By J.D. Smeallie, President, Boston Bar Association
When Tarae Howell, then a public high school student in Newark, New Jersey, signed up for the Jersey Urban Debate League, becoming a lawyer was the furthest thing from his mind. Despite winning fourteen debate titles over a two-year span, he had no idea he would one day be a third-year litigation associate at Nixon Peabody, much less a debate judge for a very similar program for Boston high school students. This fall, Tarae judged two Saturday morning debate competitions for the Boston Debate League (BDL). Afterwards, students plied him with questions about what it’s like to be a lawyer and his path to success.
Earlier this year, the BDL approached the Boston Bar Association to see if we would partner with them by providing judges and mentors. We liked what we saw. Not only did such a partnership provide a wonderful opportunity for public service within the Boston Public Schools, but it held the promise of advancing diversity efforts at the BBA. Too few students of color are entering law school. As a result, too few lawyers of color enter the practice each year. By mixing BBA lawyers with students from Boston’s high schools with large minority student populations, we hoped that the interest in law exhibited by Tarae’s debaters would be sparked as well many times over in other students. Perhaps the germ of a legal career would be planted, and the pipeline of students of color could be expanded. The hope is that some of the students we encounter in the course of volunteering as debate judges or mentors will one day return as lawyers in our community.
The metrics suggest this could very well happen. According to the BDL, debaters are three times less likely to drop out of school than non-debaters, and African-American males who debate, in particular, are seventy percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Debate assists students in gaining entrance to college but, more importantly, it gives them the necessary skills to succeed and thrive once they get there.
In this regard, the BDL reports that urban debaters improved both their Reading and English ACT scores by fifteen percent and are thirty-four percent more likely to achieve the English college readiness benchmark, and seventy-four percent more likely to achieve the Reading benchmark, after just two years in debate.
The BDL does not require its volunteers to be lawyers. Yet BBA members participating in the program firmly believe that in addition to being extremely worthwhile, this particular volunteer opportunity is a great fit for members of the legal profession. As Tarae puts it, “[a]s lawyers, we have to be zealous advocates for our clients. Therefore, as a judge and a lawyer, I’m able to determine whether a debater has been an effective advocate for her position. It helps me give the student better feedback.”
Stories such as Tarae’s make all of us feel good about helping Boston’s young people develop the reading, critical thinking and advocacy skills associated with debating. Vickie Henry, a Senior Staff Attorney at GLAD, who as a high school student won a state debate championship in her home state of Michigan, says: “[y]ou look right in the faces of the youth getting your feedback and you can see it’s making a difference.”
Bill Fitzpatrick, Associate General Counsel for Litigation at the MBTA, says that what he found appealing about this particular volunteer opportunity is that debating offers Boston youth an opportunity for competition involving academics. “Life is not all about whether you can hit the free throw or hit the ball out of the park,” he said. “Debating gives the students a great outlet for skills that will serve them better in the long run.”
More than a few volunteers have marveled at the support students who are native English speakers gave to students for whom English is a second language, especially during those portions of the debate tournament requiring that they read aloud. They also commented on how heartwarming it is to see students improve dramatically from one tournament to the next.
Both Jessica Bloch of Bloch & Roos and Stephanie Hoeplinger, a solo practitioner, serve as mentors, which means that they’ve committed to spending between sixty and ninety minutes in the classroom every week between October and March, helping teachers and BDL staff prep the students for the tournaments.
“Good for these students for going to this afterschool program and pushing through,” says Jessica. “This experience is challenging but very rewarding.”
Though not required to attend the debates, Stephanie was deeply moved to see the looks on two of her students’ faces when she stopped by on a Saturday morning to see them perform: “Their faces just lit up; they looked so happy that someone not paid to be there really cares. They look up to you as a lawyer.”
“We are just so thrilled to have so many members of the BBA come out, judge at our tournaments, and work with our kids,” Steve Stein, Executive Director of the Boston Debate League, told us. “It is great to have such wonderful role models be there for our students, many of whom are aspiring attorneys. Our students love that for ninety minutes, they speak and adults listen. When the debate is over, the adults talk for maybe five minutes to provide feedback. That kind of power dynamic doesn’t exist anywhere else in their lives. BBA members are participating in an activity that is changing the lives of youth throughout Boston.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a morning at Boston’s Josiah Quincy Upper School. What struck me was how genuinely enthusiastic the co-headmasters were in the face of poor facilities, budget constraints and a talent drain to the exam schools. One of the bright spots they described was their students’ participation in the Boston Debate League, and the very impressive fact that each and every one of the debaters on the Josiah Quincy team have gone on to college.
The BBA’s partnership with the BDL is a public service opportunity that truly hits the trifecta for the BBA — meaningful service to the Boston community, where our lawyering skills provide a special benefit, and with the prospect of expanding the diversity pipeline. I hope more BBA members will consider volunteering for this incredibly rewarding experience.