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Washington Urban Debate League Brings Home (Virtual) National Debate Championship

Written by David Trigaux, Program Director of the Washington Urban Debate League

The COVID 19 pandemic derailed the school year mid-semester. Teachers were given a single weekend’s notice in some instances that they were going online on Monday, schools scrambled to address the digital divide, and many students were lost in the shuffle or just gave up on the semester amid the chaos. Dire warnings about learning loss and exacerbating opportunity gaps fly fast and frequent, with few structural solutions in sight as the school year ends and we start looking towards the fall. This chaos has been magnified by the disproportionate impact of the virus on the black and brown members of the greater Washington community and the ongoing protests (and the government response) against racial injustice and police brutality, especially here in D.C.

It’s been a tough few months for the D.C. community, but I’m here today to share a bit of good news: a pair of intrepid young middle schoolers, representing a tiny D.C. charter school, overcame the steep odds and the pivot online amidst the pandemic and won a national debate championship.

Eighth graders David Sipos and Samantha Perkins of Inspired Teaching Demonstration School were among the 6 partnerships (from Capital City [x2], EL Haynes, Washington Latin, and Benjamin Tasker) that qualified to represent the Washington Urban Debate League (WUDL)* at the Urban Debate Middle School National Tournament in May 2020. Originally scheduled to be hosted in Tulsa, Oklahoma this season, the national tournament was one of the first in the country (and one of the few national competitions of any kind) to pivot online and actually happen this spring, giving at least a few young people the culminative experience they’d worked so hard to achieve all year.

Samantha Perkins and David Sipos at the Ornstein Summer Debate Institute Summer 2019. They won first place in the JV Division despite only being in middle school

Samantha Perkins and David Sipos at the Ornstein Summer Debate Institute Summer 2019. They won first place in the JV Division despite only being in middle school

The WUDL qualifiers hardly missed a beat, shifting to online preparation sessions with their coaches and our Program Coordinator, Dara Davis, several times a week on top of their schoolwork and all the turmoil that was April. This year’s topic was global arms sales, with students considering questions of national security such as the wars (and human rights situations) in Yemen, Ukraine, and beyond. While a different WUDL program (Kenmoor Middle School) took home the top prize at least year’s Middle School National Tournament, the number of competitors more than doubled this year, and we did not have realistic aspirations of repeating the title. We asked each qualifying pair what their goals were, and most simply said that they wanted to win more rounds than they lost, or at least not embarrass themselves.

The tournament was the first event of its kind that any of the participants had attended before. Normally, students (in this case, from around the nation) would gather at a school or university, toting laptops and tubs of evidence to debate a timely question of public policy. Tournaments are highly social events, with students laughing and joking in the hallways and having serious discussions about some of the biggest questions (often with more sophistication than some political leaders). The normally lively and exciting atmosphere was replaced by a student’s home and the quiet of spending most of a weekend online, debating and chatting with friends and competitors alike via Zoom.

David and Samantha at a local WUDL tournament at DC International in Fall 2019, winning trophies, as usual.

David and Samantha at a local WUDL tournament at DC International in Fall 2019, winning trophies, as usual.

Through the early rounds, Samantha and David did well, defeating teams from Kansas City and Brooklyn before lunch on Saturday, but they hadn’t faced powerhouse teams from Harlem or Boston yet. Helping administer the competition, I didn’t get a chance to check in with them again until the awards ceremony that evening, where they expressed cautious optimism. As awards were announced, David and Samantha were undefeated through preliminary rounds. David was named the nation’s 7th best individual speaker, (out of 72 national qualifiers, and thousands more who didn’t qualify) and they advanced to elimination rounds, along with 5/6 of the WUDL qualifiers. We were extremely proud and pleased.

On Sunday, they entered their second straight long day online — after 11 hours of screen time the previous day! Round after round, they presented their arguments before panels of experienced judges from around the nation and defeated highly lauded teams from Tulsa and New York before coming face to face with close friends Joey Villaflor and Jener Balk from Capital City (also a WUDL school). Joey and Jener had defeated teams from Tulsa, Kansas City, and Boston in route to the final round, a familiar re-match that had occurred many times at local competitions here in D.C. On a split decision, presenting before a panel with more than 50 years of combined debate expertise from around the nation, Samantha and David prevailed, bringing home the national championship to their school and the WUDL once again!

