blackness, our authenticity, through pain, struggle and hardship for "Debater of the Year" recognition. We can't just beat the wealthiest public and private high schools in the country in academic debate. I don't think that a demonstration of personal suffering would be the standard you would have for your child to prove that she or he was "Debater of the Year". 

UDL debaters are changing the face of American intellectualism. 2013 College National Debate Tournament (NDT) Champion and the college Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) Champion Elijah Smith hails from Newark. Chris Randall, a member of the prestigious 2014 Copeland Panel for college debate is from Baltimore. 2014 CEDA Champion Corey Johnson is from Baltimore. 2014 NDT Top Speaker Rashid Campbell is from Oakland. 2014 High School Tournament of Champions semi-finalists Rayvon Dean and Brooke Kimbrough are from Detroit. Maybe if you did not use terms like "National Urban Debate Championship" and "Debater of the Year", we would better understand. Maybe if you used terms like, "The Quasi-Competitive National Conference for Underprivileged Speakers" or the "Black Struggle of the Year Recipient", your current vision would be more honest. 

In one of the arguments that SunHee made at the start of the year she referred to herself as an underprivileged debater. I told her to take that out. Elijah Smith helped coach her during her freshmen and sophomore year. Chris Randall and Dr. Tommy Curry, a professor of philosophy at Texas A & M, helped coach her during her junior and senior year. Our Board of Education and the City of Newark deeply support what we do. Our debaters don't do well in spite of Newark; our debaters do well because of Newark and the institutions we set up to promote local, regional, national, and even international excellence. This doesn't mean that I don't have to at times find students places to live or call social services to intervene in the home lives of my students. This doesn't mean that I don't get calls at 10pm that one of my debaters is locked out of her home and has no place to sleep. This doesn't mean that I don't come out of my pocket to pay for food because a student will not eat that evening. This doesn't mean that I haven't had students who have been involved in the criminal justice system or who faced various forms of violence. But in the Newark Debate Academy, poverty never, ever means mediocrity. We have the same population you claim to serve, we just find ways to make the ones who work the hardest, who dedicate the most time, into Champions. 

You told Militza that you had no interest in SunHee winning another Championship: that you are not interested in the best debaters competing. SunHee and Adegoke want to go to the NAUDL Championship because they understand that "Urban debate" must mean excellence. It isn't about just another Championship, but a Championship that is associated with Black and Brown youth and the greatness they are capable of exhibiting. Too often Black is associated with failing, violence, pain and mediocrity, and that unfortunately is the pathetic, pitiful perception of Blackness with which you are most comfortable. Or at least the image that you feel you are — as you told Militza — best able to market to your corporate funders. I believe that your vision of urban debate, and your perception of Blackness is corrosive. As long as you have this pedagogically destructive vision, you should not be allowed to influence the education of Black and Brown children. 


Jonathan Alston
Director of Debate
Science Park High School
Newark, NJ

1 comment:

  1. Brent Farrand made lofty dreams accessible and possible. Jonathan Alston has capably and thoughtfully carried that baton of greatness instilled in the champion debaters of the Newark Public School System. As a proud product of that system, I had the privilege of being trained to think critically, plan strategy fast on my feet and envision a future where my predefined social and economic status would not relegate me to mediocrity. Thank you Jonathan for not being willing to compromise excellence on the pedestal of misguided pity.