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HomenewsEducationDebating the Digital Divide

Debating the Digital Divide

Loretta Brady engages us in a surprising debate on digital equity

Yaritza was suspended in seventh grade for punching a boy in the nose. He had called her a dull-witted donkey, not quite in those words.

Luckily, her seventh-grade teacher—who was also the debate coach—recognized her spark of Latinx magic and showed her how ideas can be mightier than fists. She learned to challenge the veracity of online sources, to question the logic of her adversaries, and to conquer her fear of public speaking. “Now I get loud and win medals for it,” she says.

Competitive rules demand that she and her teammates wrestle both sides of every issue: A Green New Deal or no deal? Criminal reform, or same old? In the view of one of their Bronx competitors, “I’d absolutely recommend debate to everyone for its many everlasting benefits, especially its exposure to things in the world I would never have learned about otherwise.”

Refrains like this thrill debate organizations like the National Urban Debate League and other diversity, equity, and inclusion–focused nonprofits that share a mission to “provide access to the transformative power of academic debate” and lead youth to become ”engaged and courageous citizens.” They target the most underserved students in over 20 cities nationwide, cities like Detroit, Chicago, New York, Oakland, and Atlanta.

But then COVID struck, their most formidable opponent yet.

“Can debate exist online?” was the first question staff asked themselves. But it was the second, “For whom?”, that weighed on them most. Then, in some miraculous way that still continues to surprise all, online debating became a lifeline, a sort of refuge in the lonely world of remote learning. Sure, participant numbers are nowhere near pre-COVID levels, but from the mountain of digital despair, a stone of hope surges forward.

Debating the Emotional Cost of the Digital Divide

As far as digital inequities, urban kids are surely hit harder than anyone had at first realized. Reports from April 2020 show that one in five children in Chicago under the age of 18—about 100,000 kids—lacks access to broadband, and these kids are primarily Black or Latinx. Doing schoolwork—or debate—“in a parking lot to capture Wi-Fi,” as a July New York Times editorial put it, “is not a solution.”

New York City mirrors these national trends: 44% of NYC residents in poverty lacked high-speed access in 2019, with nearly one-third of Hispanic and Black New Yorkers lacking access, compared to about 20% of White residents. Even for those with connectivity, 80,000 reported not having a device with which to access the internet, according to the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

But even as hotspots and iPads are distributed, the real work begins. Technology has a way of making us all feel inadequate. Even tech-reared teens are now all tangled up in new links and platforms. When their tech freezes up mid-speech in debate rounds, “they just shut down,” one Bronx high school coach said, “their fragile confidence shot.” So urban debate leagues rolled up their sleeves to advocate and support. Then another surprise bonus emerged: tech skills spiked along with critical literacy.

And outreach got creative, too. Leagues held debate game nights and debate book clubs. Debate relationships mattered. Something compelled kids to stay connected to their debate community. “The most happy I’ve seen them be throughout all of quarantine time,” observed one parent, “is when they’re planning together as partners for upcoming tournaments. They’re so excited.”

Nor could leagues overlook the stressful demands that day-long competitions imposed on families. Yaritza shares a narrow three-bedroom apartment with her parents, her cousin, her twin sisters, and her elderly abuelita. “I like us all together, but the glue traps keep getting stuck to my feet ‘cause there’s nowhere to step.” Working together as a kind of extended family, coaches and league staff sought to mitigate the stress.

Ending Screen and Mission Fatigue

There’s never been a better time to empower more students through debate. Some online activities, like Fortnite, are more immune to screen fatigue than others. Debate, a kind of gaming, turns out to be one of them.

For many, however, debate’s alleged exclusive culture still intimidates. Busting that elitist myth is precisely the aim of urban debate leagues. Around the time Trujillo kicked Yaritza’s abuelita off her land, George Soros began noticing the stark under-representation of lawmakers for Americans of color. When he then realized that law schools also reflect this disparity, he drew a link chain back to the lack of debate clubs in public schools. Thus, the UDL was born. Now more than ever, they’re revved for their mission.

Yet league affiliations aren’t required to reap the profound benefits of debate. Teachers in the South Bronx expanded debate-in-the-classroom programs during COVID’s hybrid learning challenges. They even added a Spanish division to their pre-existing district competitions for elementary and middle schools. “My students stay after practice on their own for hours just so they can rewrite their cases,” one teacher reports.

Other savvy educators recognized debate’s potential to supercharge remote learning. Weaponized to help online classes “catch fire,” debate enticed students toward more rigorous electives. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I love it,” said one Bronx high schooler. “I’ve never thought so much or thought like this before.”

Some of Yaritza’s classmates think they’re crazy. Why ask for extra homework? But to Yaritza, her partner Hakeem, and the rest of the squad, “We just think it’s fun.”

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Loretta Brady enjoyed a long career as an NYC public middle and high school teacher and as educational coordinator for Rwandan refugees in Malawi under the UNHCR. She now consults for various NYC school districts, training others in debate education. She designs curriculum materials for the New York City Urban Debate League.

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