Ending economic inaccessibility to Speech and Debate education, one free workshop at a time.

Photo of Jenna Bao
2 16

Written by

Additional categories (optional)

  • Education

Website or social media url(s) (optional):

Facebook: Instagram: @debateunited Twitter: @debateunited

Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Imposter syndrome, stemming from socio-economic stratification, is one of the most prevalent issues barring access to debate education for underrepresented minorities. The reality of the debate space is a community of homogeneity, which contradicts the essence of the activity- gathering diverse perspectives through formative discourse. With representation, debate can truly become a pastime that raises the next generation of changemakers.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

To tackle the economic inaccessibility to debate education and competition, I founded DebateUnited, a grant-awarded nonprofit that aims to bring debate to underserved communities through free workshops. Our organization works by utilizing passionate high school debaters to act as volunteers- helping teach young students, develop our website, and curate our individualized curriculum. We also partner with several community establishments to reach more low-income students and multiply our impact. By working with both school districts and youth organizations, we are able to utilize a plethora of resources and host free, weekly workshops in several locations. Through these workshops, we begin our grassroots push for structural educational reform. Our coaches meet these students in person and hone and develop not just their debate skills, but also their leadership, critical thinking, and mastery of the English language. By the end of each phase of our workshops, we host a student-run debate tournament where we model national circuit tournaments through debate rounds with panels of judges. DebateUnited's ground-up approach to tackling the economic barriers to debate is game-changing.

3. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

As the Head Captain of my school's Speech and Debate team, I have seen history repeat itself time and time again. At the beginning of each year, hundreds of freshmen come in excited to join our family, but by the end, only about 50 members remain- resulting from largely similar challenges. It begins with the $250 suggested donation for new members. While not mandatory, imagine being the only student amongst your peers to not hand in an envelope. Onwards, students are expected to pay tournament fees, bring their own laptops, and wear professional attire. Then comes Info Night, where members learn the expected time commitments of not just them, but their parents. When your parents work long, inflexible hours to afford your opportunities, this becomes a difficult pill to swallow. These barriers have excluded far too many bright young minds from debate, and I want to be the change.

4. Selfie Elevator Pitch: Include 1-minute video that answers the following “I am stepping up to make change because...”

Learn more about DebateUnited here!

5. Example: Please walk us through a specific example of what happens when a person or group gets involved with your project.

DebateUnited is like a family. It starts behind the scenes, where we plan our partnerships in areas where inaccessibility to debate is a prevalent issue due to socio-economic factors. By partnering with these local school districts and youth organizations, we are able to create the infrastructure to set up workshops in underserved student communities that can reach a multitude of students. When we begin our student-run workshops in an area, we get to know each student personally through introductions and games. From there on out, our volunteer coaches teach these students the fundamentals of debate, practice drills to hone certain skills, and facilitate discourse in debate rounds. By the end of our curriculum, our students leave the program with their newfound confidence and aptitude for leadership, and can continue our impact by spreading intellectual discourse in their communities.

6. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

DebateUnited is a youth-led organization working from the bottom-up. We utilize a team of passionate, diverse, and nationally-ranked student coaches. Furthermore, DebateUnited curates its own unique curriculum that is not only interactive, hands-on, and technology-inclusive, but also adaptive. Instead of stagnancy, our curriculum constantly expands to include new and relevant issues. Above all, DebateUnited is special due to its community support. We have partnered with large organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley and the Evergreen School District to expand our impact.

7. Impact: How has your project made a difference so far?

2 branches. 250 students. 1 sponsor. In May 2018, I was selected as a Vital Voices HERlead Fellow, an honor bestowed on just 30 young female leaders across North America, for my dedication to nonprofit innovation. Later that year, out of the pool of HERlead Alumnae, I was selected as a 2018 HERlead Grantee, providing financial support in making DebateUnited a reality. In just a little over a year since its founding, DebateUnited has already accomplished so much. We have created a new path for student-community involvement for student debaters. Our curriculum has also engaged community youth in civic activism, shaping them to have the confidence and skills to be tomorrow's leaders of action. Above all, we have made accessibility to debate a reality. By expanding all across the heart of Silicon Valley, we have since touched the lives of hundreds of children- from elementary to high school.

8. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Looking forward, DebateUnited is planning to expand our branches to reach a nationwide, and maybe even global scale. We want to create a network of partner organizations on a statewide scale first to establish due process for starting a branch in your area. It will be exciting to see all the new volunteers from each branch, their impact, and their input on our curriculum. In the future, we also want to increase the scope of our student-run tournaments. Establishing a free, state-wide debate tournament would allow debaters to meet one another and discuss contemporary issues. Creating a network of DebateUnited alumnae would also be a great asset in the future to connect our graduates to opportunities and empower their community activism.

9. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you?

  • Project Management

10. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Recommended by others

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 0%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 66.7%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. - 0%

2. Changemaker Quality

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 0%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 66.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 33.3%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

3. Creativity

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 0%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 33.3%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 33.3%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 33.3%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Commitment

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 50%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 100%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Connection

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 66.7%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 0%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 33.3%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ozzy Simpson

Hi Jenny! I’ve been on my school’s debate team since sixth grade and it has helped me immensely—not only in my argumentation skills, but also in my research and public speaking skills. I am really glad to see you trying to improve access to debate. I am wondering a little bit about some of the specifics about your workshops; what drills do you run? How often do you mock debate? etc.

I’ve found what’s helped me the most is just debating. Even if it’s against I have no chance of “beating,” it’s still helpful to have someone point out the logical fallacies I might make, and other “mistakes,” so that I can avoid those the next time. Drills can help a lot, but I think with debate, practice definitely makes perfect. And the only way to really do that, in my opinion, is to mock debate with real research, plans, and topics. If you want to talk more, let me know, and I’d be happy to talk to you!

Photo of Jenna Bao

Hi Ozzy,

Thank you for the kind words and insight! At DebateUnited, we have mock debate rounds every week. It's a great chance, as you highlighted, for the students to get round experience and hone their speaking and argumentative skills. The drills are to prepare our students for these rounds by teaching debate fundamentals, as almost all of our students have no previous debate experience. Our drills range from basic top of case construction all the way to advanced technical debate like theory shells and kritiks. I definitely agree that drills aren't always the most engaging way to learn, so we try to sprinkle in fun games as often as we can!

It's always great to meet more avid debaters. Let me know if you're interested in working with the Boys and Girls Clubs to bring DebateUnited to your area!

Thank you again for this comment!