When Meah Poret found out she would get a chance to learn about the tenants of formal debate and attend a summer residency at Harvard University, she said she found herself nervous and excited all at the same time.
Poret, a native of New Orleans, Louisiana, is a sophomore at North Springs Charter High School and one of 27 students selected to participate in this year’s third cohort of the Harvard Diversity Project.
“I was quite nervous (at first) because there are so many different minds and various thinking patterns,” Poret admitted. “So I was nervous with myself. But once you get into the environment, it’s quite easy to kind of fall into the debate without knowing like where you’re going to end.”
In a Surprise Reveal Ceremony, hosted at the Atlanta City Hall with a welcome from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Poret and her peers were recognized in front of their families and were rewarded with scholarship money to join Harvard’s prestigious residential Summer Residency Program.
A subsidiary of the Harvard Debate Council at Harvard University, the Harvard Diversity Project is a nationally acclaimed pipeline program that recruits highly motivated Black youth in Metro Atlanta to train and matriculate into a prestigious summer residency at Harvard College.
Brandon Fleming, an assistant debate coach and executive director of the Harvard Debate Council, founded the Harvard Diversity Project when he noticed a lack of African American students participating in the project’s summer residency program.
Fleming, who has a history as an educator in Atlanta when he directed the debate program at Ron Clark Academy, knew that metro Atlanta would be fertile ground to launch a recruitment effort.
Himself once an-at risk youth turned award-winning educator, Fleming leveraged his Harvard debate faculty position to create the Atlanta-based pipeline for the purpose of increasing minority representation at the Harvard residency.
Fleming’s hunch paid off. Since the diversity project’s inception, its students have not only competed but have dominated the Summer Residency culminating competition against teams from all over the world.
In the project’s first cohort, 25 Atlanta youth attended Harvard’s summer residency for high school students, where they studied alongside over 400 gifted young scholars from around the world.
The residency concluded with a single-elimination debate tournament, which the Atlanta group dominated and reigned champions. News of the Atlanta pipeline’s historic victory instantly broke national headlines.
The program has also gained the financial backing of major corporations such as Chik-fil-A Foundation, The Coca-Cola Company, Kaiser Permanente, UPS, Publix Super Markets, and the Atlanta Hawks, and Turner Broadcasting, who fund scholarships for students in the pipeline to study at Harvard each summer.
“The Harvard diversity project is a pipeline program that I started for the university in an effort to increase African-American representation at the Harvard Debate Council’s annual summer residency,” Fleming explained. “I started this organization because of the need for educational equity in the city of Atlanta.
“Many people don’t know this but Atlanta is the highest-ranked unequal city in America and it has the highest need for minority youth development,” he continued. “So, I thought it would be an incredible idea to bring something like this to our city to promote educational equity in an attempt to close the opportunity gap for students of color.”
During the Summer Residency, the students spend 10-hour days in intensive academic study where experienced debate instructors push them to expand their knowledge in analysis, research and political science. The students also get firsthand experience of residential life at Harvard University and an opportunity to learn from accomplished debate professors and coaches.
The first and second cohort of students trained by Fleming made history two years in a row as back-to-back champions, with the second group achieving an unprecedented undefeated record at the international tournament.
“All of our students would be considered gifted and talented in their schools, but what’s common among all of them is that they said they’ve never been challenged,” Fleming said. “So what we do differently is (1) we meet the students where they are culturally and we engage them in that manner. (2) We, we challenge them more than they’ve ever been challenged before.
“It’s a very, very rigorous curriculum in which we engage them. And so, by doing that, we are able to cultivate them at a far more accelerated rate because we push them beyond their own perceived boundaries.”
Poret said she heard about the program through her high school’s college career counselor. After consulting with her parents and a few of her teachers, she decided it would be a great opportunity to leverage.
So she, along with more than 150 other students, applied for a coveted spot in this year’s cohort.
“I have always been a busy speaker and I’ve always wanted to speak, but I didn’t know the techniques of debate,” she added. “So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive into those special critiques.
Now that Poret is in the program, nearly every Saturday over the next year, she and her cohort members will meet in a classroom at The Art Institute of Atlanta, where Fleming will pour into them the tenants of critical thinking and debate.
By summer 2020, Fleming is confident this cohort will be just as successful as the first two.
“Each year, we hope that the curriculum becomes more robust and more rigorous,” Fleming said. “We’re hoping that ultimately it will continue to strengthen the academic profiles and college readiness for our students.”
After only about a month of training sessions and a cohort retreat, Poret said she has been impressed with how much she has learned so far.
“So far being in this cohort has been quite eventful,” Poret said. “It’s very uplifting spiritually, physically, and mentally. I am so happy to be here with these brilliant people.”
What Poret said she has learned the most from the training sessions: question everything.
“So far I have learned that I need to take a step back into self-evaluation and figuring out my position in society because my view has been kind of confused so far. And in this program, I’m learning that not everything is what I thought it to be. It’s helping me to realize that I should not take everything at face value and to go deeper in curiosity and questioning in order to get the real answer out of every situation.”
And Fleming doesn’t just have the buy-in from his student participants.
Brandon Walker, the father of one of Poret’s cohort members—Allana Walker—said he appreciates the structure and rigor of the project.
“(Fleming) is passionate about giving these children the opportunity to debate, but the debate is more than just debating,” he said. “He’s also teaching them life skills, skills that they will be able to use beyond just the classroom but in life in general.”
Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project’s Class of 2020: