The First Tournament of the Year

A debate student is awarded a red medal at a debate tournament

It’s early in the morning, the sun is rising, and the Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul is already a bustling hub of activity. In the halls staff members dash this way and that, making sure that everything is ready to run smoothly. But today isn’t a school day – this is a Saturday, and it’s time for the first UDL tournament of the season.

From the moment they arrive, students are excited and ready to debate. The cafeteria at Wash-Tech fills to the brim with students of all stripes and styles. There are teams dapperly dressed in suits and formalwear, teams marked by matching polos, and plenty of teams whose students wear whatever they want! (After all, debate is a space where what you say matters more than how you look.) They’ve brought expanding folders and sometimes entire plastic tubs filled with evidence and arguments for the day ahead.

This year’s policy is about the United States’ foreign relations with China, and this tournament was the first chance for debaters to make arguments for and against it in a competitive space. For the rookies, it’s their first time ever at a tournament. For the varsity debaters, it’s their first opportunity to cut their teeth on the topic that will be the subject of their fiercely competitive debates over the next few months. So it’s no wonder if they’re a bit nervous.

But it’s not all competition – there’s fun and games at a debate tournament. Students warmed up in the morning by mixing themselves up and meeting students from other teams, eventually playing the classic icebreaker “two truths and a lie.” A tournament like this is a great opportunity for students who might otherwise never see each other to mix and mingle. For lots of students, it’s the friends they make in debate that keeps them coming back year after year.

The preparations paid off, and the Wash-Tech tournament went off without a hitch.Tournaments are where students have the chance to prove themselves competitively and test their research and argumentation skills. Even students who don’t win every round are developing the resilience to pick themselves back up after a loss and continue debating. Tournaments are places where debaters form lasting friendships, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses together.

An Unexpected Fundraiser

Debate trophies

Fundraising is an essential part of operating any nonprofit, and the MNUDL is no stranger to it. But we had a pleasant surprise the other day when Sukriti Rawal, a high school student from Edina, told us she had been raising funds for the MNUDL too. On her own initiative Sukriti organized and managed a garage sale, and now she had $500 to donate.

Gifts like that don’t usually just show up out of nowhere. But Sukriti has been debating for five years now, and she says it’s given her the confidence she needs for projects like this. That’s what has kept her coming back for five years – debating impacts every part of her life. She said “it made school a lot easier,” since she’s become better at thinking on her feet and at feeling certain when she is right.

That’s the kind of certainty that drives a student to success. “Debate is important for everyone,” Sukriti said. But unlike at her school in Edina, urban schools rely on the MNUDL to coordinate their debate programs. So she decided to support Urban Debate by holding a garage sale – by her reasoning, people are more willing to give money if they get something in exchange.

So much stuff was donated to the sale that it took Sukriti a week to go through and tag it all with prices. To get everything she would be selling, she mobilized the support of families in Edina, and was especially grateful for the help she received from the Indian community. Once everything was set up, she advertised it with local signs and on Craigslist. All this hard work made the sale wildly successful, raising enough funds to hit the target that Sukriti had set.

Here at the office, we’re flattered to see engagement like this just showing up unprompted. It speaks not only to the leadership abilities that debate programs nurture, but also to the relationships that get built between debaters. By attending UDL tournaments, Sukriti has had the opportunity to meet other students from the metro area. Students have varied lived experiences – but all come together in a shared love of debate. She’s chosen to strengthen those relationships and work to keep debate an activity that includes everyone.

Students Celebrate the Start of Debate

Against a background of pizza slices, text reads "Free Pizza, Kick-off Party, Join Debate"
The most effective way to get high school students to show up – free pizza.

The start of the school year is a hectic time for both students and teachers as everybody has to figure out new courses and new schedules. For debaters, September means kickoff parties that mark the start of the debate season. These gatherings are a time to welcome back our returning veterans and meet the new students who are interested in trying out debate (or maybe just the free pizza.)

Some students might have been new, but they were all excited to debate. They offered no shortage of challenges and counterarguments to Travis, the MNUDL Program Director, at the debate kickoff for the Washington Technology Magnet School. The moment he brought up this year’s debate topic, about USA-China relations, students started taking positions for and against.

