High school debaters pose for a photo during the LAMDL Summer Debate Institute at the University of Southern California. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Villanueva, LAMDL photographer)


Breaking barriers: how high school students of marginalized backgrounds are raising good hell through debate

In an activity traditionally dominated by the wealthy and elite, high school students of marginalized backgrounds are changing the game.
<a href="https://highschool.latimes.com/author/sungjooyoon/" target="_self">Sungjoo Yoon</a>

Sungjoo Yoon

August 4, 2022

Rows of rearranged seats, freshly dry-cleaned suits and the indistinct beeps of handheld timers set an early Saturday morning stage for intensively academic conversations. Mentions of international hegemony, epistemicide and political capital are some of the most commonly referenced talking points in this sphere.

It’s a familiar setting in classrooms all across Los Angeles; home to one of the largest high school debate circuits in the country.

But for students like Jokim Bryant, a rising 12th-grade student at the Dr. Richard A. Vladovic Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy, this space is particularly meaningful. 

Jokim Bryant, the 2022 Urban Debate National Champion, during a round. (Photo courtesy of Jokim Bryant)

Amidst an activity dominated by elite private schools and wealthy, predominantly white students, his team at VHTPA is a rare yet emblematic success story that reflects the potential of high school forensics to change lives. The public school, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School district, sits on the outskirts of the South Bay.

Its students? Primarily low-income, first-generation and underrepresented, according to counselor and debate coach Joy Yoneda.

But differences in resources, systemic representation and support may be the single biggest barrier to students like Bryant in accessing such a life-changing activity.

“There’s a difference between what our school has and what those other schools have. What those other schools have is money,” Bryant, the 2022 Urban Debate National Champion, says. “Every tournament, we realize we’re not going to have what we need [to debate].”

There is a harrowing tale of two worlds here. Students who debate at VHTPA often don’t have the money to afford the books or tournament entry fees needed to compete. According to Bryant, half of his team’s members don’t even have computers; which were necessary to access debate in the realm of the COVID pandemic. And that’s a stark contrast from debate teams at neighboring elite private schools, whose tuition often stretches into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Bryant describes how this plays out by detailing some of his team’s experiences. From watching his teammates often struggle to keep up against said programs, to spending already-stretched time during competition season fundraising for the most basic of resources, he contends that this unfair playing field skews the outcomes from the outset.

“We always have somebody saying, let’s look out for this big business, or corporate America. But what about the communities in the hood? What about the communities that don’t really get attention?” 

– Jokim Bryant, 12th-grade student and debate team captain at VHTPA

Perhaps the biggest loss here, however, is what underrepresented students miss out on as a result of these inequities.

The debate team at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta-Montrose, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Vienna Panossian)

Vienna Panossian, a rising 12th-grade student and leading captain of the debate team at Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta-Montrose, Calif., notes that debate built up her confidence and speaking in a way that other activities hadn’t.

“I’ve completely fallen in love with speech and debate… The environment it provided me just encouraged me to explore communication and argumentation,” Panossian said. “I’ve learned to listen with more respect and an open mind.”

Alisha Hassanali, a rising 11th-grade student at Granada Hills Charter High School in Granada Hills, Calif. and the reigning California State debate champion, also notes that debate provided her a platform to speak out about issues important to her yet often discounted in society. Much like Bryant, who most commonly advocates against anti-blackness and colonialism in policy, she embraces the chance to speak out about intersectionality.

“This past year, I did a speech on Bollywood, but specifically, how it relates to the way Asian women are portrayed in the media,” Hassanali said. “That’s not something that a lot of people are talking about, but having that opportunity was really motivating for me.”

Students take notes during a lecture on government actors in debate. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Villanueva)

Students who participate in debate excel academically as well. Recent studies from the University of Michigan, in studying nearly 36,000 student debaters across the country, find that debaters post higher grades, SAT scores and college readiness than non-debaters. In an endemic era where the Los Angeles Unified School District has seen scores across the board decreasing, and the achievement gap between Black/Latino students and their white/Asian counterparts growing by nearly 26%, the activity has the potential to serve as an educational equalizer.

Yoneda, from the perspective of a coach and counselor, even finites how her students’ futures have been changed for the better through debate. Her students have gained confidence, created connections and even been recruited to elite colleges like Northwestern University for their success.

From building real-world skills like speaking, to providing a unique space to bring light to their personal stories, even to receiving scholarships and higher education, debate has the ability to change the trajectory to change students’ lives. That’s why these resource barriers are ultimately so harmful.

However, many organizations around the Los Angeles area are actively working to amend these gaps, likely none of which are more notable than the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League. LAMDL, founded in 2007, is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and debate league that services over 30 under-resourced schools in Southern California. Its members, including VHTPA, receive funding, coaching, transportation and more in its membership. 

LAUSD students participate in a debate. (Sungjoo Yoon / LA Times HS Insider)

Cameron Ward, who served as Executive Director of LAMDL from 2010 to 2019, explains: “I’ve coached at some of the poorest schools in Los Angeles, and some of the wealthiest schools. I coached at Crenshaw High School and Notre Dame High School. And what I found when I was there is that kids learn the same way.”

Ward attributes his own career to debate. A high school teacher encouraged him to debate, which led to a debate scholarship at California State University, Fullerton, and ultimately to a further involvement in the community as well.

And the league’s efforts have led to an influx of resources from both public and private partnerships. They receive support from school districts (including the Los Angeles and Compton Unified School Districts), law firms, foundations, and community partners. Most recently, they held a free Summer Debate Institute in conjunction with the University of Southern California.

Students, staff, and administrators on the University of Southern California’s campus for the 2022 LAMDL SDI. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Villanueva)

“Does [LAMDL] level the playing field entirely? Well, no. But does it make a tremendous impact on the students who have access to it? Yes. Should it be expanded so that more students have access to it? Yes,” Ward said. 

It is those same efforts that broke the monopoly of resources for schools like VHTPA, even if they didn’t make them 100% equal.

“[We’ve] done incredibly well with what we have,” Yoneda said. “There is a disparity, but the students’ passion and commitment makes up for it.”

In time, the efforts of organizations such as LAMDL paired with the perseverance of students like Bryant, Hassanali, and Panossian help to amend debate’s systemic faults. But even within them, debaters of underrepresented and marginalized identities and backgrounds have found ways to thrive.