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Perspective: Debate Lays the Groundwork

Recognizing Ketanji Brown Jackson

March 29, 2022 – In working with young people, I often hear about the importance of representation. However, representation certainly still matters to me in adulthood — as a leader, as a woman, and as a person of color. So, I find myself leaning in with a particular interest – beyond that of an informed citizen – to the storylines and sounds of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Not only does Judge Jackson represent empowerment for Black women, but she represents, and honors, debate.

I found it noteworthy that, in her opening remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jackson thanked her family and then a teacher: her high school debate coach, Fran Berger. High school debate has come up numerous times during the confirmation hearings as one of the most significant and formative activities of Jackson’s life. If confirmed, Jackson will make history as the first African-American woman on the High Court. She will also be one of many high school debate alumni to wear the robes of a Supreme Court Justice.

Judge Jackson attributes much of the groundwork for her success to her experience in high school speech and debate. In a 2017 lecture, Jackson credited debate as “the one activity that best prepared me for future success in law and in life.” She continued, “I learned how to reason and how to write…and I gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to learn at an early age.” A recent The New York Times profile of Jackson, aptly titled “How a High School Debate Team Shaped Ketanji Brown Jackson,” confirms what we at NAUDL know: debate is a difference maker.

I can imagine how empowering it must have been for Judge Jackson to leave high school feeling a level of accomplishment, proficiency, and persuasiveness thanks to her experiences in debate. It’s one of many reasons I love hearing from young women in the Urban Debate Network. The confidence they gain, and sentiments they share, often echo Judge Jackson’s.

As we close out March, where we annually celebrate trailblazers and pioneers for Women’s History Month, the timing of Judge Jackson’s confirmation hearings feels especially resonant. Listening to her make her case, I am inspired, and motivated, as I envision more doors opening for young women debaters. In that spirit, I encourage you to recognize the women changemakers and mentors in your own life. Those who you aspired to be, and those who have provided the foundational lessons that you keep in your heart and mind each day.

Rhonda Haynes
Executive Director

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