It’s an abstract issue that was chosen by the National Speech and Debate Association, and some coaches were worried about how distant it is from student experiences. But these kids were eager to start discussing it, with nothing more than what they had already learned one way or another about the East Asian geopolitical situation. Sarah Wellington, their coach and a teacher at Wash-Tech, said that these students were advanced – they could handle the difficult material.

One returning debater, asked to explain to the newer students what had brought her back, said that debate made her feel smart. Alongside that she said it looks good on everything, from resumes to college applications. But what’s really important is how debate brings people together. Returning debaters had their friendships, and over the course of the kickoff the new students rapidly bonded with each other.

None of this would be possible without the coach, who helps lead her debate team on top of her responsibilities as a teacher. She greeted every student by name, new and veteran alike, and kept track of who hadn’t showed up yet. Our coaches are the backbone of the MNUDL, and they’re dedicated to their students.

Kickoff parties are a fun way to celebrate the start of the year with a few slices of pizza and some light-hearted discussions. These teams will buckle in and get serious as the season heats up, but for now it looks like things are off to a good start.

The Advocacy Unit


Debate skills make a difference in the world. The more voices we include in civil discourse, the stronger that discourse becomes. That’s why the MNUDL exists: to amplify student voices so that they can access power and create change in our communities. For this to work, it’s crucial that debate skills leave the classroom and that the building blocks of research, argumentation, and public speaking get put to use solving real world problems.

This past July, we launched The Advocacy Unit: a program where high schoolers can learn to apply basic debate skills in the context of social justice and advocacy. TAU is designed as a guided exploration in partnership with the students. Discussions were facilitated by MNUDL alums and Augsburg students Dua Saleh and Tiana Bellamy, whose input was essential to the program design. During the pilot session, only a week after the shooting of Philando Castile, issues of police brutality and racism weighed heavily on everyone’s mind as they discussed whether hope or change were possible.

Genesia Williams, TAU’s director, wanted to make sure she brought in “kids that might not self select,”she said, so that the program could “catch that intersection of kids that a lot of people don’t pay attention to.” The program confirmed for her what she had suspected before: that intelligent teens whose value is dramatically underestimated only need a little prompting to explore their potential.

One example of this was how Markell, a sophomore at North High School, was able to explain sophisticated concepts like “symbolic interactionism,” despite not knowing the academic term. Developing a shared vocabulary for concepts like these was a cornerstone of TAU. This was particularly helpful for Janae, a St. Paul resident heading into her freshman year who found herself equipped with tools she hadn’t known she needed. Genesia recalls her saying, “If school was like this, I’d be at school every day happy.”

The discussions also benefited from the wisdom of experienced students. Sideena, a high school senior from Robbinsdale, was the oldest of the group. She liked how the program allowed her to explore familiar issues in a new context. The same could be said of Michael, a high school junior from North Carolina who was used to personally dealing with racial profiling and police brutality in his home state. At TAU, he was able to connect the dots about his experiences and look at them from a new perspective.

The learning environment would not have been the same without the diversity of the voices. Students brought their backgrounds with them, like Rachel, a debater from Hong Kong who had lived with both a different educational system and a different racial and ethnic context in East Asia. She worked on the issue of environmental justice with Mihret, a student at DeLaSalle High School. Mihret had already learned about social issues in school, but at TAU she was exposed to other ways of looking at the same causes.

Debate is more than just arguing – it’s about talking to each other and building empathy across identities, communities, even nations. Watching the students connect with each other and learn from one another over the course of the week made organizing the whole program worth it for Genesia. Not only have the students learned more about advocating for themselves and their community, but they’ve got new Facebook friends from across the world.

For more about The Advocacy Unit, listen to Rupa Shenoy’s Otherhood podcast.

MNUDL Summer Fellows Are Finishing Off a Great Season

Moti Benti-Novotny worked at Deluxe Corporation
Moti Benti-Novotny worked at Deluxe Corporation

Zarina Sementelli worked at Gray Plant Mooty
Zarina Sementelli worked at Gray Plant Mooty

Summer is an important time for debaters. There’s no tournaments or after school practice–no school at all, in fact, and plenty of long summer afternoons. But dedicated debaters keep their skills sharp by attending the Minnesota Debate and Advocacy Workshop (MDAW), a summer camp managed by MNUDL and hosted at Augsburg. For students who need help covering the costs of MDAW, there are scholarships available. But sometimes a scholarship is not enough–some debaters need to work through the summer to support themselves or their families.

