The Power of Debate: How Three Attorneys Made a Good Argument for Starting a Denver League
by Sara Crocker
uring an impromptu debate at a Denver Urban Debate League tournament, Scarlett Chavez was given a quote about fear. Upping the stress level, she had just five minutes to prepare to speak about it. She was nervous and said even recounting the story made her shake.
"I felt like crying, it was so bad," the 16-year-old said. But, she gave her three-minute speech and waited to see how she did. As the rankings of impromptu debaters were called, Chavez wasn’t hearing her name. Then it hit her. She had taken the number one spot.
"I completely underestimated myself," she said. "I told myself I’m not as bad as I think I am."
For the Manual High School junior, debate offered a way to meet new people and overcome her shyness. When she talks about debate, it’s hard to tell that Chavez is as reserved as she claims.
"Debate really helped me become a leader," the 16-year-old said.
Attorneys involved in the league say it benefits students in many ways, but perhaps the most important is confidence.
"Urban Debate League, for these kids, is transformative," said U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer, who has been a volunteer debate judge since the league started in 2008.
Shaffer is a favorite among students because he takes the time to get to know them.
"They realize this person cares about me and my development," league co-founder Roberto Corrada said about volunteers. "The relationships that are created here are really strong and an important part of our success."
Corrada and league co-founders Rico Munn and Casie Collignon are pleased to see that in the four years since the league has been in Denver, students are learning, they are gaining confidence, and they are having fun—even though they often give up their Friday nights and Saturdays to prepare and participate.
"They’re just captured by debate, the intensity of it," said Corrada, a professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
The three personally know how debate can impact students—they all debated in high school and college.
For Collignon, who grew up in South Dakota and now is a partner with Baker Hostetler, it provided the chance to travel and see more of the world. "When you grow up in a small town, those kinds of opportunities can be just as valuable as the substantive things you learn in debate," she said.
In 2003, they began working to establish the league. At the same time, they were seeing debate disappear from schools and wanted to ensure it would be something that minority students in particular would have a chance to experience in the future, Corrada said.
"It’s such a powerful activity for learning. I always thought I’d want to be involved here in Denver and especially with respect to inner city kids," he said. "When I debated, my family was lower middle class and I could not have debated unless there was public funding for it."
Getting Denver Public Schools on board as a partner was key. They started the league with five schools in 2008 and now have 11 schools that participate in the league.
"DPS has been a great partner," said Munn, who is also a partner at Baker Hostetler. "They really see the benefit of the program and its growth."
The league, which attracts many attorneys who are former debaters themselves, connects these students with people with professions they may have only heard of. One student told Collignon she had never met a female lawyer until she met her.
"I think part of the Urban Debate League and the diversity experience, whether it’s with coaches or judges or instructors, is exposing kids to potential," she said.
Likewise, the skills the students learn in debate makes study of the law a natural fit.
"Debating is sort of a crucible. You get up and you have to speak, you have to make the arguments, and there’s immediate feedback from a judge who tells you exactly why your argument failed or succeeded," Corrada said. "That kind of feedback—intense, specific feedback—over arguments that are very sophisticated, one can imagine this is very good preparation for becoming a lawyer or going into any field that requires good critical thinking skills."
Chavez hopes to study either veterinary medicine or law in college. If she pursues law she hopes to become a judge. Over the summer, she got to see what the career would be like—she interned with Shaffer and got to sit in on some of his hearings.
"It seems like an awesome job," Chavez said.
Participating in the league has also translated into real academic achievement. All seniors participating in the league have graduated, Munn said.
Chavez’s younger brother, Frankie Arnold, said being in debate has helped with his reading skills and he’s doing better in school. His sister’s involvement in the league opened up the world of debate to him, and he joined the Manual debate team as an eighth-grader. He’s also thinking about law when he gets to college.
Corrada, Collingnon, and Munn have enjoyed seeing their students’ expectations for themselves grow. Students have voiced that they want to be a Supreme Court justice or the President. These goals may seem lofty, but it makes those involved with the league proud to know these students, who may be dealing with family and economic issues that the average high school student may not have to face, are making plans for their future.
For Corrada that means "we’re creating a vision of the possible." D