6th Annual Harris-Ornstein Summer Debate Institute is a huge success, online!


The 6th Annual Ornstein Summer Debate Institute is in the books, the trophies are being handed out, and students are excited for the coming school year, despite the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This was almost the largest, and definitely the hardest program we've ever pulled off, and I must give a huge shout out to Program Coordinator/2020 Camp Director Dara Davis for coordinating this year's program in the face of a pandemic, a new medium.

By the numbers:

  • 152 Students

  • 51 Schools Represented

  • 33 Staff Members

  • 17 States Represented

  • 18 Guest Speakers

  • 16 Labs

  • 3 Weeks

  • 1 tired but proud staff!

From Program Coordinator and 2020 Camp Director Dara Davis:

These are extremely difficult times for a number of reasons, and when we were thinking about switching to an online version of our camp, we were concerned that we were putting too much pressure on our students and families. After reflecting on our camp, we have come to realize that hosting our camp was exactly what our students needed. That’s not to say that camp was perfect but for a few weeks our students had a familiar space, where they could discuss the issues currently impacting their lives. For two weeks, they had access to new peers, instructors, and guest speakers who helped grow their understanding of the world.

In order to prepare for camp, we felt it was important to provide all of our students with the supplies they needed to participate. So we did the unthinkable, we hand delivered over 160 swag packs filled with headphones, core files, notebooks, pens, and our supercool camp shirt. Though it was a lot of work on our end, the outcome was amazing. (Shout out to our amazing volunteers for helping deliver these!) Our students were so excited to receive their swag pack and even more excited for camp to start.

This season’s topic is Criminal Justice Reform within the United States; and this topic is not only special because of its timeliness but because it is the first topic in Policy Debate history to ever be written by a Black person, Colton Gilbert, the debate coach at Little Rock Central. Colton is a returning staff this summer, so our students were able to listen and engage with the introduction to the topic from the person who actually wrote it! If you would like to hear that lecture yourself, you can find it here.

One of the highlights from our camp this summer was the line up of guest speakers.

  • Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea, and their daughter Yolanda kicked us off, speaking about the importance of our individual responsibility to make the world a better place.

  • Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico talked about Indigenious law within the United States and the relationship between Tribes and the Federal Government.

  • Our students practiced interpreting evidence used to falsely convict a man of murder with Sean Arthurs from The Innonence Project.

  • John Malcolm of the Heritage Foundation, who helped write the First Step Act, told us what had happened recently in Criminal Justice Reform.

  • Southern District of New York Circuit Judge Ken Karas discussed Federalism and the unique interplay between state, local, and federal agencies on criminal justice issues.

  • Janeese Lewis George, Councilwoman Elect for Ward 4 here in D.C. closed out the camp tournament by sharing the local context of Criminal Justice Reform efforts and with a powerful call to action......And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Online camp is so different from in person but our students were still able to learn, make new friends, and overall just have a good time. If our regular season is anything like camp, we really want to encourage you to take the time to attend a tournament because our students are so smart and so passionate and it’s truly amazing to see how they are adapting and growing during these times.

From a first time debate parent of a middle schooler and a high schooler:

"My kids were definitely not thrilled that I made them do this.....and once the camp started, they would not let me listen in or watch from afar.....but I can tell that they were super-engaged and learned a ton, and even they admit (with alot of hemming and hawing) that they are glad that I made them participate. I am stunned at how well the camp was organized, and even worked great in a virtual format -- I can only imagine how much work y'all had to pour into this camp to put on such an amazing program and during a pandemic no less. I am grateful not only that my kids had this experience, but that I got a solid two weeks of uninterrupted work done. THANK YOU!!!!"

From a second year debate parent:

"We wanted to take a few moments to thank you all for the excellent work that and your staff did over the last two weeks. (My son) learned a great deal, and he will be sure to use what he learned during his senior year of high school, in college and beyond. I have to say, when we signed him up for your program, we expected good things-but what we got truly exceeded our expectations. We are extremely grateful for the work you are doing to engage and develop young minds. I cannot overstate the magnanimous nature of the Ornsteins. Please share our message of gratitude with them as well."

I will conclude with a huge shout out to our staff this year. Not only was it much larger than normal, but folks not only adapted to the online medium, but thrived, creating engaging, interactive opportunities for folks, shared their experiences and knowledge, and built strong relationships with our students that will last well past the summer program.

Parents and Students: Look for a note from your school's coach, the regular season is about to begin!

Volunteers: Keep an eye out for emails about coaching and judging opportunities, the first tournament of the season is the University of Kentucky on Oct. 3rd - 5th, 2020!

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