That’s why MNUDL offers the Summer Fellowship. Under this program, MNUDL partners with a local corporation or law firm who agrees to sponsor a debater for the summer. This debater attends MDAW for its full three weeks at no cost, and then spends four weeks doing experiential work for their sponsor. By doing so, students awarded the fellowship can not only go to debate camp but also have the opportunity to see what kind of professional work is available in fields that value debate experience.

This past summer we awarded two fellowships to rising seniors, Zarina Sementelli (Como Park, St. Paul) and Moti Benti-Novotny (Thomas Edison, Minneapolis). Zarina was sponsored by Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty, where she had the opportunity to network and work on small projects during her four-week work period. She described it as an eye-opening experience. “I was curious about what a law firm even was,” she said. “I had no idea how many different practices of law there are.”

But Zarina’s perspective has changed since meeting a variety of attorneys, judges, and staff during her time at Gray Plant Mooty – as many as 2-3 per day over the course of four weeks. “I thought it would be a little more boring,” she said. “They went out of their way and they got to know what I wanted to learn.”

Meanwhile, Moti spent his fellowship working for Deluxe Corporation on a large research project about various regulations and conditions that Deluxe has to comply with. He compiled regulatory factsheets for general use and made spreadsheet of different terms and conditions that Deluxe Employees had to be sure not to violate.

This let him stretch his debate skills, especially research, in a practical business context, rather than just reading it out of a textbook. “I have a better understanding of how all of it works together,” he said. It’s helping him plan out his future, too. “I don’t know about going into corporate work,” he said. But moving forwards he has a good grasp of the practical uses of debate skills.

When you’re planning for the future, your experiences are often the only map that can guide you. Debaters who want to take on the summer fellowship might not have that experience yet, but they can use a few pieces of advice left by Zarina and Moti. Moti says that whoever comes after him should make sure to “take notes, listen, pay attention to the words that are used and how they are used or else nothing will make sense.” Zarina suggests that you “tell them exactly what you’re interested in,” and “utilize the resources.” These debaters are leaving summer and taking a lot of memories with them – from debate camp to fellowship work.

This fellowship experience wouldn’t be possible without the partnerships between MNUDL and both Gray Plant Mooty and Deluxe Corporation. These partnerships were made possible by our advisory board members Dean Eyler, an attorney and shareholder at Gray Plant Mooty, and Linnea Solem, the Chief Information Officer at Deluxe Corporation. Previous summer fellows have been featured on our blog – read here about Chris Oquist’s fellowship experience last year.

Why Debate Can Change the World

The first footage from this year’s Mayor’s Challenge Debate is now online!

Hear from a number of powerful voices, including Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow talk about why debate is so important for preparing students for college.

In the Great Surveillance Debate Hodan Osman (Edison High School) and Malik Akintola (Roosevelt High School) debated against Ella Harker (Como High School) and Carlos Alderete (Johnson High School) on the subject Resolved: The United Stated Federal Government should dramatically curtail it’s domestic surveillance.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman lead the Judges Panel and was joined by James Burroughs, the Minnesota Chief Inclusion Officer; Margaret Anderson Kelliher, the President & CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association; and Professor Mark Kappelhoff, the Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Relive the moment with Sam Hartzell’s blog post, or check out some of our photos from the event on Facebook.

Special thanks to our Presenting Sponsor, the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation; our VIP Sponsor, Vance Opperman; our Leadership Sponsors, Deluxe Corporation, Internet Essentials from Comcast, Faegre Baker Daniels, Dorsey, Nilan Johnson Lewis, Greene Espel, Olup & Associates, UnitedHealth Group, Gustafson Gluek, and the UMN Communications Studies Department; and to our Partners who helped us organize the event, Twin Cities PBS and Civic Eagle. Along with our supporters who contribute to MNUDL, you make it possible for us to keep policy debate strong in the Twin Cities.

Starting the Season


Outside in Minneapolis the heat of summer was just past its peak, but inside in the basement of the Foss Lobeck Miles Center at Augsburg the temperature was pleasantly cool and the humidity mercifully low. The MNUDL office, tucked in a corner by the stairs, stayed quiet during Augsburg’s summer break. But the morning of August eighth saw it suddenly transformed: lights were switched on, the coffee maker was set to brewing, and the whole office became a bustling hub of activity.

