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Happy Thank a Coach Week! – Celebrating Our Middle School Mentors

Anyone who’s been part of a team knows that leadership makes programs possible. That’s why we were excited when Governor Walz declared this week Thank A Coach/Advisor Week: “to promote and support the thousands of coaches and advisers in Minnesota that are making a positive difference in their communities.”

We’re grateful to each and every one of our coaches for our national topic and community-led programs – but we’re especially grateful for our middle school mentors. In our middle school debate programming, current high school debaters assist at teams across Minneapolis & St. Paul.

These middle school mentors set stellar examples of leadership by teaching debate skills, using their deep knowledge of the topic, and encouraging students through their first tournaments. They’ve got a full slate of responsibilities as high school debaters, but they still make the time to work with middle school teams!

Middle school mentors also serve as a familiar face when middle school students transition into high school teams. Thank you so much to our coaches – whether community coaches, teacher coaches, or high school mentors – for accelerating our cycle of programming!

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A Blast from the Past: The State Policy Tournament, 1902-Style

The State Tournament, 118 Years Ago: Fight Songs, Celebrity Guests, Live Music, and More

2020 marks the 118th year of statewide Minnesota policy debate tournaments. Our students are making memories this weekend, and you’ve probably got memories of your own State experiences – but the very first days of Minnesota debate are rarely revisited. Perhaps they should be – State was an event including hundreds of audience members, VIP guests, and the interest “of all reading people”!

Continue reading “A Blast from the Past: The State Policy Tournament, 1902-Style”

Celebrating Fierce & Friendly Competition at the Citywide Championship

Thank You for Joining Us at the Citywide Championship!

All photos courtesy of Armand Langston Hayes Photography.

At the Citywide Championship, debaters from both St. Paul and Minneapolis UDL schools competed for the title of top citywide policy debate team and speaker in each division. Competition was both fierce and friendly as we celebrated 15 years of urban debate together!

Besides the competition results, community awards were also announced at the event, including Coaches of the Year, Sweepstakes Awards, and more. We also announced which high school seniors will attend the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL) Championship Tournament this spring.

Find out our big winners below!

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Karon Garen’s Sons Celebrate Her Vision With New Founder’s Fund

Godmother of the MNUDL, Karon Garen, has been honored with the name of our new endowment fund.

Karon Garen was a former debater, and she credits it with giving her the skills to succeed. The single parent of four sons, she suggested that her oldest son try debate at The Blake School. He loved it, and his brothers followed.

“I realized that debate is a remarkable partner in parenting. As teenagers, it gave my sons a place to belong – a community where they were affirmed and respected. They learned to use information with integrity, and they realized that losing is a springboard for action, not defeat,” Karon told us at the 2019 Mayors Challenge.

By 2004, debate had been virtually eliminated in Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools due to budget constraints, and it was only available to well-resourced suburban and private schools. Karon was impassioned to address this disparity in access.

“This once vibrant pillar of democracy and rite of passage had disappeared from public schools,” says Karon. “This was an injustice to students and to our communities. I knew that I would be mounting a crusade to bring debate back to Twin Cities public schools.”

In the years since Karon first made the decision to pursue her vision, the MNUDL has grown from a handful of legal professionals, educators, parents, and students to serving over 1,200 students in 2019.

In celebration, Karon Garen’s four sons have begun the Karon Garen Founder’s Fund, our new endowment campaign to celebrate the MNUDL’s 15th Anniversary.

Karon helped launch the 15th Anniversary Celebration of MNUDL in June, saying, “I am in awe of how far we’ve come. Augsburg has taken a fledgling organization and turned it into a force to be reckoned with.”


Interested in contributing to the Karon Garen Founder’s Fund? Contact Amy Cram Helwich for more information at

MN First Lady Hosts 15th Anniversary Panel & Party Celebrating Urban Debate

First Lady Gwen Walz with MNUDL
First Lady Gwen Walz begins the MNUDL 15th Anniversary Panel.

“I just saw kids excited about learning,” said Nelson Inz, Minneapolis Public Schools Board Chair, after hearing about MNUDL debaters speak at our 15th Anniversary kickoff event.

First Lady of Minnesota and MNUDL Advisory Board Member, Gwen Walz, hosted the Minnesota Urban Debate League at the Governor’s Residence on the evening of October 3rd, 2019. 

The evening commemorated the 15th anniversary of the MNUDL, celebrating 15 years of urban debate in Minnesota and sparking excitement for the next 15 years of the MNUDL.

First Lady Gwen Walz moderated a panel of representatives from the MNUDL’s major programs: Manny Nuñez of South High School representing National Topic Debate; Southwest High School student Emi Gacaj representing Spanish Debate League, Augsburg University graduate Hodo Dahir representing East African Debate League; Highland Park Senior High School debater Elsa Snowbeck, representing middle school debate; and volunteer Alix Dahl, who spoke about coaching middle school debate at Hmong International Academy. 

