March 31, 2021 – Women were not allowed to wear pants at debate tournaments when I joined my Wyoming high school team in the fall of 1993. Bizarre as that seems, it was sadly in step with the times. Until the mid-’90s, women were also not allowed to wear pants in the White House. Dressed in a skirt-suit, and with big hair that was also in style at the time, I made my way to my first tournament with a Rubbermaid tub full of evidence on healthcare policy.
In over 25 years in the speech and debate activity — first in high school, then college, and now as the Executive Director of the Minnesota Urban Debate League (MNUDL) – I have happily seen some of these egregious gender stereotypes fall by the wayside. At the same time, there are still far too many examples of sexism, racism, and classism that show up in our beloved activity and need urgent attention.
If I were to write a love letter to debate, it would start with my coaches. I was blessed with bright, caring, and ambitious women for coaches in both high school and college. Sandy Patrick, my coach at Cheyenne East High School taught me to love research and competition. She also encouraged a shy Wyoming kid to “go for the jugular” in CX, breath deep from my diaphragm, and find my true voice.
Gretchen Wheeler at Casper College trained us for debate like athletes. She stressed nutritious food, sleep, and team warm-ups. Debating on a small team at a community college might have given us an inferiority complex, but Gretchen didn’t believe that and so neither did we! Through college competition, I traveled all across the country, expanding my worldview: seeing dolphins play through classroom windows on Pt. Loma’s campus in CA, and attending nationals in my now home-town of the Twin Cities (where I learned that, yes, it sometimes does snow in April).
That expanded worldview gave me the confidence to attend graduate school in Pittsburgh with a focus on nonprofit management and fundraising. Before becoming the MNUDL Executive Director, I was the Development Director for the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. While there, I didn’t just grow my fundraising skills; I learned to work in partnership with individuals and communities to tell their stories and ensure an intersectional lens — of gender, race, class, and place — was used for all of our work.
This approach was crucial in my new role as Executive Director of the MNUDL. As a white, middle-class woman, I know that many of my life experiences are different from my students. Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Roseville public schools are both majority students of color. Listening and learning from students, families, and colleagues about issues of implicit bias, systemic racism, and advancing anti-racist policies is at the center of our work. Recognizing that women from all walks of life experience different struggles and joys has become a key part of how we seek to advance all women, where they live, as they choose. This work is also the work of women’s movements and history, and is part of our history within Speech and Debate.
In my almost 12 years at MNUDL, students have spoken about consistent themes, remarkably similar to my own experiences. “Debate is like a family” and “My coach really cares.” Perhaps that’s why I find building new programs particularly rewarding. In addition to our national topic programming, we offer Financial Literacy Debates specifically designed for girls and non-binary students. Our league also features Spanish Debate and East African Debate to welcome our immigrant students and their families. Our community leadership programs partner with students, their families, cultures, traditions, and perspectives. Partnerships at intersections like these expand opportunities for women, girls, and nonbinary students from all backgrounds.
During Women’s History Month, I am proud and grateful to be part of a debate community filled with so many extraordinary women. We are a powerful club, which includes the likes of Vice President Harris, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. And, of course, the amazing students of the MN Urban Debate League and 22 other Urban Debate Leagues across the country. The debate landscape has certainly changed since I first fell in love with it at my high school in Wyoming 25 years ago, and I am excited about further changes on the horizon. Much like women’s history – our stories and experiences are more vibrant and meaningful when all voices are heard.
Banner photo: Executive Director Amy Cram Helwich (far left) with MNUDL students and MN Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan at annual Mayors’ Challenge Great Debate in 2019. Photo Credit: Armand Langston Hayes Photography