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Finding their voice

Student startup uses debate to educate and empower middle schoolers

Tessa Holtzman and Matt Summers

Tessa Holtzman and Matt Summers launched Debate Spaces to empower and educate middle school students using debate. (Photos courtesy of Debate Spaces)

Matt Summers was dismayed to see the deep rifts that ran through the city of Stellenbosch, South Africa, when he began working there after college. A short bridge that bisected the city separated neighborhoods where income, quality of life, and life expectancy were vastly different.

The disparities inspired Summers, who was teaching English on a Fulbright Fellowship, to launch an afterschool program called Debate Spaces, that brought together middle school students from higher-income and lower-income backgrounds to learn and practice debate skills.

“I had seen the way that debate can provide a common language for people. During debates you can discuss really challenging issues that might be too thorny to grapple with in normal conversation,” said Summers, who had been named the top debater in the U.S. in 2015 while at Bates College. “These topics are really interesting and really important, and debate helps you find a way to engage meaningfully with them. And it puts you into close proximity with people who have very different experiences from you.”

After he returned to the U.S. to attend Harvard Law School, Summers saw that Boston suffered from the same divisiveness that plagued Stellenbosch. He reached out to friend and fellow Bates College alum Tessa Holtzman, now a master’s in public policy student at Harvard Kennedy School, and the two decided to launch a version of Debate Spaces for Boston-area middle schoolers.

Holtzman, who grew up in southern New Mexico and attended public school, hadn’t had the opportunity to be a debater until she arrived at Bates; she caught up with her classmates quickly and was named the top female debater in North America in 2017.

“I feel like debate gave me the tools to find my voice. I was really shy growing up, and debate helped me learn to articulate all these ideas that I had,” she said. “I wanted to use debate as a tool to teach students and also empower them to help them figure out what they were passionate about and then act on that.”

Middle school students participate in Debate Spaces programming

Boston middle schoolers participate in Debate Spaces programming. (Photo courtesy of Debate Spaces)

Debate Spaces launched in 2017 as an extracurricular activity to bring Boston-area middle school students together to practice debate skills. Students gathered once a month at Suffolk University in Boston to learn core debate skills: how to build a good argument, how to engage in effective rebuttal, and how to be more persuasive using storytelling.

Earlier this year, the startup was named the Silver Medal Grant Winner of the McKinley Family Grant for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership in Social Enterprise, sponsored by the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

What makes Debate Spaces unique is that students are given the chance to apply debate skills to a civic action of their choice. For instance, some wrote letters to their city councilor advocating for funding for a community center, while others recorded videos to lobby their school board on the importance of LGBTQ+ acceptance on campuses.

“Debate has always been a way to digest and understand really vexing problems in society, but the competitive debate sphere often feels self-referential. It is argument for argument’s sake,” Summers said. “Debate Spaces was a unique opportunity, because we were bringing together students from disparate backgrounds who have really unique perspectives on both the challenges and the solutions. We knew it was important to help people use those skills in a way that was constructive for the world.”

As the nonprofit grew, it attracted a diverse group of students from across the greater Boston area. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March, 2020, forcing Holtzman and Summers to cancel the rest of their programming for the academic year.

Debate Spaces Zoom meeting

By offering virtual programming for the 2020-2021 academic year, Debate Spaces was able to reach 200 middle school students from 20 countries. (Photo provided by Debate Spaces)

Undaunted, they pivoted and offered a fully virtual model of Debate Spaces for the following academic year, which concluded in May, 2021. They found that the remote Debate Spaces format had unique upsides—200 middle school students from 20 countries were able to attend the virtual Academy.

In addition to learning a new debate skill and applying it in a debate round, students also had the opportunity to learn from guest speakers. With a remote format, Debate Spaces was able to invite speakers from a wide range of fields. For instance, during a session on Islamophobia, a representative from the Muslim Justice League discussed the issue and the organization’s work.

The virtual format was so successful the co-founders are planning to continue offering Debate Spaces as a remote-only Academy.

“The advantage of being a virtual program is that we are almost infinitely scalable,” Summers said. “There are 60 million English-speaking middle schoolers around the world, and most of them have access to the internet, so our goal is to help bring more and more students together from more countries.”

As the nonprofit startup has grown, the founders have relied on the support of Harvard resources, like the i3 Challenge and Harvard Innovation Labs, which have provided essential mentors and funding, Holtzman said.

Moving forward, they are hoping to reach 500 students from at least 40 countries with next year’s virtual academy.

“Debate Spaces gives me hope,” Holtzman said. “I see these young people who are eager to learn the nuances of these issues, and then are excited to figure out how to grapple with them, and understand the urgency around solving these problems, and are ready to step up and be engaged citizens. Knowing that I am helping equip them with the tools that I think are essential to be successful at that is definitely rewarding.”

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Topics: Entrepreneurship

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