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Put away your pocket protectors—local high school debate teams are defying stereotypes 

While most high school students were savoring the remaining days and nights of summer last August, a couple dozen rejected barbecues and lake swims in favor of something a bit weightier—a debate about the environment. But this was no casual argument over pizza, this was the final showdown of the 2008 Seattle Debate Institute, a weeklong debate camp held at the University of Washington.

Whatever images the phrase “debate camp” conjures for each of us, it’s unlikely that poetry and rap figure prominently. But that’s because most of us are unaware of a growing trend in area high schools known as urban debate, which has been taking off around the country in cities such as Miami, Baltimore and Oakland. Call it the ultimate revenge of the nerds. High school debate, once the realm of—how to put this delicately?—smarty-pants eggheads, has become steeped in a pulsing creativity. In the past few years, passionate, motivated kids have been taking over Seattle’s high school debate teams, infusing film, singing, poetry and hip-hop into their arguments.

With the help of the nonprofit Seattle Debate Foundation (, Garfield, Rainier Beach and West Seattle high schools are devoting more resources to their growing debate teams, many of which had languished or disappeared altogether. And thanks to a recent $40,000 grant from the Comcast Foundation, SDF will be able to support more leagues in Seattle and Tacoma.

The term “urban debate” was coined in the ’90s by Melissa Maxy Wade, director of debate at Emory University, who used the term to differentiate budding programs in inner cities from those at private or suburban schools. According to Jen Johnson, executive director of SDF, the idea behind urban debate was that the new teams—schooled in traditional policy debate, but encouraged to bring their own “voices” to the arguments—would compete against each other in a separate league. But in the decade-plus since, urban debate leagues have grown in popularity at schools nationwide, and the tournaments have gradually been broadened to include ones in and with other leagues.

Seattle-area students who attend schools with no debate teams have been galvanized by the trend, pushing to have debate added, while also taking part independently in SDF’s statewide events and tournaments. Not all high school debaters embrace hip-hop elements in their presentations, but enough do that the tourneys can be part stem-winder, part slam.

At the final debate of the Seattle Debate Institute camp, the topic was whether or not the federal government should spend money to clean up so-called “brown fields,” polluted former manufacturing sites that are often located in poor neighborhoods. Taking the affirmative were Patrick Chiang, a freshman at Shoreline High School, and Graham Clark, a sophomore at the Northwest School, who presented detailed research in the traditional debate style—they could barely speak fast enough to squeeze it all within the strict time limit. Bryant Pittman, a senior at Garfield, and Julian Kos, a sophomore at Garfield, took the negative, augmenting their points with passionate hip-hop poems as part of their evidence.

In one long, rhythmic stream, Pittman, pounding his fist in the air, shouted, “Users! Scandalous! Racists! The EPA has failed to meet its goals! … It makes no sense to have the people who created this problem have access to millions of dollars to fix the problem!”

All this focused young energy is what makes Johnson happy to get up in the morning. A young, hip dynamo who easily connects with the students in her workshops, Johnson says that since the incorporation of hip-hop into the debat