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Students prepare for the Minnesota High School League’s debate tournament at the Washington Tech High School. (Photo credit: Alex Brown)

Bricolage: Volunteers needed who ‘look like’ student debaters

Editor’s note: Bricolage is loosely defined as “do your best with what you’ve got.”


If I told you that, up until just this spring, there was a feat no Minneapolis city kid had pulled off since 1945, what would you guess that I’m talking about? Before I tell you, perhaps I should ask myself a question: Are you going to be impressed when I tell you? In other words, aren’t there a whole heck of a lot of things Minneapolis city kids haven’t done since 1945? Sobering, I know. But if you weren’t aware of the achievement gap and all that it’s wrought in the 69 years since that last, fateful day in 1945, shame on you.

I’m going stop asking rhetorical questions (and shaming) and start telling you about an organization that’s making a real difference in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools. We’re talking about a group of people, mostly volunteers, who are serving hundreds of inner-city students every year — a group that can also boast a 100 percent on-time high school graduation rate during its decade-long existence. It’s the Minnesota Urban Debate League (MUDL).

Last May, for the first time since 1945, a pair of Minneapolis South High School students won the Minnesota State High School League’s Policy Debate Tournament. For anyone in Minnesota who grew up participating in the competitive, non-athletic high school activities like debate, speech, or one-act play, you know hearing “Minneapolis South” over names like Edina, Apple Valley, Eagan, or Wayzata is a huge surprise. Huge. I had to find out how.

The MUDL is behind the debate programs at 40 middle and high schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including South High School’s state championship team. The decade-old program served 500 students last year and is on track to get 750 kids involved this year.

Most importantly, the MUDL reflects the communities it serves. Approximately 65 percent of the students participating in policy debate through MUDL in Minneapolis and St. Paul are students of color and low-income. This is an organization doing its small part to tackle a slice of the achievement gap problem.

“I’m not saying we’re the silver bullet by any stretch, but we saw an opportunity and it was really well-responded to,” said Amy Cram Helwich, the Executive Director of MUDL, who has been with the program for six of its first 10 years.

Helwich and I met to talk about the program last month as the new debate season was getting underway. She struck me with her ability to fill just a few minutes with all kinds of compelling statistics that make the case for more access to debate in city schools. No surprise, though. She’s a former debater herself.

“Minnesota is dead-last for the on-time high school graduation of Latino students,” she told me. “It’s a shame and it’s a crisis.”

This is the stuff that drove Helwich to look at whom they served last year and to determine that they should serve a 50 percent more this year. Not only that, last year MUDL launched a Spanish-language debate pilot program and this year, they’re adding a Somali-language program.

Helwich had more numbers for me. She told me about a peer-reviewed study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Brianna Mezuk that found that debaters in the Chicago public school system were 42 percent more likely to graduate than non-debaters. When you consider just African-American males in that study, the likelihood of graduation jumped to 70 percent, compared to their non-debater peers. Helwich said those figures line up with what’s going on in Minneapolis and St. Paul, too.

Great. The smart kids are the ones self-selecting into debate anyway, right? Wrong.

Minneapolis Public Schools followed up last year with a study of its own and found that the kids who participate in debate, as a group, are decidedly average. Collectively, they averaged a score of 60 on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments examination — 50 is “proficient.” But remember, every single one of them has graduated high school on time and 99 percent of them have gained admission to college following graduation.

But enough with the numbers.

University of Minnesota junior and 2012 Washburn High School graduate Brandon Bogon, 20, told me debate was the most positive thing about his high school experience. Because of debate, he got to travel to New York for a tournament, something he says he never would have been able to afford to do with his family.

Bogon also credits MUDL for putting people in front of him whom he may not have had access to otherwise — coaches and tournament judges who looked like him.

“I remember judges saying things like, ‘Why would you let them walk all over you like that?’” said Bogon, who is black. “Having someone from your own background tell you that you had a chance means a lot.”

Bogon said more lawyers and professionals of color should answer MUDL’s call for volunteers. Volunteers can commit to something as easy as judging middle school debaters at a weekday afternoon tournament this season.

“It’s important because if someone is able to relate to you because they look like you, it’s more likely that that they’re going to retain what you’ve told them,” Bogon said.

Helwich said the need for lawyers to step up and volunteer is great, especially lawyers of color. The students need to see we exist for the simplest reason.

“You have to see it to dream it,” Helwich said. “Those connections are incredibly important.”

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I’ve just given you and your colleagues a perfect happy hour alternative — contact the MUDL and organize a group outing to judge a tournament. Helwich said no experience with debate is necessary. Just be prepared to be surprised.

“We will take apart your cynicism and get you excited about the future.”

Contact the MUDL’s volunteer coordinator, Molly Hahne at 612-359-6463 or [email protected]

Ben Kwan is a former television reporter and anchor. He joined Winthrop & Weinstine, P.A. in 2013. His practice focuses on assorted commercial litigation. He can be reached at [email protected]

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