- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

ATLANTA (AP) — Adrienne Glover admits to getting emotional when her inner-city school’s debate team faces experienced, well-funded squads from exclusive private schools.

The emotion? Joy.

“It’s really fun when you beat them,” said Adrienne, 14, who attends Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, where all the students are minorities and half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. “They think they’re so good.”

Mays is part of the Urban Debate League — a national program started by Atlanta’s Emory University in 1985 that instructs public school students from poor areas in the traditionally upscale art of debate.

Since then, the program has gradually grown and now, through the National Debate Project, includes more than 2,000 middle- and high-school students supported by leagues in 17 cities.

The leagues work with schools, recreation directors, public housing officials and others to establish, fund and support debate teams in areas where the competitive talkathons are far from traditional.

“Historically, if you’re white and male and affluent, this is a game you play,” said Melissa Maxey-Wade, the Emory-based executive co-director of the National Debate Project. “But when you level the playing field, everybody wins.”

Fifteen-year-old Sarayfah Bolling, a sophomore at Atlanta’s Southside High School, said the skills she’s honed on her school’s debate team already have led to at least one benefit — she wins more arguments with her mother.

“I like to argue,” Sarayfah said. “You can pull out those logical things she can’t think about.”

Adrienne says she’s been teased by classmates who have never heard of competitive debating and don’t understand why she sometimes misses basketball practice to attend debate competitions.

She says she just uses the opportunity to try to get her teammates involved.

“I tell them it’s fun,” said Adrienne, who described herself as a straight-A student. “I tell them, ‘You should come. It’ll help get those F’s up.’”

For Ed Lee, debate did more than that. It changed the entire course of his life.

Mr. Lee was a student at Harper High School in Atlanta when he joined a debate team sponsored by the Urban Debate League. Before that, school had never clicked for him.

“I was not one of those students who saw themselves going to college before starting to debate,” said Mr. Lee, who earned a master’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1999 and is currently director of the university’s debate team.

Mr. Lee, who will join Emory’s faculty as a debate coach in the fall, said he enjoys working with urban debaters, even if they don’t stay with the game.

“I consider myself training the next generation of community activists,” he said. “Some will be lawyers, some will be teachers, some will be nurses and some will be on the custodial staff.

“But, hopefully, all of them will be enabled to make their voices heard.”

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