Snaphots: Atlanta Urban Debate League

May 1, 2001


To bring interscholastic debate and its benefits (such as improved grades and the ability to create positive social change) to underserved youth in cities.

In a Nutshell:

Trains urban middle school and high school youth in policy debate so they can compete against elite high schools around the country. Atlanta Urban Debate League (AUDL) uses debate as a tool to develop skills in critical thinking, public policy and values research, computer research proficiency, argument construction, conflict resolution, advocacy and public speaking. While the primary population that has historically participated in competitive tournament debate is white and affluent, AUDL targets poor and minority youth.

Where it Happens:

Practices occur in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS). Middle school tournaments are held at middle schools across the city, and high school AUDL students participate in the existing high school debate circuit, which takes them to schools around the country. Based on the Atlanta model, 16 Urban Debate Leagues (UDL) have been created across the country. The second was established in New York City in 1991.

When it Began:


Who Started It:

The Barkley Forum of Emory University created the UDL in 1985 in partnership with the APS. Melissa Maxcy Wade, director of forensics at Emory University, and Larry Moss, currently a faculty member at Spelman University, co-founded the league.

Who Runs It:

James Roland and Kara Grant of
the Barkley Forum co-direct the AUDL in conjunction with the APS. Emory University students serve as mentors and debate coaches. Also, one or two teachers in each participating school are trained to be coaches.

Early Obstacles:

Getting schools to make debate part of their curriculums and securing school district funding.

How They Overcame It:

Over time, schools around the city heard about debate league-related awards (like medals to winning students), and college recruiting and scholarships aimed at students in participating schools. At one high school, colleges expressed interest in some debate league students but would not accept them because they had not completed certain courses. As a result, youths successfully demanded that the school offer advanced placement classes.


AUDL’s budget last year was $215,000. UDL schools pay for travel to tournaments and teacher stipends.

Who Pays:

APS has a line item in its budget for debate expenses ($51,000). The AUDL receives grant funding from various foundations, such as the Gulton and Veneer foundations (the Gulton Foundation is the family foundation of an alumna) and the governor’s discretionary fund, to send youths to the Emory National Debate Institute (ENDI), which is $1,250 per student per summer. George Soros’ Open Society Institute, which used to provide funding for AUDL, now funds the New York and Baltimore UDLs and provides some assistance to all but four of the other UDLs.
Who Else Has Kicked In: Emory University provides in-kind support for the AUDL (five Emory employees conduct AUDL-related work from their Emory offices). Some alumni of the Barkley Forum provide financial support, and some judge at tournaments.

Youth Served:

AUDL has served more than 3,000 students from 13 area middle schools and 11 area high schools since its inception.

Youth Turn-On:

Students enjoy the competitive nature of debate, as well as the “game” of using critical thinking skills to decide how to answer arguments their opponents make. High school students also get to travel to debate tournaments and get to know students from all over the country.

Youth Turn-Off:

Debate requires a lot of work, including during after-school hours.

What Still Gets in the Way:

Securing funding for all the students who want to attend the ENDI or another intensive debate camp in the summer. Getting teachers to be debate coaches. Many don’t want to sacrifice their weekends.


Kara Grant, Drawer U, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322. (404) 727-7178.

"Atlanta Urban Debate League." Snapshots. Youth Today, May 2001, p. 12.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.