Listening and evolving

SVUDL has never shied away from bold moves, and we are poised to undertake an evolution that may change the landscape of urban debate in the United States- an evolution grounded in feedback received from our partners. 

From day one, SVUDL has emphasized research. That's probably no surprise, considering our mission. We regularly turn to quantitative studies led by Dr. Briana Mezuk of the University of Michigan and peer-reviewed articles to make the case for urban debate. SVUDL owes its very existence to qualitative research conducted with students, teachers, and administrators who expressed demand for an urban debate program in Silicon Valley Title I high schools. 

This program year, SVUDL began its transition from startup mode to strategic growth. To assure youth stayed at the center of this change, we took time for a comprehensive needs assessment of current partners. A special thank you to our partners at Silicon Valley Social Venture Fund (SV2), who did so much to make that research possible, and our deepest appreciation to the school partners who gave their time to help guide SVUDL’s development.

We listened closely to what our partners had to say. They conveyed consistent messages about SVUDL's strengths: the powerful individual benefits of the program, particularly confidence, critical thinking, and leadership skills; SVUDL’s style of commitment and communication; and the inspirational presence of program staff and the strong personal relationships they build with students and coaches.

They also conveyed consistent messages about challenge areas: they need more resources and guidance to reach students who are most in-need; they see a need for large-scale work on curriculum, events, and culture to expand SVUDL's impact to all of their students; and they all asked for more support in implementation.  

It is affirming to have program strengths recognized, but SVUDL didn't stop with celebrating what we've done well. We analyzed the challenge areas and brainstormed ways to address them. The solution we settled on is a radical change. 

This summer, SVUDL will become the first UDL in the country to employ Head Coaches, Debate Ambassadors, and Debate Specialists. Head Coaches will build and implement a shared vision among youth, teachers, administrators, volunteers, and stakeholders at each school. Teachers at partner schools will serve as Assistant Coaches, acting as local leadership at a school and further building capacity to use debate in the classroom. SVUDL Interns, UDL Alumni, and other experienced debaters will serve as Debate Ambassadors and Specialists, attending and further enriching practices. These young people will earn valuable employment experience while serving as inspirational role models and technical experts for current participants. 

This major investment in staffing and infrastructure - undertaken as a direct result of needs voiced by our partners and the students at the center of our work - will increase student skills, help teacher-coaches build capacity, advance recruitment and retention and exponentially increase our impact. We anticipate even higher student numbers and stronger outcomes in the 2017-18 program year as this innovation takes root!

Moot Court Debater of the Week: Bhargavi Bhatt

Bhargavi Bhatt is a senior at Silver Creek High School who dreams of a life with purpose. She credits debate with giving her "a platform where I could express myself...through articulated discussion" because "you need to really think through your arguments and how to persuade people to believe you."

Debate hasn't just sharpened Bhargavi's argumentation skills. As she puts it, it has helped focus her on "what can I do with the skills I have that can benefit the most people?" That's why she'll be pursing engineering or economics when she starts college this fall and has set her sights on being in the Peace Corps someday.

Participating in Moot Court is fast becoming one of Bhargavi's SVUDL highlights. This experience gives her the chance to voice what she thinks is right AND the opportunity to spend time empathizing with the other side of the issue. She's learning to see through different eyes, thoughtfully take on that role, and grow.

On May 1st Bhargavi will take these talents, skills, and hard work into the Moot Court to argue transgender rights, but after graduation she'll apply them to everything she pursues. Her Government teacher has posted the famous Don Hertzfeldt quote on the door to the classroom: "It's okay to be worried. It's okay to be sad. It's not okay to give up. There's a lot of work to do." This is the line Bhargavi holds in her heart as she plans for the future, armed with fierce public speaking skills and the courage to go after what she believes in. Congratulations, Bhargavi, on being this week's Debater of the Week!

Correction: an earlier version of this post ran with a picture of Gaganpreet Kaur. 

Moot Court Debater of the Week: Esme Cordova


Six rising SVUDL stars will argue before sitting 9th Circuit judges at the 2nd Annual Moot Court on May 1. This event gives our top debaters the chance to significantly advance critical thinking, argumentation, and public speaking skills. The students are already spending hours building the case around an issue the US Supreme Court is expected to rule on days after this event. As part of the lead-up to Moot Court, we're dedicating the next few Debater of the Week profiles to Moot Court debaters. This special series launches now with Esme Cordova!

