Laughter vibrates through the air as members of the Berkeley High School Speech and Debate Club huddle around the front of G215, intently listening to a heated debate on whether The Joker deserves a trial or not. Cell phone lights flash each time a speaker uses jargon, doesn’t make eye contact, or uses pronouns instead of specifying who they are referring to. Drills like this are commonplace for the team.
“You’re able to discuss lots of things, from really goofy topics like Batman versus the Joker, who’s worse, or to maybe more stale topics like should we stop building nuclear power plants,” said Ricardo Ramos, a BHS senior who has been doing debate since his freshman year.
According to Ramos, a typical practice begins with what the club calls the ‘but, um game’ in which members give a one minute summary of an article they read while trying to use the word of the day and avoiding filler words like ‘but’ and ‘um’. Following the warm-up, they typically dive into specific areas of debate such as topicality or kritiks (challenging an opponent’s assumption), and end with specialized drills to help practice the topic of the day.
Outside of practice, members also have the option to participate in tournaments if they want to pursue debate at the competitive level. These tournaments are often on the weekends and typically last the whole day.
If a team is lucky enough to make it to the elimination rounds, it might last the entirety of the weekend. Those who do participate are often very hard on themselves, which is something Gursimar Kaur, one of the head captains of the team, has struggled with herself.
“Debaters tend to go very harsh on themselves. It can be very imposter syndromy almost. A lot of people can struggle with that in the debate space because of the way there’s a pressure of wanting to do well,” Kaur said.
Despite this, Kaur says that many debaters make friends with people at different schools through tournaments. She also enjoys learning about current events through tournaments when she gets a resolution (topic) relating to a policy or issue that she simply hasn’t heard of yet.
This sentiment was echoed by the other head captain of the team, Elisandra Moulitsas, a junior in Independent Study at BHS. “I think that it’s really difficult to find articles that are explaining issues in (for instance) Thailand, (that) I wouldn’t ever think to explicitly look up and then I get a resolution on it and I’m like this is fascinating. All these crazy things that nobody’s talking about are happening,” said Moulitsas.
On the other hand, Moulitsas admits that debate can be a “difficult space” with incidents of racism and sexism. Judges at tournaments have called her hair texture “unprofessional” and told her to “dress better.” Debaters have made xenophobic arguments about immigrants stealing jobs.
In the same vein, equity has been a long-standing issue for the team. During the 2022 club fair, the team saw their membership boom, only to have most of the new recruits leave due to the overly competitive atmosphere. Additionally, a disproportionate amount of students of color left, which Moulitsas and Kaur attribute to the club’s previously white-dominated environment.
“Anytime anybody had a white privilege, we (debaters of color) were always outnumbered. We were advocating for ourselves and it didn’t feel like we had support,” said Moulitsas. “We were both varsity debaters at a time where every (other) varsity debater was white, and it was really ostracizing.”
Eventually, they voiced their concerns to their head coach, Joel Jacobs, who then led a team-wide discussion on how to make the space more inclusive to new debaters, especially debaters of color. A lot of the recommendations made were then incorporated into the club. For instance, people’s achievements are on the board for everyone to celebrate and there is now a special Slack Channel for debaters of color to discuss any concerns they may have. In addition, novice debaters are given one-on-one attention on Monday and Tuesday practices so they feel like they are part of the community and have space to learn how debate works.
“The way we started off this year was by telling the novices very clearly, ‘hey, this space is for you to do as much as you want,” said Kaur. “If you wish to be super intense and you want to do competitions and go all out and try to get trophies and be nationally ranked we’re totally going to help you do that, but it’s also on the other hand completely okay for that to not be your case.”
As a result of these changes, Moulitsas reports the debate team is “more diverse than it has ever been” and the situation is rapidly improving. Moulitsas said, “there is a lot of love” in the debate community, describing her relationship with her peers as akin to family.