August 15, 2022 – As we are initiated into the debate space, one of the first lessons we are taught is to play by the book and assume the role of policymakers. “It is what will win you the judge’s ballot for the round.” At the easily influenced age of thirteen, I was blinded by the desire to win and fell into the trap of the prior statement. This mental framework enclosed me in a space void of personal expression. As the season progressed, I lost track of the reason I joined the debate team and found myself detached from the social dilemmas at the center of the resolution. My first interaction with an advocacy-style affirmative pulled me back from the void.
It was a cold Saturday morning in December. I arrived at the tournament filled with anxiety because I was scheduled to debate alone without a partner. After checking in, I sat at a bench alone for 15 excruciating minutes, waiting for the tabroom blast of round pairings that would tell me where to go for round one. My phone beeped. I saw the opponent’s name on the screen and didn’t give it a second look as I made my way to the elevator. I was singularly focused on winning the round. I brushed my nerves and doubt aside as I opened the door to my designated room. As I walked in, my opponent strode to the podium confidently – with a speaker in hand. I vividly remember the looks on all the faces in the room as the first affirmative speaker started her speech with culturally rich music playing in the background. The sound of her advocacy was poetic. It still rings in my head as I recount this pivotal moment in my debate career.
She sang about her struggles in the field of academia as a woman of color. During that eight-minute speech, she opened up about her experiences and proposed radical solutions to the obstacles she’d faced. I was so flooded with emotions that I dropped my pen and stopped flowing the arguments. I felt compelled to listen with a fully open mind. After the timer beeped, I gathered my confidence and walked up to the podium to give my speech.
I took a deep breath and spoke from my heart as Anna, not another “congressional member” making a textbook argument. Those eight minutes are the most important moments in my debate career. I felt a weight drop off my shoulders that I hadn’t even realized was there because I was blinded by the desire to win. After the tournament, I had a conversation with my opponent about her style of debate and learned about personal advocacy affirmatives. I discovered there were styles of argumentation where debaters share their own experiences and propose meaningful solutions to problems they’ve encountered. After this interaction, I started to write my cases as advocacies with critical examinations of the social issues centered around each debate resolution.
Despite stereotypical representations of policy debaters on screen, not all of us want to run for congressional office. But, all of us have unique experiences that define who we are and can enrich intellectual exchanges in the debate space. The world of competitive debate has so much more to offer than titles and winning streaks. It is up to us as debaters to define the value of the judges’ ballots. For me, the best victories were the ballots that affirmed the social impact I want to make in the world.
Anna Zhao is a 2022 White & Case NAUDL Alumni Fellow and hails from the Boston Debate League. She is currently attending Yale University as an Environmental Studies and Global Affairs double major.
Banner image submitted via Boston Debate League.