In 2019, Dr. Brendan Stern, ’06, Assistant Professor of Government in the School of Civic Leadership, Business, and Social Change, stood in front of his new General Studies debate class and wrote on the board: “Greek organizations should be abolished at Gallaudet.” He invited students to walk to one side of the room if they agreed with the statement, or the other side if they disagreed.

He did not expect what happened next. Most of the white students agreed, and presented their arguments for why these organizations are racist and foster division in the Deaf community. But the students of color stood together on the other side, and a Black woman explained why. “She signed that it might be true that the Greek organizations are racist, but are they more racist than our athletic teams and student organizations? If the system is racist, the problem isn’t the Greek organizations. It’s the system,” Stern remembers. She then argued that a ban would result in the disappearance of Black Greek organizations that provide belonging, networking, and community for students who need it the most.

The response sparked a conversation that was personal and provocative. “I’d never seen a conversation this honest, meaningful, and transformative at Gallaudet,” Stern says. In that moment – as he watched his students confront unexplored complexities of an issue and challenge popular opinions – he had proof that Gallaudet students could debate. And that they need debate.

They just needed an opportunity.

That is why, the next year, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Stern brought together a group of students to establish the Gallaudet debate team, which is the first deaf debate team in the country.

Stern recognizes that it is a bit strange to coach a debate team when he never debated in high school or college himself. But very few deaf people have debate experience. Deaf schools do not have debate programs yet. The few mainstreamed deaf students who have joined hearing teams have typically felt lonely and limited by the quality of interpretation when nuance, precision, and speed are paramount, Stern says.

And he has spent his whole life arguing. As a kid, the teachers at his deaf school tried their best to discourage him. “I was often told to shut up and stay in line,” he says. The situation did not improve when Stern arrived as an undergraduate student at Gallaudet. “It was even more stifling, which is actually not an indictment of Deaf culture, but a symptom of broader trends in the country that discourage dissent and debate,” adds Stern, who earned his B.A. in Government from Gallaudet in 2006, a master’s degree in American politics from American University in 2008, and a second master’s and Ph.D. in American politics with a concentration in political theory from the Catholic University of America in 2018.

The Debate team collaborating in a conference room.
Dr. Brendan Stern, ‘06, standing far left, and Adam Bartley, seated far right, discuss debate while students prepare to argue about the value of higher education at a recent team practice.

During his graduate studies, and his return to Gallaudet as a faculty member, Stern started to think about the value of deaf people to American democracy. “I was studying democratic health and realized the racial, linguistic, cultural, and political diversity in the Deaf community was an untapped resource,” Stern says. “A healthy democracy requires relationship-building, truth-finding, and power-sharing across differences.” In a country where people are increasingly living in separate bubbles, Stern saw the need to create more opportunities for people to engage with others with different backgrounds and beliefs. He believed bringing debate to Gallaudet would not only advance students’ well-being and the health of Deaf America, but also that of fellow citizens and American democracy.

So as he laid the groundwork for Gallaudet’s Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA) – a non-partisan organization he now runs that encourages disagreement, debate, and civic engagement through American Sign Language — Stern discussed his ideas with Adam Bartley, a former high school debater and current staff interpreter with Gallaudet Interpreting Service. With the enthusiastic support of students and university administrators, they realized that they had the resources to create a team that could compete against any other school.

Stern handles coaching duties, helping the students research, develop arguments with logic and evidence, and practice presentation skills. With Bartley, they work on scripting opening speeches, which is not something hearing debaters must do, so that interpreters are able to represent exactly what they are signing. This preparation is critical because ASL has its own grammar and syntax, and in most intercollegiate competitions, the Gallaudet student debaters are the only ones who know ASL. An ineffective interpreter can mean the difference between a win and a loss, Bartley explains. (Although he notes that he must stick with what he sees students do at the podium: “If I see them screw up, I have to screw up.”)

Near the end of a recent debate practice at the privateSandbox, in the basement of Merrill Learning Center, a wall of white boards was filled with agendas and arguments scribbled in marker. About a dozen students rolled their chairs around to get a view of Stern as he signed about how they performed that day in an intramural British Parliament debate tournament. He suggested they follow the PEE approach — “It sounds bad,” he joked — which means structuring an argument by offering a point, followed by an explanation and an example. And Stern and Bartley discussed some of the lingo involved with this style of debate, such as “squirreling the motion” and “knifing” a competitor.

This leadership duo faced off in March at the first annual Gallaudet Great Debate, tackling whether “Interpreter Appreciation Day Should Be Abolished.” Bartley, the interpreter, argued the affirmative position while Stern defended the observance in front of a packed room of students, including the entire – very amused – debate team. “That was my first time debating and being in their shoes,” says Stern, who appreciated the opportunity to sway opinions, make the audience laugh while exploring a complicated and controversial issue, and gain some first-hand experience. “Now, I can hopefully coach them better.”

It hasn’t taken long for the Gallaudet debate team to show they know what they are doing. They launched virtually during the fall of 2020 with intramural competitions just among Gallaudet students. That helped them gear up for their first intercollegiate debate in April 2021, when Gallaudet’s Lexi Hill and Thalia Guettler competed against members of The George Washington University team on the topic of D.C. statehood. Gallaudet won.

“I tell my students that debate isn’t about victory. It’s about progress,” says Stern, who valued the engagement even more than the win. He has also enjoyed watching his students develop the confidence to wade into controversy. For example, Romel Thurman became fascinated with the topic of abolishing safe spaces. He wrote a paper about it, but was wary about discussing it in public, Stern explains. Thurman’s involvement in debate changed that, and he eventually used the paper as the basis for a speech he delivered at Gallaudet. “He felt comfortable enough to reveal his thoughts,” Stern says.

Audience of students watching a debate at Gallaudet.
Dr. Brendan Stern, ‘06, and Adam Bartley take a question from the audience during the Gallaudet Great Debate in March. Stern never had the opportunity to debate in high school or college, so this was his first time.

As the Gallaudet team began to compete at events across the country, it proved its prowess. At its first major tournament — the Social Justice Debates National Championships at Morehouse College in 2022 —Gallaudet advanced to the quarterfinals. The Gallaudet students were able to offer perspectives that the mostly hearing crowd had never confronted, says Stern, who was moved to see a judge from Morehouse in tears after Gallaudet’s Aubrey Moorman connected the issue of school segregation
with the experience of the Black deaf community. Moorman was named first place overall speaker at the competition.

In the 2022-2023 school year, the Gallaudet team has continued to excel. For instance, at the British Parliament Novice Nationals at the University of Rochester in February, the Gallaudet pair of Hill and Lorelei Becktel-Lipscomb placed in the top four, beating out teams from Ivy League and other prominent schools.

They ended up doing a lot of educating along the way. “When we asked questions, they would look at the interpreter instead of the debaters,” Hill says. But as they addressed these issues and engaged with each other’s arguments, all of the students got closer. “They remarked on how different and creative the Gallaudet team was,” she adds.

Of course, the Gallaudet team brings “the deaf lens,” Stern says, but he also appreciates that these competitions give students the chance to approach a whole host of topics beyond those unique to the Deaf community. “We’re so much more than deaf people,” he says. “With debate, I’m seeing deaf people bringing in their experiences, identities, and viewpoints to discuss key issues facing the nation. They debate as plural individuals and as citizens. That’s groundbreaking.”

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