Un-debatable: Detroit Urban Debate League helps students hone their skills


 By Debra Talcott

Legal News
The Detroit Urban Debate League (UDL) is one important way that successful adults in the community can serve as role models and mentors for Detroit youth seeking to grow their communication skills and confidence. One of the oldest debate leagues in the nation, Detroit UDL was established in 1983 as a partnership between the Wayne State University debate team and the Detroit Public Schools gifted and talented program.
“It was WSU Director of Debate, George Ziegelmueller (now retired), who saw that with economic decline in the city, debate programs had disappeared throughout Detroit,” says Executive Director Holly Reiss. “Dr. Ziegelmueller believed debate brought invaluable benefits to students, so he began the arduous task of finding ways to make debate accessible and affordable for Detroit students.”
However, even with the support of WSU, the program found itself in jeopardy in recent years as a result of economic and institutional changes that were occurring in Detroit. It was a grant from Allstate Insurance and the establishment of a local board in 2009 that are credited for reviving the program. Since that time, student membership has increased more than 650 percent.
A school that desires to participate in the UDL program must commit to paying a teacher to serve as the debate coach and paying the costs of transporting students to debate competitions. 
“If they can agree to those two things, we provide the other crucial components to launch a successful debate team,” says Reiss. “We train their teacher-coach through professional development workshops, and we recruit, train, and assign volunteers who are knowledgeable in debate to work at after-school practices.”
The UDL organizes and hosts five major tournaments during the school year which member schools can attend at no cost.
“And because about 85 percent of our participants qualify for free and reduced lunch, we also provide meals for everyone at these tournaments,” explains Reiss.
In addition to the major tournaments, the UDL offers a number of workshops and public debates for the students. With only one full-time employee, the program relies heavily on volunteers.
Holly Reiss first became involved with the Urban Debate movement while working on her MA in Communication Studies in Kansas City. After taking a course from the instructor who had written the grant proposal to launch the Kansas City UDL, Reiss says she fell in love with debate when she saw how transformative it could be. She then went on to become the Program Administrator of the Kansas City program.
“Debate changed every life it touched-including mine,” says Reiss.
It was the firsthand introduction to the inequities in education that Reiss experienced while working with the UDL that motivated her to go further with the program.
“My previous experiences in competitive public speaking had given me confidence to take charge of my education, and I saw this happen with my debate students-regardless of their personal circumstances. This made me realize that debate was probably more important for disadvantaged sudents because their opportunities for empowerment were few and far between.”
While pursuing her PhD at the University of Kansas, Reiss studied the impacts of urban debate participation on college readiness, academic outcomes, interpersonal conflict resolution, and other variables.
“Before I could finish my coursework, I was recruited by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues to help rebuild UDLs during their league expansion plan,” says Reiss. “I assisted with the launch of Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Bay Area before coming to Detroit, which I am proud to say is now my home.”
Reiss plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program at WSU next year in hopes of completing her coursework and conducting research on the impacts of urban debate in Detroit.
“I can’t imagine a better place to pursue my Ph.D. than at the national birthplace of the Urban Debate movement,” she says.
Reiss is proud that this year the program is serving both high schools and middle schools. Currently, about 225 students are involved in the program, with new schools and students being added during the season.
Students learn how to conduct research, how to structure an effective argument, how to speak persuasively, and how to work cooperatively with teammates. Much of the debaters’ research deals with current events, the law, and public policies, all of which require them to comprehend college-level resources.
“Students learn more than working under pressure to present arguments; they learn to determine the credibility of a source, and they learn how the intricacies of definitions can change the meaning (or implied meaning) of a policy or law,” explains Reiss.
Students learn to effectively argue both sides of complex issues, regardless of their personal feelings. They learn to identify flaws in the opposition’s argument then respectfully address those flaws in the rebuttal.
“Although studies have measured the effects of debate on academic outcomes, I believe the skills students learn from debate arguably go beyond what is measurable on a reading test,” contends Reiss.
Reiss is the first to say that none of this progress would be possible without the commitment of the program’s talented and dedicated volunteers. College debaters from WSU and the University of Michigan have served as excellent debate mentors for the younger students.
“I am also very impressed with some of our attorney volunteers,” says Reiss. “They have busy professional lives and families, but they assist us once a month by judging at our debate tournaments. Lance Lis, from Inteva Products has judged consistently and provides great feedback to the debaters, and Kevin O’Shea of the Miller Law Firm judges at almost every tournament. Rudy Serra has also been a consistent volunteer. Katheryne Zelenock and Scott Hamilton of Dickinson Wright hosted a two-round tournament for top debaters at Dickenson Wright’s Detroit office; they also showed up to judge at our first major tournament of the year. Without the support of our local attorneys, I don’t think we’d be where we are today.”
Reiss is seeking additional volunteers, which is what it will take to expand the program even further. The UDL is looking for individuals to judge monthly debate tournaments, a position that does not require previous debate experience. Volunteers attend a 60-minute judge training session before they begin judging, which makes this position ideal for someone with limited time to donate.
“If individuals have previous debate experience and/or a little more time available, we ask them to mentor debate teams. These volunteers go to their assigned schools once a week to assist with after-school practices. They also come to the debate tournaments to support their teams during competitions,” says Reiss. “It’s more work, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.”
Reiss says getting involved in the program is easy. She invites prospective volunteers to check out the Detroit Urban Debate League’s upcoming events at www.urbandebatedetroit.org. She may be reached directly by e-mailing hollyreiss@urbandebate.org or by calling (313) 585-0028.