Jener Balk and Joey Villaflor of Capital City, the national runner ups at Middle School Nationals this past year, seen at a tournament in December 2019

Jener Balk and Joey Villaflor of Capital City, the national runner ups at Middle School Nationals this past year, seen at a tournament in December 2019

The WUDL partnered with Inspired Teaching to start a debate program three years ago, but the program took a huge step forward this year. Founding members David and Samantha partnered with new coach Maggie Meiman (George Washington, Class of 2020) to dramatically expand the size of the team and decided to get serious about achieving some competitive success this season. The pair were the top middle school team at the Ornstein Summer Debate Institute** last summer, and didn’t let up all season, eventually leading their squad to win a series of regional awards, including Best Middle School Team, Best Middle School Debaters, and more.

National titles are exciting, but the trophies are a big shiny signal about the learning and personal growth occurring along the way. Peer reviewed research tells us that participation in Urban Debate significantly improves the traditional academic measures of success that we look at such as grades, test scores, graduation rates and admission to selective high school magnet programs and elite universities. (This year’s class includes freshmen at Georgetown, GW, Howard, Duke, and a number of other elite universities.) Beyond the numbers, I’ve seen these young people learn to harness their thoughts and learn to express incredibly complex ideas with the dexterity of advocates many years their senior. The intellectual confidence, poise, and leadership I’ve seen them develop are portable skills that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. The growth these two phenomenal young people have shown over the past year is exactly what makes me excited to go to work every day.

About half of the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School (ITDS) Debate Team, including Samantha and David, between rounds earlier this spring.

About half of the Inspired Teaching Demonstration School (ITDS) Debate Team, including Samantha and David, between rounds earlier this spring.

Online debate was highly successful, beyond our hopes, and the lively atmosphere is largely replicable online. More than 40 WUDL debaters and a strong cadre of family members and teachers joined to cheer on their league-mates, and new friends were made across the nation. The medium presented some unique benefits, such as Inspired Teaching Principal Seth Biderman being able to hop on and watch his student’s success as they advanced through elimination rounds on Sunday.

We are excited about the upcoming Ornstein Summer Debate Institute, and this coming year’s very timely topic, Criminal Justice Reform. Many of our students are passionate about what’s going on in the world around them (Samantha and David skipped a major competition last year to attend the Climate protests with Greta last fall, and I’ve seen many in the streets protesting the last few weeks), and this topic will help them hone their advocacy skills further.

The story of this tournament wouldn’t be complete without a huge THANK YOU to all of the members of the WUDL community that helped out and assisted with the tournament, either helping prepare students to compete by watching practices, or as judges during the tournament: Darrian Carroll, Eric Clarke, Michael Fuentes, Arielle Giordano, Ny Glover, Wil Hawk, Selah Lee-Bey, Alex Pappas, Raffi Piliero, Renee Reneau, Andrew Samuelson, and Zoe Spielvogel. I’d also like to give a huge shout out to our Program Coordinator, Dara Davis, for leading our prep sessions for the competition.

*The Washington Urban Debate League is a local non-profit (and Catalogue for Philanthropy Partner) that supports debate programs at public schools in the D.C. area. Only 5 years old, the WUDL has grown quickly to work with more than 40 local schools and thousands of local students each year. All our programming is 100% free for students and schools.

**The institute is hosted by the Washington Urban Debate League and the Matthew Ornstein Memorial Foundation every summer and is free for any D.C. area public school student in middle or high school. Registration is open now for this year’s summer institute, hosted July 20th- August 1st, 2020, online.

About the Author: David has been teaching debate and/or working in politics for 15 years. He’d love to tell you more about the WUDL and how you can get involved.

Meet the Catalogue’s New Intern!

The Catalogue is excited to welcome our new Nonprofit Management Intern, Zariah Tolman! Please allow her to introduce herself in this interview:

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  1. Tell us about yourself!

I am from a tiny town in Wyoming of only 50 people! I would drive twenty miles to my K-12 school each day. Attending Montana State University in the “big city” of Bozeman, Montana started out as a large challenge. The struggles I had growing up in rural Wyoming and trying to transition to college have greatly inspired my career interests: to address disparities that rural youth/teens experience!

I was a pre-med student at Montana State, double-majoring in Neuroscience and Biochemistry and double-minoring in Biomedical Engineering and Global Health! Over the course of college, I went from wanting to pursue medicine, to pursuing MD/PhD programs, to pursuing only grad school. I will be applying to Master’s and PhD programs this fall to study Social/Behavioral Intervention, Community Health, or Global Health!

  1. What made you interested in joining the Catalogue?

One of the experiences that has helped me realize I did not want to pursue medicine has been my journey in founding a nonprofit for rural youth/teens to help them be more connected to themselves and their communities. It started out as a side-project and has become the primary focus of my gap year! This experience has been influential in interesting me in the nonprofit sector as a whole.