Inz continues,“You want students to be able to evaluate all views. You need that to effectively advocate for your own side – to fully understand the other side. It’s important for youth to go through a process like debate, especially at an age when decision-making is challenging.”

Minneapolis Board of Education Clerk Kim Ellison notes: “The students brought this beautiful big, old building to life. Any time you center student voice is amazing.”

Leaders from the legal field, politics, education, and more Twin Cities changemakers participated in celebrating urban debate at the event, including Osseo school board director, Mike Ostaffe. 

“Debate is great for students,” Ostaffe noted. He attended the event with daughter Kate, a former speech & debate competitor and current undergraduate at the University of St. Thomas.  “Anything that gets you in front of adults in real-world situations, doing what you never thought you could do – that’s helpful for students. The ability to get in front of people to speak and develop cogent arguments using facts is helpful to my daughter and to any student. I hope for there to be more debate and speech in many more schools.” 

“Seeing the outcomes, both by watching the students and in black and white on paper, makes you wonder why debate isn’t in every single school,” added Erin Boltik, Director of Gifted and Talented Programs at Bloomington High School.

Thank you to everyone who helped us kick off our 15th year celebration – and especially to First Lady Gwen Walz for hosting us at her beautiful home. View our Facebook photo album of the event and tag yourself & friends! 

2019 MNUDL Fellowship: Inspiring Thoughtful New Talent Like Ifrah

“After this experience, I don’t see myself doing anything else.” 

Ifrah stands in front of the Gray Plant Mooty sign.
Ifrah of Washburn High School enjoyed the 2019 MNUDL Summer Fellowship at Gray Plant Mooty.

Ifrah, senior at Washburn High School, is eager to pursue law after her first hands-on exposure at Gray Plant Mooty. 

Through the 2019 MNUDL Summer Fellowship, Ifrah earned 3 weeks of experiential learning, a $1,000 stipend, and tuition to attend 3 weeks of debate camp. “My favorite part about camp was getting to know other debaters,” says Ifrah. 

At Gray Plant Mooty, Ifrah’s days were spent learning firsthand from a range of law firm employees. Her debate skills fit nicely into the new environment. One major project required her to research country conditions in Ecuador for an asylum case. “The asylum research was easy because it was a lot like the research we do for debate,” says Ifrah. Debate develops many talented lawyers, and Ifrah observes this isn’t a surprise: “In both debate and law, you have to formulate arguments and articulate them well. The structure of debate like addressing the judge and cross examination are similar, too.” 

Ifrah entered the fellowship with a critical eye on the justice system, having followed cases related to protest, housing, and school segregation. “I’m really interested in the important work lawyers do in that area,” says Ifrah. She observed proceedings for Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, discussed the case with lawyers on the plaintiff’s side, and had the opportunity to“watch, listen, and ask questions.”

Ifrah will return to Washburn High School with more than just professional skills gained in the law firm environment. “I’ll take home with me the things I saw at housing court and the mediation for the segregation case. Those two experiences definitely shaped how I see the justice system,” she says. 

Most exciting – the fellowship sparked her future inspiration. Ifrah’s now excited to pursue a career in law: “After this experience, I don’t see myself doing anything else.” 

Connect with upcoming talent like Ifrah. Host the MNUDL Summer Fellowship at your workplace in 2020. Contact Amy Cram Helwich at or (612) 359-6467 for more information.

MNUDL Students Crush Goals, Connect with Urban Debaters at the Capitol

42 urban debate teams gathered from across the nation at Georgetown University in Washington, DC for the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues Championship Tournament this weekend. The Minnesota Urban Debate League was represented well by one St. Paul and one Minneapolis team! Read on to learn our exciting results!

Continue reading “MNUDL Students Crush Goals, Connect with Urban Debaters at the Capitol”

Expect Exciting Immigration Conversations at the 2019 Mayors Challenge

In this year’s Mayors Challenge, Minneapolis and St. Paul debaters will join forces to debate immigration reform. Mayor Jacob Frey of Minneapolis and Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, along with representatives from our sponsors, will choose the winning team in front of an audience of education supporters.

Last year’s Mayors Challenge, hosted by KARE-11’s Jana Shortal, was an electric exchange about funding career and technical education. On the affirmative side, advocating for expanding career technical education funding, were Lily Endo of Washburn High School and Mason Eischens of Highland Park Senior High School. Areonna Dean of Central High School and B Phi of South High School negated the resolution, arguing against Lily & Mason.

Photo of Jana Shortal, Melvin Carter, and Jacob Frey with MNUDL Debaters.

The judges were impressed by our Mason, Areonna, B, and Lily’s great performance: 

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter: “I was glad that I don’t have to participate in tough debates like these, because that was intense. That was really incredible. The level of research that you all clearly do, the ability to take fact and logic and research and apply it back and forth – developing that is so necessary.”

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey: “You have mastered as skill that has largely been lost in American society, which is to debate respectfully.”

