From the outside, speech and debate programs may seem like dry, formal, and pedantic competitions of facts and arguments.
Walking into the 2019 National Speech & Debate Tournament, however, would have quickly dispelled such ideas.
The tournament, which took place in Dallas from June 16 - 21, is the largest academic competition in the world bringing together competitors who represent the top 4% of more than 150,000 student members at approximately 3,500 schools. Far from a stuffy battle of the wits, the event is bustling with enthusiasm and creativity.
Speech and debate programs don't merely teach public speaking skills or the ability to see competing sides of a conflict - they empower young people, arming them with the skills to be impactful, informed citizens and humans.
Oh, and they can also launch acting careers.
Within the National Speech & Debate Tournament, we found two Community Change Makers that embodied the transformative power of speech and debate - Actor Jared Padalecki from CW's Supernatural and Dallas' own Cindi Timmons, Team Manager and Co-Head Coach of the USA Debate Team.
Finding A Voice
Cindi Timmons lives in Dallas and has been involved with speech and debate for over 40 years. She's the USA Debate Team Co-Head Coach and is a member of the National Speech & Debate Association Hall of Fame.
As head of the local host committee for the National Speech & Debate Tournament, she was crucial in bringing the event to Dallas for the fourth time.
While those accomplishments alone are significant, the work she does to empower young girls and women through speech and debate is simultaneously inspiring, hopeful, and very much needed.
While little girls are often confident and outgoing, for many their self-esteem begins to deteriorate once they enter junior and high school.
For Timmons, speech and debate is a powerful tool to intervene during this decline.
"Even in 3rd grade little boys will laugh at little girls when they're performing...you will watch the little girls' faces just kind of crumple" she says, "what debate equips them with is the ability to stand up, to say no...to say 'don't treat me like that'..."
This experience is also a lived one for Timmons.
She says "as a young women in a competitive event that was particularly male-dominated, I was on the receiving end of lots of negative comments, experiences. What speech and debate taught me is, it gave me my voice."
Timmons now works with young women both locally and internationally through the speech and debate community. She's seen them transform in front of her, learning to express themselves, become leaders, and make a difference.
"It's incredibly powerful" she says, "what this community does, is it allows all of these young women to come together...we need more of that."
Known for his role as Sam Winchester in CW's Supernatural, Jared Padalecki has also appeared in Gilmore Girls and the films New York Minute and House of Wax.
Padalecki is originally from San Antonio and credits his experience in speech and debate as vital components to his success as an actor. Along with his partner, he was the National Forensics League champion in Duo Interpretation in 1998.
It wasn't just the performance experience that was valuable for Padalecki, either.
"It just really helped me get used to the idea of you're going to have to be in some uncomfortable situations in life" he says, "it was certainly integral in teaching me that you gotta get up...you leave your performance on the stage."
Beyond personal development and building confidence, Padalecki sees speech and debate as vital for functioning and making progress in very polarized, sometimes hostile, environments.
Far from an antagonistic competition, the tournament is a microcosm of healthy discussion, support, and empowerment.
"...in today's very diverse, very polarized political climate where somebody different is 'evil'' he says, "it's nice to be in a situation where [it's] 'no, we're competing but if you win great, if I win great, lets support each other.'"
The National Association of Speech and Debate invited Padalecki to the tournament as a VIP guest and judge. Padalecki took the opportunity to give back to a community that gave so much to him and his career.
He says "I'm here to say thank you to what helped me get to where I am."
During the event, Padalecki was able to meet with a select group of finalists to talk about their future and offer inspiration for their successes and challenges ahead.
Speech and debate not only affect the lives of the students involved, but it also impacts our society as well.
Padalecki says "every time you can influence or encourage or support a young person in working hard, working outside of their comfort zone it will positively impact the community."
Empathy Through Debate
In middle and high schools across the country, speech and debate programs are powerful agents of change and transformation for young people.
It's through this community that both Timmons and Padalecki found their own voices and are now impacting the next generation, who in turn will undoubtedly take these skills out into the world.
Padalecki says "it forces you to humanize somebody else that's not you, so you almost see their perspective, even for a glance..."
Timmons says it imparts fundamental empathy we badly need.
"There is not an event, an activity as important as speech and debate" says Timmons, "you are learning to empathize and develop compassion. Our communities need this."
For more information or to get involved with speech and debate, visit SpeechAndDebate.Org
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