Another life-changing experience I had was being awarded the Truman scholarship which, in addition to supporting graduate education, has a program called Summer Institute. The Trumans chose internships of choice from a massive list and luckily the Catalogue was number four on the list. After I read about the work that the Catalogue does, I knew I wanted to be a part of the team.

  1. What experience have you had with nonprofits?

I have volunteered with several nonprofits, and then I am starting my own. There is Health Equity Circle which addresses health disparities across Montana using community organizing principles, we also work closely with the Area Health Education Center to take those principles and interprofessional education principles to rural Montana. Thrive in Bozeman coordinated a mentorship between myself and a high schooler. The Atlas Culture Foundation, founded by a Bozeman-ite, took me to Morocco to teach French to village children. I conducted research in Uganda through Love Volunteers, and currently coordinate donors to support Ugandan education through It Takes a Village. I am consistently amazed at how many people are working to improve the lives of others, and I think all of these experiences have encouraged me to pursue a career that can increase collaborations and networking between organizations to further create impact.

  1. What are you looking forward to in this internship?

I am looking forward to so much! I am excited to learn more about how nonprofits work and how to create resources for nonprofits. This is also the first time I have been part of a professional team (vs a student-led campus organization), and I am looking forward to see how the team works together to accomplish their goals. I am also very grateful to learn more about effective story-telling. I learned over 3 years of molecular research and research in Uganda that even if you have compelling statistics, the way to truly reach people, garner support, and create empathy is through story-telling. The story-telling will also help me get to know the incredible work partners are doing, which will help me to be inspired!

  1. What do you like to do in your spare time?

I love to adventure, which manifests itself in motorcycling (always wearing a helmet, of course, as I whip around on my R6), snowboarding, pole-vaulting (I’ve gotten to coach high schoolers the last two years which was amazing), cliff jumping, camping (I was in Yosemite National Park for spring break with my boyfriend when California began to shut down from the pandemic), trail-running, travelling, you name it!

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Change Across Time

Written by Matt Gayer, Co-Executive Director of the Catalogue for Philanthropy

It’s always a privilege, and just a lot of fun, to talk with someone living out their passion — doing work they care about. It’s even more fun when you are talking to two people doing so, and those two people are lifelong DMVers who love this city, making change, and laughing.

The following is a December 2019 interview I was proud to be a part of with Emma Strother, Development Manager at LearnServe International, and Yasmine Arrington, Founder and Executive Director of ScholarCHIPS. LearnServe is a DC-based nonprofit that equips middle and high school students from diverse backgrounds with the entrepreneurial vision, tenacity, confidence, and leadership skills needed to tackle social challenges at home and abroad. ScholarCHIPS is also based in DC and focuses on providing college scholarships, mentoring and a peer support network to children of incarcerated parents, inspiring them to complete their college education.

Emma Strother and Yasmine Arrington

Emma Strother and Yasmine Arrington

What made this interview especially exciting is that ScholarCHIPS is a “second-generation” Catalogue for Philanthropy member. Yasmine founded ScholarCHIPS in 2010 when she and Emma were both participants in LearnServe’s Fellows and Abroad Programs. Both LearnServe and ScholarCHIPS were recently selected as two of the best local nonprofits in the region. Any nonprofit in the Catalogue passes a rigorous vetting process, and it is a special honor to have both in this year’s class.

Without further ado, the interview and the enlightening conversation with these two changemakers is below:

Matt: A big part of participating in LearnServe as a student is creating a social venture project. Thinking back, what do you remember from the projects you worked on as part of LearnServe in high school?

Emma: The biggest thing I learned from my project was how to take responsibility and to feel empowered to make a difference. I signed up for LearnServe because I was that traditionally over-achieving student and thought this would add to my resume, but it became something more very quickly. I had an opportunity to combine my passion for music with community building, and it was really empowering to really think about how to use what I cared about to make a difference. More so than my specific project, I just remember LearnServe driving home for me that youth are often told they are the problem or are too young to solve the problem. Scott and others on the team told us that actually we can make a difference right now, and we actually have an obligation to take action when we realize things are unfair or messed up in our community.

Yasmine: I agree entirely with Emma. I didn’t really understand it at the time, but the exposure to so many different leaders, styles, and professional experiences was invaluable. As part of LearnServe, we regularly had speakers come to talk with us. Those guest speakers, sharing their experiences, successes, and failures, helped me to become more of a problem solver and to think more strategically. I’ll never forget when LearnServe staff started the project off, they asked me what pisses me off. For me personally, after some reflection, the issue that hit home for me, and really pissed me off, was mass incarceration and the larger prison industrial complex. I knew though that if I wanted to affect change I needed to make a plan and do my research. The LearnServe process helped me hone in on focusing on how to support the children of those currently incarcerated, because there wasn’t much support out there. My father had been in prison, and LearnServe gave me the chance to use my lived experience to solve a larger social structural problem. I felt empowered because LearnServe showed me I had the power to create change, even as a teenager.

