By Rebecca Gaunt
A record 50 students from the Atlanta metro area are headed to the Harvard Debate Council summer workshop next year via the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project, and 11 of them are from Cobb County.
Thousands applied, and from the initial applications, the pool was narrowed to 150. The students went through several rounds of interviews–a number that changes every year to keep people on their toes–before being accepted.
Selah-Nina Webb, a student at Pebblebrook High School, was motivated to apply after watching a video of students in a previous cohort debating.
“I was in the car with my mom,” she said. “When I saw it, I was like, oh my gosh, these kids are brilliant. I just saw the passion in the way they spoke, and how they were able to just think on their feet.”
Since her school doesn’t have a debate team, she saw HDCDP as her chance.
“They not only want us to thrive academically, but when I did more research, they really love us,” Webb said.
Brandon Fleming is the founder of the Diversity Project and the assistant debate coach at Harvard University. It was his proposal that created this pipeline for Black students to take part in the Harvard Debate Council. The program has attracted big-name sponsors like Coca Cola, Warner Media, UPS, Chick-fil-A and Publix.
“He was here and he saw a need and he wanted to fill it…with students who needed access and opportunity. Where better to do it than the city of Atlanta, and surrounding cities, based on the equity gaps here,” Kellye Britton, executive director of HDCDCP told the Courier. “To date, we are the only satellite location of any Harvard College program in the world.”
Marietta Middle School student Kenedi Mitchell applied after seeing a television news story about the program.
“They just had such a fiery passion inside of them. They were so captivating and, to be honest with you, I couldn’t look away…so I just knew that this was the thing for me,” she said.
Britton described the program, which is intense. Students will soon start an online summer enrichment program. In August, they will begin meeting in person for five-hour workshops every Saturday for 41 weeks to train with Fleming and Britton. Next summer, the students will attend a two-week workshop in Cambridge before taking part in the competition.
Reagan Carter, a Marietta Middle School student who will attend Woodward Academy in the fall, sees it as an outlet.
“In school I always debate and argue with my teachers,” she said. Her mom suggested the program as a space where she can use her words in a productive way.
In 2018, the inaugural year of the program with 25 students, Jordan Thomas, a Grady High School graduate, won first place in the prestigious debate competition. Another first-year alum, Osazi Al-Khaliq, who attended Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School, received a full scholarship to Harvard.
The program also provides an opportunity to overcome fear of public speaking.
Syrai Bryant, a former student at Campbell Middle School, said, “I came there to see what I could do and how I could go over my limits of what I used to do in school. I would struggle with speaking in front of peers, so definitely when I came into this organization, I started to overcome that fear and do it more.”
Corey Statham, who will attend the Walker School this fall, sees this as much more than a 10-month program.
“This is really for me,” he said. “It will be something I take with me for the rest of my life.”
Mitchell added, “I want to grow more. I feel like being in school is just kind of inside of the box…I feel like [the Diversity Project] is going to prepare me for the future, is going to prepare me for college, and just for me to be a better person.”
Applications open in the spring to students in the Atlanta metro area. Applicants must be 13-17 years old, and preparing to enter 8th through 11th grades. A 3.0 GPA is preferred but not required.
“Students who have an interest in politics, debate and sociopolitical issues absolutely fare well here,” Britton said.
Before learning about this program, Carter was considering becoming a surgeon or architect. But now that she realizes she has a gift for debating, she is considering becoming a lawyer.
The program is no small commitment given its lengthy Saturday workshops.
“It’s such a daunting thing when you’re looking at it at first,” Statham said. “You don’t want to have to sacrifice every Saturday, but you know it’s worth it at the end of the day.”
For Carter, it meant sacrificing her love of athletics.
“I’m an athlete, so that means no more Saturday practices. No more Saturday games. Nothing happens on Saturdays unless it’s past times of our classes. That made me really nervous because some of these things I’ve been doing since I was really little…but it’s really worth it,” she said.
Kennedy Young, a Campbell High School student, looks forward to the rigorous academic environment.
“What I’m most excited about is being in a classroom, being around people who look like me, and are like minded,” she said.
When the students spoke with the Courier, they had not even begun the formal training, and yet, for some, the challenging application process had already instilled a sense of family and connectedness. As Statham pointed out, that makes it easier to conquer the nerves that come from public debate.
But there’s something else that makes him nervous.
“Being around Mr. Fleming and knowing you have incredibly big shoes to fill–it’s kind of nerve-wracking. I have to step up. He encourages you to be your best self, and I want to make him and Ms. B proud,” Statham said.
Rebecca Gaunt earned a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in education from Oglethorpe University. After teaching elementary school for several years, she returned to writing. She lives in Marietta with her husband, son, two cats, and a dog. In her spare time, she loves to read, binge Netflix and travel.