Dmitri Seals, Silicon Valley Urban Debate League
Bait and switch. That’s what happened to Dmitri Seals over 10 years ago as a 1st year public school teacher in DC. His welcome on the 1st day of school consisted of, “Okay, you’ll be teaching Math, Computers, SAT Prep, and Spanish. And by the way, we’re starting a Debate team on campus and you’ll be in charge!” Dmitri had zero experience in debate (and his Spanish was far from fluent). Turns out trial by fire not only worked in his favor, but made a life-long impact for the students who signed up.
Dmitri figured out the ins and outs of debate while working with some of the most challenging students in the district; students who had dropped out of other schools or been involved in the juvenile justice system. He saw lives transform through the rigor and dedication of practicing debate. Students who had little ability to channel their anger turned into some of the most articulate and thoughtful debaters in school. Debate gave these young people a reason to show up to school. Statistics show that kids who participate in debate improve their overall grades and have a dramatically higher gradation rate than their peers (95% v. 65% average in their schools).
As quick background, competitive debate has always been available to students at suburban schools, but twenty years ago it disappeared from more cash-strapped urban public schools. “Debate” is an academic sport that builds reading, research, communication and critical thinking skills. Dmitri learned to coach his debaters to conduct extensive research on a wide range of topics - income inequality, domestic surveillance, even ocean policy - and develop arguments for and against. Debaters hone their arguments in after school practices and compete at weekend tournaments. Two-person teams participate in a series of 75-minute debates and each team alternates sides, arguing for the resolution in one round and against it in the next. Here’s a quick video of students in action.
When Dmitri moved to the Bay Area, he founded the the Bay Area Urban Debate League program and served as a volunteer board member for its first three years. His leadership helped the league become financially sustainable and double its programmatic reach, maintaining a high school graduation rate of 96%, a college matriculation rate of 90%, and a vibrant community of socially engaged debaters.
But he didn’t stop there. Realizing there was a growing need in Silicon Valley for urban debate, he was recruited by board volunteers to launch the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL), where he is currently Executive Director. In their pilot year, SVUDL operates at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto and Overfelt High in East San Jose. In his words,
Here’s a window into how debate is already positively shaping SVUDL students:
Vonisha, a junior at Eastside Prep Palo Alto says, "Debate helps me have a stronger stand on what I believe is right.” She mixes rigorous research with experience of inequality in her family’s Menlo Park neighborhood.
Jacob, a senior says his inspiration to debate comes because, "I have seen too many of my old friends end up in jail or dead because they did not have the same opportunities."
Another student, Brisa is the 1st to admit her thirst for argument got her into trouble in the past, but her teacher’s now see her as a rising star, thanks to debate.
These are some of the lucky few who have been able to participate in the pilot year of Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. There’s currently a wait list of 8 schools hoping to join this Fall, with the potential of involving 250 youth in the next school year. If you’d like to learn more about getting involved in the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League click here.