In minutes, even in brief seconds, young people can articulate powerful social critiques and visions for cultural freedom, social justice, and educational equity. Some of the most powerful speeches I have witnessed have been in rhyme over a seductive beat at high school tournaments and public debates.
Youth of color are using hip-hop to demand that they see their culture and issues reflected in competitive academic policy debate, in education and in the larger society around them. This movement inspired me to establish the Hip-Hop Debate Institute to support the myriad ways our youth make meaning of the world, and of themselves, and thus inform their personal and academic development through the creation, investigation and articulation of hip-hop texts.
I see debate as a microcosm of many challenges in public education. Reminiscent of Horace Mann's claim that education is "the great equalizer," research on debate consistently produces dramatic results -- especially for oppressed communities.
In 2009, the Journal of Negro Education reported a nine-year study in Chicago that found high school debaters are 70 percent more likely to graduate than non-debaters, three times less likely to drop out, and more likely to score at or above on the ACT benchmarks for college readiness in English and reading. The Journal concluded that debate, especially for Black young men, might be effective in improving secondary literacy and overall academic outcomes.
These are powerful claims. More than 99 percent of our young people make it into high school, yet fewer than half of students of color make it out in four years. And clearly the stakes are high: high school graduates have a ten-year longer life expectancy than non-graduates, and the latter tend to earn far less than a livable wage, and thus, on average, will spend more time incarcerated, less time with their families, less time working and less time as engaged citizens. And for those who do graduate, less than one-in-ten are prepared for college.
But how many students does debate truly reach? Too often our "dropout crisis," whether in public schools or debate, is explained by deficiencies in our youth.
However, we have yet to tap into the vast amount of cultural and intellectual wealth in our communities, and make it available to our young people. Over the past decade, I have seen many brilliant youth refuse to participate in debate, turned off by the activity's demographics, content, and rhetorical codes.
Traditionally, debaters spew technical jargon at warp speeds, making arguments that occlude problems uniquely affecting students of color, living in urban and rural areas. Despite its many virtues, the activity often is devoid of the critical consciousness embodied by educators such as Paulo Freire, Gloria Jean Watkins (a.k.a. bell hooks), Toni Morrison, Franz Fanon, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cornel West, Patricia Hill Collins and youth cultures such as hip-hop --leaving many black and brown youths to wonder where they fit in.
Determined to change the exclusionary practices of debate, the University of Louisville recruited a strong team of African American debaters who critiqued the traditional mode of debate through hip-hop texts. Inspired by Louisville, in 2006 I garnered help from college coaches and hip-hop artists from around the country to create the first high school hip-hop debate institute in the country at the University of Washington, doubling participation.
The thought of discrimination hasn't faded, but my knapsack has/along with genocide/If you haven't seen Emmett Till let me take you for a ride/The same reason Emmett wasn't accepted in Mississippi/white supremacy in the debate community/and it shows modern society's policies/racist, classist remedies/Are you ears, are you lending thee?/'Cus statistics show today's debate participators are the future policy makers/...This is my black aesthetic prayer.
The previous quote is an excerpt from a speech delivered by a student I coached for six years. Not until his senior year did he actually attend a debate tournament. Knowing that he could debate by weaving his poetic narratives with academic evidence was why he decided to compete.
His passion was evident as he rapped part of his speech at a tournament where he and his partner were the only black debaters out of more than 100 students from mostly affluent schools. The debaters, however, won the vote by finding solid ground in discursive hybridity.
Our students were artists and debaters -- critically conscious creative producers, public intellectuals, and leaders -- who could mobilize others to make change in local and global communities. Building upon our youths' cultural, intellectual, and linguistic wealth can transform educational spaces that can feel more alienating than emancipating.
The free Hip-Hop Debate Institute at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, is guided by such a philosophy. This innovative academic intervention serving black and Latino youths who attend underserved public high schools in New York City supports after-school training, weekend debate opportunities, and a six-week summer institute with professors and hip-hop artists, with paid apprenticeships for our graduates.
Curriculum and hands-on activities connect with students' interests by supporting the critical literacy and production of hip-hop culture to speak to the issues that students debate. Young scholars and leaders research and discuss economic, political, and sociocultural issues, which are used to write powerful poetic research proposals that address some of the most pressing issues facing our young generation.
Students are supported in developing strong critical, analytical, rhetorical and discourse skills to weave poetic texts with students' original research, academic writing, ideas from dialogical seminars, and multimodal texts to create dynamic and persuasive presentations for public debates, academic conferences, and weekend tournaments hosted by prestigious universities where students are also awarded for their accolades. Students network with college recruiters, professors, public figures, philanthropists, and community leaders at all events.
There is no other program like this in the marketplace. This is the only free debate program at an Ivy League College that provides training for young men of color.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, Ashoka Changemakers, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Young Men's Initiative in recognition of the "My Voice, Our City" competition, which aims to empower black and Latino young men ages 16-24. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about "My Voice, Our City", click here; about Ashoka Changemakers, click here; and about the Young Men's Initiative, click here.