As a seventh-grader at Blackmon Road Middle School, she had to stay after school for detention because she debated her teacher, Rachel Funk. Then as an eighth-grader, she willingly stayed after school to debate her classmates.
The difference for Ashanti Nevilles has been joining the Columbus Urban Debate League, which in seven years has grown to comprise more than 50 students from eight Muscogee County middle schools.
“Debate really has a special place in my heart,” Ashanti, a rising ninth-grader at Shaw High School, said this week during CUDL’s summer camp at Richards Middle School. “… I fell in love with the way it helps you have a constructive argument, a respectful argument. I’m a person who likes to argue.
“It’s actually very funny. Now, I get to argue and not get in trouble for it.”
Instead, she gets a medal for it.
Ashanti is among the 10 students who helped CUDL return from the 2018 state championship in Atlanta with 15 medals. More than 400 students from approximately 40 schools throughout Georgia competed in the tournament, said James Roland, executive director of the Atlanta Urban Debate League.
“That gives the context for their achievement,” Roland said. “They competed against the best and brightest in the state.”
CUDL’s achievement was highlighted by Jordyn Howard of Arnold Magnet Academy and Kelly Tran of Richards Middle School, who won first place among 57 duos in the junior varsity two-person policy debate division. They won all four of their rounds in the competition.
“For the last four years,” said the Rev. Richard Jessie, CUDL’s founding director, “we’ve had students that placed first in the state tournament.”
Kelly and Jordan also received medals for their individual speaking performances. Kelly was ranked fourth and Jordan sixth out of 114 competitors in their division.
Additional students won medals for CUDL by finishing in the top 40 among 72 duos in the novice two-person policy debate division: Gardner Mobley of Arnold and Tamir Moore of Richards (ninth place), August Mobley of Richards and Tanay Pathakamuri of Blackmon Road (10th place) and Ashanti and Nila Karunakaran of Blackmon Road (34th place).
They also received medals for their individual speaking performances, out of 144 competitors in their division: Tamir was ranked sixth, Gardner was seventh, Tanay was ninth, August was 15th and Jonathan Mimy-Mathews of Arnold was 48th.
The CUDL coaches at the state tournament were Evelyn Blalock of Arnold, Dayeann Willis of Richards and Rachel Funk of Blackmon Road. Baker, East Columbus, Eddy, Fort and Veterans are the other Muscogee County middle school participating in CUDL.
‘Every teacher’s dream’
Funk is the teacher Ashanti had disrespected and who ended up encouraging her to compete in debate. She teaches special education but was covering Ashanti’s regular-education English language arts class when they clashed.
“She would tell me to sit down, and I always would talk back,” Ashanti said. “I wasn’t as mature as I am now.”
The following year, when Funk started the debate team at Blackmon Road, Ashanti, who aspires to be a lawyer, figured, “This might be good. I could stay after school and hang out with my friends, and it might help my career.”
More than 20 Blackmon Road students started on the debate team, only four stayed committed through the school year, and Ashanti was among the three who competed in the state tournament, Funk said.
“Every teacher’s dream is to have that impact on a child to where you see something in their life that’s truly changed and where they get opportunities that they wouldn’t have before,” Funk said. “That’s the reason I entered education. … It’s beautiful to see her bloom like that in this environment.”
Ashanti said her family can’t pay for the transportation and fees for debate tournaments, so she is grateful for the folks who donate to CUDL, allowing students to participate for free.
“It helps kids like me that can’t afford to do stuff like this,” Ashanti said. “It represents Columbus good, because when we go to Atlanta and win the medals, it represents that Columbus, especially from the low-income communities, it really has a lot to show. We really are very educated in the skills we have.”
Cordell Johnson-Dowdle, a rising ninth-grader at Spencer High School, participated in CUDL while attending Rothschild Leadership Academy.
“It widens your vocabulary so you can speak proper instead of like slang,” said Cordell, who wants to become a cybersecurity specialist.
Winning a debate, Cordell said, “feels like I accomplished something that actually matters. … It shows I can come from a low-income family and still do great things.”
Some of those great things might end for Ashanti and Cordell if their high schools don’t establish debate teams. CUDL debate coaches are trying to help Muscogee County high schools with that task. Columbus High has been the only one with a debate team out of the city’s nine high schools. Funk said Kendrick is expected to start one this year.
“It really is disheartening,” Funk said of the realization that many of the students CUDL trains and motivates to succeed in debate won’t have such a team to join when they start high school. “More than before, we’re going to actively try to contact the high schools and say, ‘Hey, you’re missing out on something huge.”
‘Where do I sign up?’
Jessie, a retired construction contractor, is an associate minister at Greater Shady Grove Baptist Church. He also is executive director of the Friends of Historic Claflin, the organization trying to redevelop the abandoned historic school into apartments with an education center.
He was PTA president at the now-closed Marshall Middle School when the goal of forming the debate league was to get more parents involved in mentoring students – and perhaps spread the idea to other schools serving children from disadvantaged families. Now, CUDL is one of 23 urban debate leagues in the United States and, along with Atlanta, one of only two in Georgia, Jessie said.
“Debating brings excitement to education,” Jessie said. “It develops critical thinkers. It helps build self-confidence and improves reading skills, the speed and comprehension. It also helps understanding the importance of working in teams.”
With the level of debate in society becoming increasingly combative, groups such as CUDL are even more valuable, Jessie insisted.
“That’s the purpose of the camp’s character-building session, focusing on respect,” Jessie said.
And that’s one of the reasons Columbus High School rising senior Aidan Anderson is a student coach for CUDL. Columbus High graduate Dillon Evans participated in CUDL when he attended Rothschild Leadership Academy and encouraged Aidan to help.
“I just love giving back,” Aidan said. “That’s something I’ve always had a passion for. When he said I could take my love of debate and love of service and put them together, I was just like, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
On the state championship Columbus High debate team, Aidan was co-champion in first-year public forum debate (2016), state finalist in second-year public forum debate (2017) and champion of international extemporaneous debate (2018).
Aidan has replaced Evans as CUDL’s teaching coordinator, working with the coaches and planning events to instruct the students how to debate competitively. They learn strategies about constructing arguments and attacking the opponent. They also learn public speaking skills, with fun exercises including trying to talk while holding a pen in their mouth.
“In a debate, you need to make some concessions, you need to find as much common ground as possible. …
“There’s a competitive incentive to control your emotions,” Aidan said. “… Oftentimes, if you get very, very heated and you get nasty or you just start becoming hostile, the judge starts developing a distaste toward you.”
Rising senior Sophie Murty and Soumil Patel and rising junior Noor Abdullah are the other Columbus High debate team members volunteering as CUDL student coaches.
“They are a tremendous help,” Jessie said. “They know more about debating than some of our adult coaches because a lot of them have had no debate experience. We need community people to encourage young people to be involved with this.”
HOW TO HELP
To participate as a student, coach or judge in the Columbus Urban Debate League, call director Richard Jessie at 706-393-9393.
Participating for students is free. CUDL’s original funding of $3,500 came from the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Jessie said. He estimated CUDL’s current annual need at $7,000. Now its funding comes from the Glenn Pelham Foundation for Debate Education through the Atlanta Urban Debate League, he said. To donate, go to atlantadebate.org or make checks payable to the foundation and mail them to AUDL at P.O. Box 15087, Atlanta, GA 30333.