A luncheon with ideas to munch on.

An email sent to the northeast debate listserv from Mary Nugent (Coach at University of Vermont and former Cambridge Debater/Trainer):

Hi all,

During lunch on Saturday, Rochester hosted a luncheon discussion to talk about underrepresented identities in debate. In true debate style, we discussed three questions:

1) Problems that exist may prevent under-represented groups from participating in debate.
2) Solutions to these problems that have worked for debate societies in our region.

3) Solutions that we haven’t tried that might benefit our region and its diversity.

The summary of our discussion is attached (note this is just an account of what was said, rather than any ‘conclusions’ that were reached). We thought it might be useful for people who weren’t able to
attend but are interested, and I think has some useful to suggestions to think about if anyone is pondering the question of how to make their debate society as inclusive and diverse as possible.

Thanks to Amelia [Poulin, URDU debater] for taking the minutes and Alia and Rochester for organising it all! There was a general consensus that the discussion was a useful exercise that people would like to repeat, so perhaps this is something to think about for other tournaments in the future (maybe we could aim for one per semester or similar?).


The meeting notes:

1) Problems that exist may prevent under-represented groups from participating in debate.

Recruitment. If our recruitment efforts are not consciously wise we will end up with perpetuating any biases already on our team (in terms of subjects studied, gender, ethnic group). We may unconsciously keep recruiting people who ‘are like us’ since we assume these are the people who will be good at debating. This effects not only access to debate programmes, but reduces the diversity and thus quality of the activity.

Language/accent barriers. Some people spoke of how immigrants maybe dissuaded from debate since other people have difficulty understanding them. This can be a frustrating experience.

Perceived difficulty/expertise. People spoke about how difficult debating seems from the outside, especially if it is perceived as an activity “not for people like me”. Some people assume that you have to be comfortable talking, or be knowledgeable about debate already, so they might not try it out.

Retention & Gender is a big problem for lots of debate societies. Some people said retention was even more of a problem for girls joining. One of the causes identified was male dominated squads, as this might make it difficult for some girls to feel comfortable on the team. It was also suggested that, due to the way girls are often socialised in society, a welcoming and supporting community may be even more essential to help overcome the challenges of the combative activity that is debate.

Gender perceptions. Some people said they felt that as female speakers they sometimes felt they were being taken less seriously than their male counterparts. In particular, a female speaker who is passionate and loud whilst speaking may at times be seen as less effective and persuasive than a male speaker doing the same, and get feedback to this effect (which is a frustrating experience).

Race. Some schools find they have mainly one race make up the majority of their team. Someone noted that sometimes minority groups mix primarily amongst themselves, so perhaps debate societies should make an effort to reach out (similar to the ideas about recruitment).

2) Solutions to these problems that have worked for debate societies in our region.


– One school puts up posters that emphasize that anyone can be a good debater, and made sure that posters appeal to a variety of people, rather than just trying to attract people who we already think are good at debate.

– Have a public debate with a more accessible format (shortened speeches, etc). This helps to combat any ideas about barriers to entry and the diversity and inclusiveness of the activity. Make sure the participants are diverse to reflect the inclusive nature of a programme, to encourage participation, provide role models etc.

– Have new people participate in public debates with you, and let the audience know this is their first time, to make people see how accessible debate can be. In particular, reaching out to a variety of groups on campus to collaborate in public debates helps widen our appeal.

– Make sure introductory sessions are accessible and easy for everyone to participate (one school spoke of how they’d play debate games rather than an entire practice debate to start with).

– If you get a person from a group that is currently under-represented on your team, you can use them to recruit people from their group. If they are excited about the activity they can recruit people unintentionally because their friends will see what they’re getting out of the activity.

– Some people spoke of the benefits from targeting exchange students, which can help build diversity if they are welcomed onto the team.


– People spoke about how important being encouraged by older members at their first tournament was in making them feel welcome and able to participate.

– Team cohesiveness might especially help providing a more accessible environment for women.

– Having a larger representation of women (especially in out rounds) might lessen the perception gap between men and women when it comes to speaking styles . It would also lessen the ‘only female in a debate’ experience which can be off-putting. This was recognised as being somewhat of a chicken/egg problem though!

If the leadership was more diverse, maybe the recruitment would be more diverse too – though the time lag problem is recognised here!

3) Solutions that we haven’t tried that might benefit our region and its diversity.

A few solutions used in on other circuits were mentioned:

– Women’s tournaments.

– Gender quotas on teams selected for International tournaments.

– Women’s summer debate institute.

It was suggested that the community should have an explicit statement endorsing diversity in participation, providing reasons for directing resources and effort, which may help progress.

It was agreed that future discussions, to allow sharing of problems we can identify and good practice for encouraging diversity, would be a good idea.

This Luncheon discussion was hosted at the University of Rochester Brad Smith Debate Tournament at the beginning of October in 2011. I thank Mary Nugent who acted as a DCA for the tournament (along with David Hernandez) and facilitated the discussion. I hope more debate tournaments will provide for similar discussion opportunities.



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