Emma and Yasmine in Zambia as LearnServe Fellows in 2010

Emma and Yasmine in Zambia as LearnServe Fellows in 2010

Matt: Thank you both so much for sharing. So let’s fast forward a bit – both organizations have come a long way. ScholarCHIPS has awarded over $200,000 to 60+ scholars in the past decade, and 18 graduates to date. You have college, and even law school, alumni and two of your former students serve on your board. LearnServe has expanded its programming and has served 3,000+ students since 2003. Given all that both of you are working on now, how do your original LearnServe experiences back in high school impact your work today?

Yasmine: The problem-solving skills I developed and belief that I can make a positive difference are two things I carry with me every day. Just practically, I still have a lot of those connections from our program, like Emma, who I speak with on a regular basis about nonprofit best practices. So the community was and still is a huge benefit. The tools we learned and put in our toolbox impact my life every day – through ScholarCHIPS, but I even use those same problem solving skills in other aspects of my personal and professional life. I am intentional about incorporating the element of social justice into everything I do, and that ability to call people to action on issues of justice I first honed as a LearnServe fellow. These lessons have made my life feel much more rich and meaningful, and turned my world upside down for the better.

Emma: I definitely agree with all of that. It also started a journey for me of challenging myself and taking action. Like Yasmine, I still use that network of peers and mentors to talk through my work – to brainstorm problems and opportunities I’m facing. Two things come to mind about how those high school experiences impact me today. The first is that one of LearnServe’s values is joy. To make this justice-fighting work sustainable, it has to be fun, relational, community-focused, and it has to bring us joy. These issues are serious and need to be taken seriously, but it is also vital we have a joyful community to reengage, imagine, and partner with. The final thing is that LearnServe taught me to take nothing for granted – an important mindset these days.

Matt: Alright you’re both busy so just two more questions. First, what is one thing you all are excited about for 2020?

Emma: I’m really excited that as an organization, LearnServe is going to focus on local impact and the ripple effect of that work. So better capturing the impact of a story like Yasmine’s, where someone not only stayed local and made a difference, but how that difference has impacted so many others. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons we love the Catalogue for Philanthropy so much. The Catalogue has been a longtime partner of LearnServe’s helping to build awareness of our work and capacity for our staff. This enables us to better serve, and serve more, students just like myself and Yasmine. Now that Yasmine is running her own nonprofit and they are also in the Catalogue – the ripples just keep going out.

Yasmine: I love that idea of ripples of impact. For me, this year, I’m really excited about focusing on initiatives and partnerships that will help provide a structure of sustainability and longevity for my organization. Additionally, I’ll be participating in capacity building activities with Fair Chance and also the Catalogue for Philanthropy. We are focused on increasing our partnerships in the community this year, and on beginning to build an endowment for the future generations of ScholarCHIPS scholars. I also recently published a journal for all my fellow social entrepreneurs out there called “Daily Reflections for Social Entrepreneurs.” Check it out here.

Yasmine with ScholarCHIPS Scholars

Yasmine with ScholarCHIPS Scholars

Matt: Alright, I’m going to take a page from LearnServe’s book for this last question. What is pissing you all off these days?

Yasmine: Honestly, the same thing pisses me off today that did back then. I’m angry about the prison industrial complex, mass incarceration, and the downstream impact this has on youth. I’m mad that our prison system is punitive, and that there is still such a strong school-to-prison pipeline. I am pissed that a college education is still just as, if not more so, inaccessible and unaffordable for low-income families and first and second generation college students, as it was before. Grant and scholarships help, but we still have a long way to go to a more equitable world. Something has to change and I’m tired of seeing the same issues exist – so I’m going to keep fighting to make a difference.

Emma: I’m pissed off that people in power and/or with privilege so often stay silent on issues of justice. When I think of the people that inspire me, they are all people with a fire lit inside for what they care about. You can feel their passion. And while I’ve definitely learned self-care is important, challenging yourself is important too. We can’t afford to have apathy or indifference. So while it is important to find joy while fighting the fight, we all need to be doing something if we can. And we need to hold those in power who aren’t doing something accountable.

Matt: Thank you both so much for taking the time to chat with me today and for sharing your stories. You can find out more about LearnServe and how to get involved here. To support ScholarCHIPS, you can go here. And to learn more about charities in the Catalogue network or to learn more about our work, you can go here.