Director, Voices Foundation
My son John was passionate about high school debate, feeling it was (in his words) “the most valuable activity a high school student can partake in”. During his freshman year at college, he became chagrined with what he saw as “…[financial] barriers preventing individuals from fully actualizing their desire to participate in the activity that I owe everything to”, so he took the money he earned from debate coaching and established the Voices Foundation, with the aspiration that “…this organization will have the capability to sponsor and support the individuals who truly wish, but are economically powerless, to maximize their participation in debate”. At the time, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the organization and its vision.
Unfortunately, John died tragically at the age of 19. Although initially there were efforts from others within the debate community to carry the Foundation forward, for various reasons they floundered. Although my personal experience in debate had been limited to judging as a parent at tournaments, I agreed to take responsibility for Voices and to try to move it forward. Several other individuals pitched in and helped. Our primary initiative to date has been providing financial assistance to needy students wanting to attend summer speech and debate camps. Over the past 12 years, we have awarded approximately 450 scholarships.
It is within that context that I am sharing my perspective as somewhat of an “outsider”—I am not actively engaged in the esoteric strategies and nuances of debating or coaching and winning rounds. My view is that of a parent and educator who is sincerely concerned about giving young people the opportunity to build positive, productive lives.
To be candid, I will admit that initially there was a question in the back of my mind whether a foundation to support high school debate was really needed. After reading hundreds of personal stories from students and parents over the past 12 years, any trace of a doubt as to whether it is needed has long since vanished. Voices has supported students from single parent households, including single-disabled-parent or single-disabled-grandparent households that had only a monthly disability check for support; students from families devastated with the financial and emotional burdens of major medical problems, in some cases requiring a parent who would otherwise be employed to serve as a full-time stay-at-home caregiver; children of immigrant families whose parents have only limited, low-paying options for income; a homeless student who was without family and completely on his/her own [gender left unspecified to maintain confidentiality]; a student who, after Voices provided full tuition for a commuter camp, still needed help from social services because he/she didn’t have a couple dollars a day for camp lunch—the list goes on and is very long. The majority of students that Voices has supported come from families with incomes below the poverty line. Many qualify for free or reduced lunch at school; many need to work part-time, minimum-wage jobs just to be able to participate in debate.
What emerges is a picture of a substantial number of young people living in difficult to desperate circumstances who see education as the route to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, and who aspire to participate in speech and debate as part of that journey. I think it is critical that we provide them with the opportunities they need and deserve, particularly when one considers what limited options are left for them in absence of such opportunities.
But what can be done? Clearly, money is a limiting factor. What Voices and similar foundations have been able to accomplish is barely a drop in the bucket, when compared to the overall need. But will more money, by itself, solve the problem? In asking how to move forward, it may be instructive to look back at how Voices got to where it is.
When John decided to found Voices, he didn’t ask for advice or permission; he enlisted his debate buddies and took the initiative to move the idea forward. Frankly, he had an attitude that “old people”–which seemed to include most people over the age of 25 at that point–talked a lot but did little. Although technically, some of the things he did were not correct (as the IRS explained to him at one point), arguably he did things right—he was able to marshal enthusiastic support within the community for an initiative to break down the financial barriers that thwarted many from participating. The key factor was not money, it was an individual deciding to make something happen. Without his efforts, the 450 scholarships that Voices has awarded over the past 12 years would not have happened. I sincerely hope that students in the community will take this lesson, and a bit of his attitude, to heart.
Finally, I would like to comment, again as an outsider, on measures of success in debate. Most often, students measure their success by where they stand in the win-loss column relative to other debaters. Debate is a highly competitive activity, and this is certainly a measure that is heavily emphasized, along with TOC bid lists, etc.
However, I would argue there is a second measure, which is where students stand in their ability to objectively research topics in depth and clearly articulate arguments and counterarguments, relative to where they would be if they didn’t participate in debate. I would argue that in the long run, this second measure is more important than the first. Did Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy every win a speech or debate tournament? I have no idea. Were they able to inspire people and influence the course of history with their ability to clearly articulate a vision? Absolutely. Students will utilize the fundamental skills that they develop by participating in speech and debate long after win-loss records have faded. In this context, the long-term value of the community proactively reaching out to be inclusive of the financially disadvantaged cannot be overstated.
To contact the Voices foundation, please email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org.