Esme is a Junior and 2nd year debater at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. Esme and her partner Nyisha have worked well together since their first competition, earning fifth place at that event. Esme, however, isn't one to talk about her accomplishments in terms of places and wins, preferring the more substantial measure of personal development. "One of the biggest that I learned to be more open-minded. Being in debate opens up your mind.

Esme and debate partner Nyisha

Esme and debate partner Nyisha

Esme also credits debate with helping her build confidence. "Before, I was afraid to talk in front of people. Since I have debated I lost the fear of talking in front of people and I feel more confident in myself. "

While many debaters are excited about pursuing a career in law after college, Esme plans on a double major in medicine and business, knowing she can take what she has accomplished in debate and apply it to her studies across disciplines. Feeling confident to speak up and defend your ideas, welcoming other's ideas, and nurturing a hunger to learn are all critical aspects of being successful no matter what you pursue, and Esme has developed these traits in debate. This is why she strongly recommends joining debate to her peers. Her success in tournaments is just the beginning, but holds a tantalizing preview of how well she will do at Moot Court. Congratulations Esme on being this week's Debater of the Week!


Debater of the Week: Samiya Ali

As a freshman at Oak Grove high school, Samiya Ali's debate career is full of potential. Just a few months in, she had already grown a tremendous amount and self proclaims: she's hooked.

While she might be fresh to the debate team, Samiya has been hearing about it for years at the dinner table. "Debate at Oak Grove is a family thing--my older brother (Zak, winner of last year's Final Tournament) did it when he was in high school and my older sister is currently the captain of the team!" Initially, Samiya joined debate at the urging of her siblings and because it would look good on college applications. She has stayed in debate because of the unique opportunity SVUDL provides to voice her thoughts and opinions and learn new things. She recently took on the role of Media Organizer for her team, where she will combine her passions for art and talking into the work of building and managing her team's social media presence. She has already begun digital drawings for her team.

Samiya's most recent team artwork

Samiya's most recent team artwork

Samiya loves how researching policy topics has catalyzed learning about things she never knew existed, "like human rights issues in China--my eyes were opened, I didn't know all these problems were going on." She especially loves the opportunity to research, explore, and build skills at SVUDL workshops. Samiya describes these workshops fondly, reflecting on how many friends she has made during them. Armed with a passion to speak, solid research, and an army of friends and mentors from SVUDL, there's no doubt that Samiya is off to an amazing start as a debater. With 3.5 years of debate ahead of her, the sky's the limit!

When asked what advice she has for shy students thinking about trying debate out, she confidently says, "be strong, your voice matters."

We couldn't have said it better ourselves. Congratulations, Samiya, on being this week's Debater of the Week!

Debater of the Week: Angie Guzman

Meet Angie Guzman, a Senior at Mt. Pleasant High School- policy debater, activist, and future lawyer. Although she's only gotten seriously into debate this school year, she's already dominating. Angie is one of those students with a natural love of public speaking, knowing only in theory the jitters that most of us feel when addressing a crowd. When Angie is standing in front of an audience, she thrives on the energy of the group and can easily deliver inspiring, articulate, and thoughtful oratory off the cuff.

This is probably why she's known for a long time that being a lawyer, and hopefully someday a judge, is her dream. However, debating successfully in tournaments hasn't always come naturally for Angie the way general public speaking does. In fact, her favorite SVUDL moment was when she lost every single round in a policy tournament. As Angie puts it, "I didn't feel like I lost everything, I felt like I gained everything" because she learned so much through reflecting on her mistakes and growing from the experience, demonstrating the grit and resilience urban debate helps young people cultivate.

Outside of debate, Angie is passionate about social justice issues and equality, writes poems (she will have three pieces published in her high school's upcoming literary publication), and enjoys math. As she looks into her future, she credits SVUDL with helping her create a clear picture of what she wants to achieve. Through conversations with her mentor, Leslie Spencer from Ropes & Gray in Palo Alto, Angie has refined and focused her dreams of being a lawyer, judge and advocate. We have no doubt that she will execute beautifully on that vision. Congratulations, Angie, on being SVUDL's Debater of the Week!