Let's Talk Resource Accessibility in PF

Steven Linkh | 5/29/24

The issues, and solutions, I will be talking about stretch beyond into every sector of speech and debate, but I want to hone in on Public Forum (PF) Debate. PF is rising to become one of the most popular events in forensics, but just because it is a “public forum” doesn’t mean that it is actually accessible to the general public. Many teams lack access to quality resources and teaching. And the unfortunate reality of this is these debate programs are fighting an uphill battle compared to other teams.

For me, I have been lucky enough to be able to mentor a team other than my own, at the request of the friend of mine. Helping this team learn the basics and running drill sessions with them was one of the most rewarding experiences ever. However, both of these experiences made me notice the lack of accessibility of online resources, given many of these resources aren’t available at first click, and there are not many places that have these resources listed, and those on first click aren’t necessarily accessible, where some are forced to pay out of their pocket. 

One huge reason debate has lost some accessibility in the past few years has been due to the pandemic. According to the New York Times, since the pandemic, participation in debate tournaments has dropped 25%. But in Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs), whose mission is to serve lower-income and minority students, they have seen an even higher drop — 50%. This drop doesn’t just mean no more teams for a few years: it means there is a lack of resources within high school debate teams, potentially meaning the eradication of a team. 

Take my team for example. Our Public Forum Team was up and growing in 2019, after it was created in 2018. Same with my school's Policy team. However, during the pandemic, many people had no desire to join my school's debate team, resulting in very few people succeeding to continue the team. In fact, the year I joined my team, on PF there were only 3 senior members and on policy, only 2 senior members, both of whom were juniors. There was only one senior on the entire team, which was devastating for my team's resources. However, I was lucky that my team at least had these older students there to help and guide us so our debate program could continue and is now back up and running (hopefully we bid next year). However, even though we are privileged enough to still be able to compete, we still have struggles as a new(er) team that those bigger and more established schools might not have, such as the extensive knowledge of debate and our circuit. But our story is not unique: many other schools have seen their programs go extinct or shrink because of the pandemic.

But the pandemic isn’t the only issue plaguing the debate community, specifically smaller programs. It is also the lack of resources and the pressure put on student coaches, including the inequality between teams that are small, from public schools, student coached or all of the above and the private, large, privately coached teams. This disparity exists throughout all of debate, but is especially prevalent on the national circuit. 

Let's look at student coaching in particular. An issue that many people don’t talk about is the fact that there are many teams out there that simply do not have access to a professional, adult coach. On those teams it is up to the competitors to teach themselves and their peers how to debate, all while competing themselves, managing school, trying to maintain a social life and all of the other things that come along with being a teenager. These students have a huge responsibility on their shoulders, and there are very few resources out there to help them. Most PF resources focus around topic analysis, which can be very helpful, and some other topics, but there is really nothing out there to help give students advice on how to coach or even learn how to debate themselves. 

For my team, I give a huge amount of credit to our two novice directors from last year, who single handedly coached a team of ten students, and despite competing AND teaching students a curriculum they wrote themselves, where their students broke at every national tournament they attended. I consider this a huge win for student coaches, given with the resources the lemons they were given, they instead made lemonade. It just goes to show that with the right resources, student coaches can excel with empowering their teams, and this article aims to help student coaches, and people who aspire to start their own teams, find quality resources to help everyone feel empowered. 

But it is not all bad. There are some amazing organizations out there looking to help improve accessibility in PF. 

During the recent month, myself and a few others have started a new PF non-profit called EmpowerDebate, @empowerdebate on Instagram, with the goal of solving these very issues. We are looking to focus specifically on providing resources for student coaches and creating programs to help supplement that adult coaching experience. You can also reach out to us at empowerdebateus@gmail.com, and soon at our website to see exactly what we have to offer!

You can also check out Outreach Debate. Outreach has a free winter and summer camp for students looking to learn more about debate from experts. For those looking to learn from quality leaders outside of EmpowerDebate’s program, Outreach is a quality debate camp to check out, especially for those who can’t afford top debate camps across the country. 

And Equality in Forensics also does its part to help. Through the Discord server, and its public forum channel, competitors can connect with each other, trade prep and share advice. That community and access to more experienced debaters is invaluable to students like me, and honestly, all students. 

But these organizations can not exist without the help of the PF community. The best way to improve these organizations, and therefore accessibility, is for more people to get involved. If you are a debater from one of those bigger teams, try and get involved to help spread your experience and knowledge to others! Debate truly is a tight knit community, so it makes sense that the best way to help each other is to, well, help each other! And that same logic applies to small school debaters, just because you are from a smaller team does not mean you do not have a lot to bring to the table! 

In my opinion, student coaches and small teams don’t receive enough credit for the work they do. They give so much to our community, and we should start doing our part to give back to them. But improving access to PF resources, and debate resources as a whole, won’t just help these teams and students who need them the most, it’ll help all teams, big and small.