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius: “I can’t think of a more worthy opportunity for students to be able to learn, craft a point, have good arguments on both sides, listen effectively, or come to some solution. I think it’s incredible students can do that in school.”

John Marshall, Xcel Energy: “Kudos to all four students. We’re all going to leave this morning profoundly impacted by the research and passion you put into these debates.”

At the event, we also presented our first-ever Champions of Change Award to Senator Ilhan Omar and The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. The award is designed to recognize individuals and organizations who are catalysts for change in our community.

Ilhan Omar serves as a role model to many of us through her fearless and authentic leadership and particularly for her amplification of youth voice and support of strong education systems. We also recognized The Women’s Foundation for their advancement of systems change in our community and investment in young people.

Senator Ilhan Omar accepted her award with a reflection on what debate means: “Debate is such an important and overlooked skill. It’s proven to raise young people’s confidence and self esteem. It’s certainly done that for me. Debate has influenced many of history’s greatest orators and leaders, and I’m excited to see the students in our program become today’s and tomorrow’s leaders. Because of my love for this program, it’s truly an honor and humbling experience to accept this award. The Minnesota Urban Debate League has been instrumental in my life and now in my daughter’s life.”

Attending the Mayor’s Challenge is an opportunity to greet the mayors, network with corporate and organizational leaders who advocate for education, and meet our amazing students. We hope to see you there!

Be part of the 2019 Mayors Challenge! Contact Amy Cram Helwich at to learn more about how you can be part of this year’s event through our sponsorship opportunities.

Register to reserve a table or your own ticket here: 

Former MDAW Camper Returns With Unexpected Gift

    St. Olaf's parliamentary debate team membersSt. Olaf’s parliamentary debate team made a generous and unexpected donation.

College students often step up for MNUDL, but St. Olaf parliamentary debaters went the extra mile.

6 years ago, Matthew Erickson attended MDAW, our policy debate summer camp, as a freshman in high school. He’s gone on to graduate from Eagan High School and attend St. Olaf College, where he is president of the parliamentary debate team. We didn’t expect to see Matthew back at MDAW this year, much less with a generous gift!

St. Olaf’s parliamentary debate team members generously raised $2,000 for our programming, surprising us with an amazing gift to start off the next season on the right foot! That $2,000 gift could cover a range of our programming needs next year, including but not limited to:

  • One stipend for a high school debate coach ($2,000 each).
  • 2 high school students to attend 2-week-long policy camp. ($1,000 each)
  • Stipends for 4 high school students to coach middle school teams. ($500 each)

Matthew joined us this week to judge an evening practice debate at MDAW. Learn more about what inspired the St. Olaf team’s generosity in our interview with him:

Continue reading “Former MDAW Camper Returns With Unexpected Gift”

What’s Not Debatable – the Humanity of Immigrants and Refugees

An 8-year-old immigrant child cries as she talks about being separated from her father during a family separation protest.
Image credit to Ross D. Franklin of the Associated Press.

As national immigration policy horrifies us, our students debate immigration with respect and dignity

This summer the MN Urban Debate League will host over 100 middle and high school students at Augsburg University to learn about the 2018-19 school year debate topic – Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its restrictions on legal immigration to the United States.

Students will dig into this complicated question – to examine everything from opening the border completely, to re-evaluating H1B visas, to DACA. They will debate both sides of the resolution, as they critically examine the evidence – questioning their instructors, their camp teammates, and their own opinions on the topic.

What they won’t debate is the full humanity, inherent dignity, and worth of the people who wish to come to the United States – whether that is through the asylum process, existing legal immigration pathways, or those whose status is undocumented.

The MN Urban Debate League believes that each of the more than 800 children who are in our program – whether they were born here, or across the globe, are amazing. Our students are bright, talented, and looking for the opportunity to learn and grow. We will affirm their worth, and support them as they seek their own truth through inquiry and research. We will work together to build an educational community that values all students, so that our children will know that while we discuss policy issues, this does not mean that their value as people within our community is up for debate.

The current presidential administration’s approach to immigration reform, particularly its policy to separate children at the border from their parents is unconscionably cruel and inhumane. It has been declared such by multiple faith leaders, legal scholars, and leaders from both political parties. We know based on the research of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that this trauma will be incredibly difficult for children to recover from – and will impact their education, health, and forever future. This is particularly true for children younger than three, whose brains are still developing. Horrifyingly, the AP is reporting that three “tender age shelters” for children younger than five, are being used; there is also a plan to build a fourth.

It is absolutely possible to have a full and rigorous debate about immigration reform, and to do so without bigoted rhetoric. I know this is true, because I am watching 65 middle school students do it this week.  Let’s follow our students’ lead and demand more of all our civic leaders. We are hearing early news reports that it is possible, family separation may be discontinued. Until it is clear that a humane solution is reached, please keep calling your federal representatives – house and senate – and make your voice heard.

–Amy, Executive Director