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

Attendees at debate summer camp pose on a staircase!

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!

The Mayor’s Challenge: A Strategy Guide

With our Mayor’s Challenge: The Great Surveillance Debate coming up in only two weeks, we sat down with the MNUDL’s Program Director Travis Ormsby to talk about the debate topic – whether or not the FBI should have compelled Apple to open a backdoor into its phones – and what strategies we are likely to see the opposing teams take.

There are still seats available at the Mayor’s Challenge! Get them HERE before they run out!


At a high level, the basic topic is the question of how strong of a lock there should be on your phone. Should that lock be so strong that the government, even having met all of its legal obligations, does not have the technological capability to access your phone? Which should be greater, the legal barriers to access or the technological barriers?

Hodan Osman (Edison High School) and Malik Akintola (Roosevelt High School) will represent Minneapolis at the Mayor’s Challenge. 

The Affirmative team is arguing that if the government has obtained a warrant to search a device, that ought to be the only barrier to access. If they have a warrant to search your house, they can break down the door of your house. Similarly, if they have a warrant to search your phone, they should have the technological capability of breaking down the door to your phone. It is much better to trust in the existing, democratically accountable social and legal institutions to protect your rights than to rely on unaccountable technological black boxes created by companies to enhance profits.

The Negative team is going to argue that once police have the technological capability of unlocking any phone, what will stop them from ignoring the legal norms? We have many cases throughout history of law enforcement simply ignoring the legal norms of searches and seizures. And once a backdoor exists into your phone, it becomes an irresistible target for hackers. You don’t file your conversations with your spouse, children or parents in your filing cabinets. But those text-message conversations are filed away on your phone. You don’t keep a log of every place that you went. But your phone does. Those are the best arguments that the Neg has for why the lock on your phone should be strong.

Ella Harker (Como High School) and Carlos Alderete (Johnson High School) will represent St. Paul at the Mayor’s Challenge. 

The Aff is saying we need to give the government access. The Neg is saying we need to be OK with the fact that the government is not going to have this information. They would probably abuse it anyway, and the harms associated with hackers getting access to it is way too high.

I would have said initially that the Aff has the harder job, but the students from St. Paul came up with what I think is a compelling argument about the importance of relying on institutional rather than technological solutions. Overall, I think this debate poses a tough question, and the students are doing great work exploring the troubling implications that will occur no matter how we decide to answer it.

Alix Dahl is Our Summer Debate Camp Director of Residential Life

Summer debate camp will be starting on June 20th, and we are excited to see our awesome staff assembling for the 12th annual MDAW session! 

Alix Dahl was the Director of Residential Life last year, and is returning this year:

Alix Dahl Group II
Alix (standing far right) with the students during our 4th of July Celebration last year.

My name is Alix Dahl. I have been a debate couch for four years at Roseville High School. I debated in high school, and then when I graduated my old coach was moving on. My coach asked me if I would be willing to be an assistant couch, and here we are!

Day to day, I make sure that students were where they were supposed to be, in addition to organizing daily activities and the Fourth of July festivities.

I really love working with kids, and I’m going to school to be a teacher. It’s really cool especially having worked with many of the same kids over the years to see how they grow and change and become adults. It lets me see the impact of debate in a really hands-on way.

I think that it’s really important that we make space for students. Traditionally debate has been a very upper class, white, male activity. And I think that the MDAW helps reduce that and make room for students who would otherwise be excluded, and they can bring their own experience and narratives to debate.MDAW foto 4

This is my favorite story from last year: there was one girl who was having a bad day. So all of the girls on her floor got together and made her this really nice card, put together this care package, and ran down to the lobby for her singing Shake it Off. It was really nice. I think that says a lot about the type of students who participate in this community.

I think it’s invaluable to make sure that camp is valuable to students of all kinds, and that we are reaching out to students of all kinds because our job is to be sure that all students are safe and having a good time.

Debaters Finish Spanish Debating Season At Augsburg College

Spanish Debate has wrapped for the season!

Highland Park Senior High Spanish teacher and debate coach Paula Boe saw her students benefit greatly from their participation in Spanish debate:

“I am so proud of all the Debaters I have had the privilege to work with over the past 3 seasons. It has been a wonderful experience for them and for me. I appreciate all the positive ripple-effects the opportunity to participate in Spanish Speaking Debate continues to have for the students at HPSH.”

Congratulations to all our debaters and to the six teams that attended the third and final tournament held on the Augsburg College campus:

Photo credit to Armand Langston Hayes Photography.