SV Urban Debate League Grooms Next Gen of Attorneys, Judges

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.”

Kierra Jackson says she gained control over her voice through the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

Kierra Jackson says she gained control over her voice through the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

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.”

Shauntrice Martin founded the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League after a similar program propelled her through college. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

Shauntrice Martin founded the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League after a similar program propelled her through college. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

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.

Art t encourage students can be found throughout the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy campus. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

Art to encourage students can be found throughout the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy campus. (Photo by Greg Ramar)

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.”

13 Comments

  1. “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…” I’m relieved that these kids are being taught the ideology of victimhood. It would be awful if the concept of personal responsibility were allowed to gain a foothold. It’s fine to say that “people of color” are arrested at disproportionate rates, but make sure not to mention percentages when it comes to the commission of crimes. It’s society’s fault, right?

  2. Positivity
    Grit
    Courage
    Self-Control
    Leadership

    These seem like generic values useful for anyone. And just how are these values different from “white” values?

    And, if they’re NOT different, why is this “national non-profit organization needed”?

  3. “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,”

    What does she think when she thinks of the current president? Perhaps she should learn to think before she speaks.

  4. They want to promote “structural changes” in the criminal justice system? What the heck does that mean? Racial quotas for judges, juries, lawyers with no regard to individual merit and legal knowledge regardless of the color or skin they walk around in? Probably. Most everything the so-called progressives promote is based on some variant of quotas and the concept of group-think that believes everyone in a “tribe” must think alike. Graduates of this SVUDL scam will just be more of the same victimization crowd splitting my country even more along racial and ethnic lines.

    • Oh please. “young people when they enter a courtroom and the only person who looks like them is the defendant”…What?!?

      O.J. trial: Lead defense attorney (Black male); defendant; Black male millionaire; OK, I’ll give you those.

      Prosecuting attorneys: Black male and White female.

      Jury composition: 8 Black females: 2 White females; 1 Hispanic male; 1 Black male: Not a single G** D*** White guy! Where the hell is the guy who looks like me!?!. I’ve been excluded! I’m no good! I can’t be impartial! I’m a White male! I’m a presumptive bigot, racist, redneck piece of oppressor class sh**!!!…with “privilege!!!

      Oppressed by society?!? Did I hear that coming from someone who is going to school on a “person of color only” scholarship that is not available to my daughter because she’s white? Worse yet, I’m a middle class white guy! The most odious scum on earth! I got it coming because of 200 years of oppression by “people who look like me”!!!

      Some “kept down by The Man” person’s parent was a janitor?!? I’m retired, 60 years old and I’m working 2 jobs because my daughter can’t get a “person of color scholarship”! My jobs, 20-30 hours a week each, it varies, with no benefits!, pay about 60% (an hour) less than what I used to make and I work 40-60 hours a week (between the two of them) at jobs for which I’m fairly well over-qualified just so I can send my kid to school!

      I don’t technically qualify as low-income for scholarship or racial reasons because of my pension but after taxes I probably take home a lot less than a G** D**** janitor does and I live like a low-socioeconomic person who has to commute 50 miles a day because I can’t get Section 8 housing because I’m not a parolee, an unwed mother, a dope addict or a “person of color”, I’m just a G** D*** white guy!!! Please someone oppress me, I need the money!!!

      My theme song is Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” because there aren’t any “spirituals” for white guys!!!

      • 40 years ago I was a juror on a murder trial in Oakland, a blackman from NY was charged and had confessed to shooting a white man in the face with a 12 gage shotgun at point blank range in a halfway house in Berkeley.

        The prosecutor was a neat black man that now reminds me of Jerry Rice. The defence attorney from the public defender’s office looked like my high school social studies teacher with a Neyro suit and pink shirt.

        Things looked pretty bad for the defendant after the defence attorney threw every black person off the jury.

        Cops picked the defendant up running down University Avenue about a month later telling them he wanted to commit suicide by jump off the bay bridge and then confessed to the shooting at the party the month befor.

        Turns out the white man that was shot while trying to kidnap a woman at gunpoint. He was a drug dealer that
        that wanted money back from some deal that was never really an issue in the trial.

        Seeing this as a self defence issue rather than a murder the jury found the defendant not guilty.
        We were all rather puzzed as to why the defence attorney made sure the jury was all white and not mixed.
        So we asked. His response was if we had voted to convicted he would have pulled the race card and demanded a new trial as we were all racist.

        Most of us would have given the defendant a medal for saving the woman who happens to be white.

    • > Keep getting these children to the top.

      To the top of what?

      To the top of the “people of color, people in lower socioeconomic circumstances” tribe?

      Who decided for these children that this is all they ought to want?

      • Julian Dotson,

        I’m not trying to get my daughter to the top of anything. I’m just trying to get her through college and I’m retired and working 2 jobs because I can’t afford tuition, books and living expenses because she doesn’t qualify for a “person of color” scholarship because she’s white. That’s all I know.

        I just want to get my daughter through college so she can get to the top on her own. I’ll help her pay off her massive, non-person of color student loans but I have to let her climb to the top herself. I’m just too frikkin’ tired.

        My daughter’s going to have to learn for herself that nobody helps the disgusting, (presumptive) oppressive, redneck, “privileged” white scum. We’ve been “privileged” all our lives! Really? Well where the hell is MY privilege!? I sure as sh*+ don’t feel real privileged after working 20 hours at one job and 30 at the other, and that’s on a good week! But filthy white trash that “looks like me” doesn’t deserve any better. Just ask Nicole Simpson or Ron Goldman!

        I would love to be oppressed, if it meant I got to sleep in on the weekends!!!

  5. For the racial bean counters: “45 percent of judges in Santa Clara County are women, 10 percent Asian, 7 percent African American and 11 percent Hispanic.”

    This means that women and Asians are slightly under represented, hispanics are very under represented and blacks (and whites) are grossly over represented –
    by at least a factor of two – using the county population referenced in the Rosen study in another article on this site.

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