by Henry Blanchette, Freelance Editor
graphic by Emily Zhang
Senior Laila Polk has been the only Black student to complete a season on the Speech and Debate team for the past two years. She said that underrepresentation deters Black and Latinx students from joining.
“If you’re a Black student, you walk into the room, and there’s not a single person that looks like you. There’s this constant barrage of sensory information that’s telling you that you don’t belong,” she said. “No Black people are joining because it doesn’t feel like the most welcoming environment, and this keeps happening over and over again.”
To help mitigate this racial disparity, this summer Polk and fellow senior debaters Julian Fefer, Maya Makarovsky and Anais Mobarak founded Spark Scholars, a free, online debate program for sixth-10th grade Black and Latinx students.
The summer program was broken into two sessions. Students in the Spark Session, a three week session divided into two age groups, learned about the structure and strategy of debate and competed in a two-day tournament judged by varsity debaters from across Massachusetts. Students of both age groups who registered for the Flame Session spent one additional week engaging in debate lessons, culminating in a second tournament.
By providing Black and Latinx students with the skills and confidence to join and succeed in debate, Polk said she hopes to break the cycle of underrepresentation.
“If students have some prior experience with debate, it gives kids a foundation so when they walk into those rooms and they don’t see anyone like them, they already know that they have done debate, that they have been successful in it and that this is a place for them,” she said.
Senior and Spark Scholars Outreach Coordinator Aseel Rafat said she noticed a boost in the students’ confidence throughout the program, and according to a feedback survey, the program increased students’ interest in pursuing high school debate.
Sophomore instructor Wasan Rafat said that watching her students become comfortable participating and asking questions was most rewarding.
“Debate sometimes gets stressful, but seeing how much it excites the students and seeing these important skills of advocacy and argumentation being instilled in them rejuvenates my passion for debating,” she said.
Aseel said she admired the motivation that the students displayed and hopes they will bring it back to their communities.
“Maybe now, one of the students will be inspired to start their own team at their school, and we’d be really proud if they chose to do that,” she said.
Senior and Spark Scholars instructor Donny Tou said they will be running a program called Spark Scholars Academy this fall. The Academy sessions will meet weekly, and registered students will compete in the Massachusetts Middle School Debate League (MMSPFL), a debate league started by Lincoln-Sudbury and Lexington High School students.
“We’re hoping the MMSPFL will be a good platform for our Spark Scholars students to actually have opportunities to debate other kids,” he said. “What we’re trying to work toward is teaching students like we did in Spark Scholars, giving them the skills for debate, but also giving them actual debate opportunities in the form of debate tournaments.”
Polk said she hopes that continuing the program next summer will encourage more people of color to participate in debate.
“I want to increase minority participation in debate because joining has been the best decision of my high school career, and I truly believe everyone should have the opportunity to do it,” she said. “It’s been a really rewarding experience for me to help these kids on their way to becoming high school debaters, and I can’t wait to see what they do. I just know they’re going to be amazing.”