Right now, between New York and New Jersey, there are hundreds of inner-city high school students arguing.
Over what? Any and everything: They are Solomon Debaters, members of Solomon Debates, a program that is teaching black and Latino youth the art of oral argument.
Founded in 2006 at Washington Academy High School in East Orange, NJ, the program has grown and has now spread to several schools in Brooklyn, including Boys and Girls High School in Bed-Stuy.
Solomon Debates members are winning. Put another way, they are kicking butt! And a large part of that success can be credited to its founder, Michael White:
Born and raised in Brooklyn, White showed a natural ability for public speaking at a young age. By the time he was 14, he was an ordained minister for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and so, in the 60s, began traveling and ministering as a teen throughout America’s rural South.
“What happened was that in that engagement with people in the rural South, what constantly stood out was their lack of ability to communicate and express themselves well,” said White. “And it was not for any lack of desire, but because their day-to-day living demanded they focus on survival.”
White understood well how an ability to express oneself and communicate effectively had a direct and profound impact on a person’s chance at upward mobility. His desire was to show young people in poor communities how to master the art of effective verbal communication.
In the early 80s, he wrote a teaching manual and companion CD called “Solomon’s Adventures,” an American tale about the problems a boy encounters growing up in the inner city, and how he goes about working through each problem.
Not long after, he was asked to take over a class at an alternative printing and trade school for high schoolers.
“The instructor I was replacing was a former Marine,” said White. “So when I walked into the classroom, the first thing he said to me when he looked at me was ‘soft to the core,’ and ‘You won’t last a week.’
“But what I found was a group of youngsters running wild that was totally void of understanding of printing. All they knew how to do was come to attention when their instructor walked in.”
“I started by having them read Solomon’s Adventures, because Solomon is them,” said White.
“In the book, Solomon runs away. So I started by asking them questions about who they know that has done the same thing. Then, I added Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, and they read how Barack Obama’s father ran away as well. Then they begin to connect the dots and see that their plight is a microcosm to the plight of other people, even great men.
“So then we go into Quincy Jone’s bio and Michael Eric Dyson’s book, and others, and they see the comparisons. We begin to compare the choices all these people made in their different circumstances, and why,” he said.
“That starts the initial debate around people they once felt removed from. So, then, instead of me answering their questions, I start telling them to look it up, research it. So they go on Google and bring their answers and opinions to class. I break them up into groups, and before they know it, they are beginning to debate, and they are enjoying it because it’s like a game and challenge to them, not just a classroom exercise.
But, said White, there are skill sets they have to still develop and show: “It’s not just some back-and-forth tussle; they’re learning to speak with confidence and back up their arguments with facts.”
The school administrator was astounded at how far White was able to bring his classroom. And so White continued to use the same teaching model through the years, until 2006 when he founded the Solomon Debates program. Aside from Boys and Girls High School, the teaching program now is employed at Transit Tech, Benjamin Banneker, Boys High, and this year, Bedford Academy and Brooklyn Tech have agreed to come on board.
Debate teams are formed from groups of six students identified from the classes to be exemplary and motivated: “The test is when you see these kids on-stage going toe-to-toe against prep schools… And our kids beat the pants off of them,” said White smiling proudly. “In these competitions, you’re not going to get away with canned speeches. You have to really know your subject, and the kids love it!”
On December 8, 2014, this year’s fall champs—Boys and Girls High School– will be sending a handful of Solomon Debaters to South Africa, along with Solomon gold medalists from other Brooklyn and New Jersey teams–12 students total– to compete internationally for the World Leader Cup trophy!
Leading up to the December trip is a reception and meet-and-greet on Friday, October 3, at the U.N.’s South African consulate honoring the BGHS kids and their achievements.
From the rural fields of America’s South to the shores of South Africa, it’s been quite a journey for Michael White. For the past 60 years, he has been on a mission to help the most disenfranchised amongst us find their voices. Today, White will be escorting a dozen of his Solomon Debaters to represent America overseas for a shot at becoming world champs.
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