For the first time, a black female duo has won the Harvard International Debate Competition.

Emani Stanton, 17 and Jayla Jackson, 15 went undefeated at this year’s competition. They were one of nine teams representing the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project (HDCDP). 

This is the fourth straight year that an HDCDP team has won the championship. Their winning debate topic was on NATO increasing commitments in the Baltic States.

Jackson and Stanton prepared for both sides of the debate which they said helped them solidify their arguments over the four days of competition.

“Teams would try to poke holes— so we would know where the holes would be,” Jackson said.

Their argument in the affirmative was that an increased NATO presence would help facilitate the Baltic States getting off the Russian power grid. NATO also helps to fight sex trafficking which is a major issue in the Baltics.

In the negative, they argued that an increase in troops is linked to an increase in sexual violence. Troops tend to engage in prostitution which is linked to sex trafficking, the issue they are supposed to be helping to fight.

Both girls joined the Harvard Diversity Project in August of 2020 after going through the program’s extensive application process.

Stanton said she was introduced by an alum of the program but she initially did not want to join because she had a habit of arguing in school and getting in trouble.

Jackson wanted to join because of Brandon Fleming, the founder and CEO of the HDCDP. Fleming was her fifth-grade teacher at Ron Clark Academy before he left to found the program.

Students in the HDCDP program receive extensive training in how to make good arguments; they also study philosophy and economics to bolster their debates.

Both Jackson and Stanton agreed that debating on a team of two was much better than debating alone (or as they called it going maverick).

Jackson said she loved having a partner who balanced her out.

“I’m very creative, abstract. I guess you would say I bring the pathos,” Jackson said.

“Combining abilities makes both of us better,” Stanton added. “You have not just an extra mind but an extra heart.”

Stanton, a senior at North Atlanta High School, is looking ahead to college next year where she wants to study bioengineering and computer science.

“I want to be able to merge scholarship and culture for people like us,” she said.

She is applying to multiple colleges but she said her top three are Howard, Harvard and Stanford.

Jackson is in her junior year at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. She said she wants to continue to work towards increasing the representation of educated black youth.

She co-hosts The Scholar Social, a podcast she described as bridging the gap between intellectual and teen life.

Throughout the competition, both girls said they had a lot of backing from their community. Stanton said her guidance counselor Ms. Williams was texting her and encouraging her. Jackson’s mother was following the competition online and encouraged them throughout their undefeated run.

“We always said it’s not a burden but a blessing, it was given to us because we can handle it,” said Jackson.

By allowing the community around them to pour into them, Stanton said it shifted their motivations and passions to be bigger than themselves.


Support for this article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.

Emani Stanton and Jayla Jackson, 2021 Champions of the Harvard International Debate Competition. (Photo Courtesy of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project)