This is the first of a series of testimonials that SPEAK will be releasing from former instructors and students. We’re very excited to feature our first alumni, Franny Solnick. Franny joined the SPEAK team in 2015 and has moved on to teach debate at Beihang University in Beijing, China. Reflecting on why she joined the program in the first place, Franny remembered hearing about the program from some of her classmates.
“I was unfortunately not able to join [SPEAK] at the start because I was studying abroad, but I was really impressed to hear that the program had started and was met with excitement from both the inmates and founding members of SPEAK.”
Franny was accepted to the program as an assistant instructor, and helped teach sessions at the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center and the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility on a rotating basis with other instructors. Franny’s experience as a veteran debater for the University of Vermont’s Lawrence Debate Union gave her a unique skillset to bring to the classroom. She could use her knowledge of arguments and persuasion to contribute to a learning-first classroom environment, ensuring that people always felt as though they could safely challenge themselves at SPEAK.
“One of my strongest memories from my time with SPEAK was when, after a couple sessions, we started to ask the inmates to contribute their ideas for the class’s final debate topic, she remembers. “It was really moving to see so many of the women sharing their ideas, particularly their ideas for topics that drew from their own personal lives and situation. Everyone was so confident in arguing why their topic should be set for the final debate, and there was so much mutual respect as well. It really made me proud to be involved in an activity that helped encourage the open discussion of personal and potentially controversial topics.”
To Franny, SPEAK’s work has particular significance given some of the social issues that our society faces today.
“Given that the way that society treats incarcerated people, and especially women, is often overlooked or unjustified, and that there is little effort to listen to the people in the system and to attempt to respond to their concerns or ideas, SPEAK is important because it gives the inmates a way to express themselves in a constructive manner. I also think that it gives them the confidence and skills that will help them to advocate for themselves and to succeed after their time in the correctional center… SPEAK is a program that promotes the idea that intensive intellectual discussions on controversial topics can be accessed by anyone, incarcerated or otherwise.”
Today, Franny spends her time at Beihang University teaching history classes, public speaking, and political rhetoric, all while coaching the debate team. She enjoys travelling to debate tournaments throughout Asia. We asked Franny to talk a bit about how working with SPEAK helped to prepare her for what she’s doing now:
“Volunteering with SPEAK gave me numerous skills that I use every day in my current position. As a lecturer at a university, I have to rely on my prepared material and my ability to control a classroom. These are skills that were integral to SPEAK, because as a group we had to be prepared, [make sure we] were contributing to researching topics, and we had to be able to control a classroom where the mood could change or become challenging. As a debate coach, I also rely on my time with SPEAK and the practice I had in breaking down complicated topics and aspects of debating so they are understandable to beginners. I also think that SPEAK helped show me how to handle controversial topics or opinions, because while they are a vital aspect to debating, it is important to create a space where debaters and students feel comfortable discussing ideas and personal stories without the fear of retaliation or confrontation from other students. After assisting with many SPEAK sessions, I was able to feel confident in leading a discussion with a group of students that may touch on sensitive issues or that may require people to set aside their personal ideas to talk about a topic in a holistic way.”
“I am very proud to be associated with SPEAK and its teachers, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to use some of my experiences in debating to benefit people in society who have often been systemically underprivileged. The ongoing success of SPEAK, and the important topics it has continued to highlight, shows how valuable it is to include all people in debates.”
We are so lucky to have had Franny as an instructor in our program, and cannot wait to see where she goes from here. Many thanks to Franny for sharing her thoughts and stories with us, and best of luck in your next adventure!