The debate season hasn’t gotten going yet, but our office sure has. Debate materials are being finalized by Travis Ormsby, the Program Director, and Jake Swede, the Program Associate. They’re busy making sure that the best debate material has been gathered. “Best means most likely to help kids understand the topic, most likely to help them understand how debate works, and most likely to lead to a balanced debate,” Travis says. “I tend to think of [finding the right material] like a puzzle to be solved.”

It’s a difficult job, since MNUDL serves more than 750 students at 38 high schools and middle schools around the Twin Cities. Finding the right stuff means doing lots of research to get past the wrong stuff, like Jake’s work in the spring researching international land-leasing as a potential aspect of the China topic. That angle didn’t make it into the packets he’s crafting, but Jake says that doing the research, “especially if it’s a topic you don’t really know about,” is still his favorite part.

For the most part the office stays quiet as we work separately to get the season started. Occasionally a meeting will pop up–maybe Jake has wandered into Travis’ office with a problem balancing the arguments available in debate materials. They’ll go back and forth, showing their history as practiced debaters by examining both sides of the issue and trying to figure out the best path forwards. When every angle has been explored and every scenario played out, they make a decision and return to their desks.

Sometimes conversations expand to include the whole office; that happens easily in such a small space. Work related or not, these conversations bring out the debaters in all of us and no matter the topic everybody’s got a position to stake out. No one’s keeping score, though–there’s no judge to keep track of dropped arguments or flawed reasoning. We’re just doing what we love.

Debate Summer Campers Celebrate July 4th

For the last three weeks, nearly four dozen high school students have participated in the MNUDL’s summer debate camp (known as MDAW, for Minnesota Debate and Advocacy Workshop) on the Augsburg College campus. Every day has seen the campers learning about debate technique and argumentation, research, and other skills that will prepare them to make the most of the upcoming season of debate.  Our debaters also have a ton of fun at camp, particularly celebrating July 4th with a day of fun and games! From a practice debate tournament to tossing water-balloons back and forth or chasing each other around with shaving cream, campers have been busy learning and having a great summer.

Photo credit to Armand Langston Hayes Photography. 

The Great Surveillance Debate: 160 Attend Mayor’s Challenge

This year’s Mayor’s Challenge debate, focused on government surveillance of cell phones, was another resounding success!

The event was hosted at Twin Cities PBS in Saint Paul, and we are grateful for the wonderful support of TPT. An audience of over 160 community and business leaders filled the studio to watch the showcase debate between a high school debate team from St. Paul and one from Minneapolis. Hodan Osman (Edison High School) and Malik Akintola (Roosevelt High School) debated against Ella Harker (Como High School) and Carlos Alderete (Johnson High School), bringing the audience to their feet in applause and inspiring Mayor Coleman — present for his 4th year as a judge at the event — to say that these young debaters give him hope for our future.

It was truly inspiring for everyone to see the talent and confidence of the four students as they took the podium in front of the audience and a number of TPT’s cameras that rolled through the spaces between the tables. With many of the family members in attendance and the whole room listening, we couldn’t be prouder of Hodan, Malik, Ella and Carlos. The event was their triumph.

Special thanks go to our panel of VIP judges, made up of Mayor Coleman, Minnesota Chief Inclusion Officer James Burroughs, President & CEO of the Minnesota High Tech Association Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School Mark Kappelhoff.

And thanks also go to our special partners Civic Eagle – a new app focused on connecting civic engagement with social life – and of course TPT.

To all of our supporters who donated to keep policy debate strong in the Twin Cities: you make it possible for hundreds of young voices be heard. Thank you!

We can’t wait for next year’s Mayor’s Challenge!




Somali Debate: Sullivan and South Students Attend Final Tournament

Our Somali Debate Initiative concluded this year at Augsburg college with students from South High School and Sullivan middle school debating about federal funding for Somali non-profits in Minnesota as part of the government’s Countering Violent Extremism program. The Affirmative side of the debate argued that the government should end the program because it was rooted in racist assumptions about Somali people and might be used to spy on Somali youth. The Negative side of the debate argued that the Somali-run non-profits funded by the program were doing important work with youth that could not be done without the federal funding.

The volunteers judges, coaches and debate students made the tournament a big success through their energy and enthusiasm. Special thanks goes to our Somali Debate Program Coordinator Awale Osman, who did so much to make this season a success! We can’t wait to see the Somali Debate Initiative continue to grow next year!