Movie star honors debaters

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Not long into the evening, the organizers behind the Rhode Island Urban Debate League’s annual year-end banquet realized they would need more chairs. The room was quickly filling with about 200 laughing and chattering high school debaters along with their families and coaches, leaving some guests without a seat as the program started.

More fold-out chairs were quickly supplied and the event, designed to celebrate the students’ achievements during the debate season, continued.

RIUDL is run by the Swearer Center for Public Service, which works with community directors to establish debate programs at high schools in the area.

About 140 students from eleven different schools participated this year, said Morgan Whitworth ’09, a RIUDL student coordinator.

The large number of students and schools participating in RIUDL reflects an “upward slope” in the size and capacity of the program, Whitworth said. More than 30 Brown students have volunteered this year to coach the high schoolers, conduct forums about debate, chaperone trips and host and judge local debates.

The RIUDL banquet took place in the Westin Providence, and featured speeches by Mayor David Cicilline ’83 and actor Nate Parker, who is featured in the 2007 motion picture “The Great Debaters.”

A screening of the film, which chronicles the ground-breaking success of an all-black debate team in the 1930s, followed the banquet.

“Although ‘The Great Debaters’ is a Hollywood movie, it really is a Rhode Island story,” Will Tucker ’04, director of RIUDL and the assistant director of the Swearer Center, said in the opening speech. In the speech, Tucker also said he wanted the night to celebrate nine years of partnership between the Swearer Center and RIUDL.

Tucker was followed by Cicilline, who gave a brief speech emphasizing the importance of recovering the “lost art” of debate.

“This is one of the most important times in our country and your voices need to be heard,” Cicilline said. RIUDL “reinforces the power of words” and enables students to develop the skills that allow them to “contribute to democracy,” he said.

Rosanna Castro ’04, a former RIUDL debater and current Providence School Board member, presented year-end awards to students, including Courtney Dwyer, a senior at Woonsocket High School.

“Because of debate, we’re more comfortable speaking in public and supporting our statements well. We know more about the world,” Dwyer said. She and her partner, Preeti Kinha, will attend the National Urban Debate Championships in Chicago in April.

The room erupted with loud cheers when Parker took the stage to deliver his keynote address.

Parker spoke about his experience working with fellow actor and director Denzel Washington on the film and how that spurred his involvement with debate programs.

“Being an actor, I live in a fairy tale world where people don’t want to address issues that need to be addressed,” Parker said, citing the “education gap between the haves and have-nots” and the “vicious cycle (of poverty) that destroys our communities” as two of those issues.

Though Parker did not debate in high school, he said being in “The Great Debaters” opened his eyes to the importance of the activity and helped him see debate as more than “just arguing.”

“Debate is a major step in leveling the playing field,” Parker said, before urging the high school students to “spread the good news about debate.”

Before taking questions, Parker asked the participating students to stand.

As they rose to their feet, he leaned towards the microphone and said, “I believe in you. We believe in you. And today we honor your achievement.”

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