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Two Black high school seniors from Atlanta, Ga. led a group of 21 students to victory in Harvard University’s prestigious summer debate tournament. Not only did they lead their team to victory, they made history by winning it twice in a row for the Atlanta contingency.

The event was hosted by the Harvard Debate Council. In 2018, the group from Atlanta became the first all-Black team to take top honors. Though two of the stars, Don Roman Jr. and Keith Harris, had never debated competitively until they joined the team a year ago, the pair went undefeated in the tournament, finishing 10-0 while vying against students from 15 countries.

Daily 10-hour study regimen

Up to 400 students sparred in the week-long tournament. Students also took part in a daily, 10-hour academic regimen with classes focused on research, analysis, argumentation and political science, taught by highly accomplished debate professors and instructors. Obviously, discipline and a commitment to the program were musts for these young people, not an easy task considering all the distractions in today’s fast-paced world of cell phones and social media.

Of the 21 teenagers on the Atlanta team—composed of students from various area high schools—five advanced to the quarterfinals of the single-elimination tournament, giving the squad the most cumulative points.

The program is young, and according to its team, it’s looking to expand beyond Atlanta.

Brandon P. Fleming, an Atlanta resident who serves as assistant debate coach at Harvard, put the Atlanta team together. The whole thing came about from Fleming after he taught in Atlanta’s school system and felt there was undiscovered and undeveloped talent throughout the area. He made calls to the faculty at Harvard last year and wasted little time in founding the Harvard Diversity Project to address the lack of African-American representation at the summer debate residency.

A passionate mentor

Fleming himself is an inspiring story. He passed on that scholastic exuberance to make lives better for the youth in his community to the students recruited to be in the Harvard Diversity Project. The first set of students last year and the next group this year gave up their Saturdays to study under Fleming, a former at-risk youth counselor turned educator. It wasn’t just a summer program.

Fleming and his students spent 10 months prepping for the tournament, spending hours learning about critical thinking, public speaking and argumentation. And after all those Saturdays, a select group ended up with a summer residency at Harvard University, where they studied more with hundreds of gifted scholars from the around the globe.

Fleming didn’t do it alone. He gained the financial backing of some major sponsors, including Chik-Fil-A Foundation, Coca Cola, Kaiser Permanente, UPS, Public Supermarkets, the Atlanta Hawks and Turner Broadcasting. One of the outcomes of these companies’ participation is scholarships for the students enrolled in the program.

In addition to Fleming and Kellye A. Britton (the latter director of operations and programming), team members include Tanika Cabral, president, and a diverse and experienced group of teachers.

A fond welcome back home

The Black students from Atlanta savored their victory and were welcomed home by a small but loud cheering crowd at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport last month. While they’re only teenagers, they are well aware of current events in the U.S. and around the world and spoke about the significance of their accomplishment.

“This is the moment that we’ve worked so hard for,” said Roman, 17, a senior at North Atlanta High School. “Our accomplishment is far bigger than us. We are showing the world what Black youth are capable of achieving when given equal access, exposure and opportunities. This win is for our ancestors, our city, and most of all, our culture.”

That immense sense of pride began with the program last year, when Jordan Thomas brought top honors home to Atlanta. Thomas, from Atlanta’s Grady High School, won the competition. He said that he was “determined to represent my city and my story. I wanted people to see where I came from and how I could keep up with them. Being a young, middle class, Black, public school student from the South created a stigma that automatically set me back in comparison to the competition, most of who were international students or from preparatory schools in the Northeast.”

Added the teen, “To bring the championship back to Atlanta was the most satisfying feeling, and to walk onto the campus of one of the most elite universities in the world and meet personal and council goals, brings a unique and new satisfaction that I’ve never experienced.”

Bringing out the best in Black youth

That pride is exactly what Fleming says he and his colleagues at Harvard were looking to accomplish when they started recruiting from local Atlanta high schools. “It sends a message to the world of what African-American youth are capable of, if they are given access and opportunities,” Fleming said. “Most of our students have never been exposed to the power of academic debate. Knowing that they will compete against hundreds of scholars who have years of debate experience, combined with the benefit of private and prep schools to their advantage, we seek to level the playing field by introducing our students to higher level academic disciplines that are typically unavailable in traditional school settings.”

It’s not just about debating, Fleming explained. It’s about leadership and celebrating their culture. The program has fast become known as an incubator of academic excellence, as well as a launchpad for tomorrow’s young leaders.

Harvard recruits in Atlanta

Why Atlanta? According to research from Bloomberg, although Atlanta appears to be a progressive center for African-Americans politically and as entrepreneurs, it currently ranks as the most unequal city in the U.S. and has one of the highest needs for minority development. So the area was a prime candidate for the Harvard Diversity Program to strategically provide exclusive exposure and educational opportunities to underrepresented youth.

“This will make them more competitive by providing a distinct advantage in the college admissions process, widening their pathway to success and placing them on a trajectory to become social leaders, activists, and entrepreneurs,” according to the program’s website.

The Harvard Debate Council also works to cultivate cultural ambassadors that reshape the meaning of scholarship among minority youth, in affect, making academic excellence appealing and accessible to Black youth across the board.

“Our goal is to train citizens and leaders of the world, which requires global consciousness,” reads the statement from the Harvard Diversity Project. “The fact that young people don’t have a vote in elections does not mean [we should not] be actively recruiting Black students in Atlanta. We are conducting research to expand into other communities around the country.” According to Britton, the program is hoping to expand within the next three to five years, meaning that schools in California may have an opportunity at participating in the debate program.

“We currently have workshops and professional development for educators from anywhere,” she said. “Educators can get involved. We certainly want to share the methodology to train these students.”

Students have to qualify to be in the program. They must have a minimum of a 3.0 GPA and go through an interview process to be accepted. Many of the applicants come from school counselors and teachers who recognize their dedication to advancing themselves.

Teachers and school administrators interested in learning more about the program and bringing it to their schools can write to info@harvarddcdp.org

More information can also be found at https://harvarddcdp.org/

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