Kierra Jackson, a high school junior at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy, has always had the gift of gab. Whether it be with friends or family, she’s never had a problem saying what’s on her mind. But socializing in school, speaking in class, these were places Kierra often silenced herself, despite excelling academically. It wasn’t until after eighth grade, while attending a summer camp, that Kierra found her voice.
At the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League summer camp, Kierra watched the film The Great Debaters, with Denzel Washington as the inspirational professor and debate coach Melvin B. Tolson. Almost immediately, she felt a desire to join a team of people as passionate as her.
“When you think of debate, you think of politicians. And when you think of politicians, you don’t think of people of color or speaking for yourself,” Kierra says. As a young black woman, she connected the experiences of the film’s characters to her own experiences and decided it was time to speak out on behalf of her community.
Debating facts and figures on pressing issues can be daunting or even tedious, but Kierra saw an opportunity to develop skills that would help her face tough situations. “Just being able to think on spot is a good skill, and using knowledge of the outside world mixed with common sense to make arguments is something I’ve used in competition and in my life in general,” she says, adding that her debate partner, Blanca Valencia, who is Latina, has experienced the world in similar ways. “As women of color, we feel the last two years have taken a toll for the worst. Debate is an outlet to shine a light on important issues.”
A criminal justice system that disproportionately arrests, imprisons and kills people of color. A presidential candidate who has called for the mass deportation of immigrants, whether it be for the color of the skin or their religion. Corporate greed and the pillaging of the earth’s natural resources. All of these topics are discussed by the student members and mentors of the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL), which is part of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, a national non-profit organization that reaches middle school and high school-age students through debate to increase their engagement in academics.
SVUDL became a nonprofit after piloting two programs in 2014 at Eastside College Preparatory in East Palo Alto and Overfelt High School in East San Jose. It’s now reaching 150 students through their partnering schools, which include: Eastside College Preparatory, Overfelt High School, Oak Grove High School, Silver Creek High School and East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy. SVUDL offers an avenue to youth of color to develop their voice and articulate the inequities they see in society through research. In addition, the students seek to improve the criminal justice system.
“In a world like ours, people of color, people in lower socioeconomic circumstances and, as we see a repeat of history, those with different ideas from mainstream society, are shunned, isolated, oppressed and disenfranchised,” says Trinya Smith, SVUDL’s program director. “In both the legal and political world, our students are unrepresented. SVUDL aims to help shift that.”
Both Smith, who goes by Ms. T, and Shauntrice Martin, founding program director of SVUDL, are black women with debate backgrounds. Smith was a student in the Baltimore Urban Debate League, which awarded her a full scholarship to attend Towson University. She was part of the debate team through college and traveled to Eastern Europe to discuss public policy. She also traversed the U.S. to work with youth and develop public policy reforms.
“All of the program staff are former debaters, black women and people of color who have been through similar situations as a kid,” Martin says. “I’ve been homeless before and my mom was a janitor. I was the first to go to college and the way we engage with students is very different from how those from a different backgrounds would engage with our students.”
Martin became interested in debate as a student at the University of Louisville, where she faced a variety of hardships with few people to reach out to for help. In her first year of college she was failing her classes and considered dropping out. Instead she joined the debate team and things began to turn around. She received a scholarship and found community, as many of her peers were also first-generation college students. After college, she took a job as a teaching assistant with the Oak Grove juvenile detention center in Virginia. During this time she began a debate project, developing curriculum for the youth to engage in community change.
Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Shelyna Brown says that even as a young law student, she didn’t think of being a judge. That changed after a hearing presiding Judge Risë Jones Pichon speak. “When I saw her, I was like ‘wow,’” Brown says. “Seeing her made me realize that this is something that could possibly be done.”
It sends a message to young people when they enter a courtroom and the only person who looks like them is the defendant, Brown says, noting that her courtroom staff features different ethnic backgrounds from African American to Asian and Latino, from deputies and court reporters to herself on the bench. “When you come in here [people see that] you can be the defendant if you want to, but you could be any one of these roles also,” Brown says.
Brown admits there is still not nearly enough diversity on the bench or criminal justice system, and the numbers appear to back that up. J.J. Kapp, an attorney in the county’s Public Defender Office, says there is no formal process in his office to track statistics of the racial or ethnic background of staff, as this is not part of the hiring criteria. However, Kapp notes, 45 percent of judges in Santa Clara County are women, 10 percent Asian, 7 percent African American and 11 percent Hispanic.
SVUDL’s legal career mentor program connects debaters to local lawyers who work with them through high school and college until their first day of law school. Because the program is only in its second year, Smith says, they haven’t had many high school seniors, but all 45 SVUDL graduates went on to college.
The debate league expands the concept of who can have a career in law, Martin says, and students begin to see themselves in the field, using the voice they developed through debate to make structural changes to the legal system.
“I treat my students like my kids—some of them call me mom,” Martin says. “It can get a little exhausting when they call me or text me all times of the day and night—I mean, I’ve had students get locked up or pregnant, really struggling in college—but those extra hours I work are worth it.”
Destiny Anderson, a Mexican-American alumna of SVUDL, is now a college freshman at San Jose State University. She plans to double major in psychology and political science. Her story is similar to Kierra’s, in that she also attended a summer debate camp before joining the SVUDL family.
“Our program director, Shauntrice Martin, was a like a parental figure,” Anderson says. “Our debate mom always checking in. I loved knowing I was in a whole other support system. Before SVUDL, I always considered family to be blood relatives. But when I joined the program, the word ‘family’ changed to mean the people who care about my well being. It felt like I had gained 30 family members.”