For the historical aficionados who wonder what Denzel Washington’s epic period piece “The Great Debaters” could have looked like in modern times, well, it has virtually materialized in today’s times as repeat debate champions Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project in Atlanta.

Much like in the Oscar-winner’s 2007 directorial masterpiece about a Jim Crow-era debate team comprised of Black youth, Brandon Fleming is in the real-life role as Harvard University’s assistant debate coach. He expertly took a group of Black Atlanta teens teeming with dormant brilliance and helped them unfurl it at arguably the world’s most prestigious institution of higher learning.

Members of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project just returned home like conquistadors who got a hero’s welcome after vanquishing hundreds of other young students to take home the trophy as best debate team in the nation — and the world, for that matter.

In the process, the project has constructed the kind of annual winning streak that evokes memories of the dynastic Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA.

After competing against students from more than 25 countries, the Atlanta high school students won the International Debate Competition for a third consecutive year, though this latest trophy was secured virtually, due to the myriad of complications emanating from the pandemic.

And if that was not enough, the squad also made history twice with this latest title win. Rising senior Madison Webb of Langston Hughes High School and Christian Flournoy of the Westminster School became the first Black female and youngest Black male, respectively, to win the competition, which they won on an impressive 5-0 scorecard.

Fleming said he started the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project as an educational equity initiative because the annual worldwide debate competition was conspicuously devoid of diversity. Harvard University debate officials agreed to aid Fleming’s aspirations to introduce some melanin into the otherwise homogenous competition and train them at the university.

Fleming said he believed that with proper nurturing and skill cultivation, the young urbanites could compete on an international level. But who could have fathomed that with just months to train that the untested young urbanites could outclass that competition?

Kellye Britton, a former music industry exec, had enjoyed an enviable career as a manager who’d worked with the likes of Future, Cee-Lo, Future, Jeezy, and other Atlanta rap icons. But when she was recruited by Fleming to join the Harvard Diversity Project, she feels she found her raison d’être.

“I’ve been the Harvard Diversity Project for two years now going on my third year with the fourth cohort, and it has been a life-changing experience,” Britton said emphatically as passion dripped off every word. “We were born out of necessity to give young, Black people opportunities and access.”

From an applicant pool of thousands, Fleming and his team recruit 25-30 minority teens in Metro Atlanta each year who have never been exposed to academic debate. The students go through a rigorous months-long program, sacrificing their Saturdays throughout the school year, which is a feat in of itself when considering any blossoming and exuberant adolescent.

From there, the students are trained in the humanities and sciences and how to study from a panoramic view of the world and history. This has bolstered their ability to think and debate with lightning speed.

Along with the training, the Black students are exposed to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that exposes them to experiences that cannot be understated or measured.

“We are working to break down the barriers that have historically kept young Black people at arm’s length in education,” Britton said.

So far, the program has worked to perfection. They have yet to lose. In three years of existence, the Harvard Diversity Project has won three championships.

According to Britton, the project has already selected this year’s class for next year’s competition where the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project will go for a fourth consecutive International Debate Competition title.

For more information on the program and how parents can understand the process to possibly get their child involved visit www.harvarddcdp.org/

Atlanta’s Madison Webb of Langston Hughes High School and Christian Flournoy of the Westminster School became the first Black female and youngest Black male to win the Harvard International Debate Competition. (Photo: Harvard Diversity Project)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *