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SPEAK Volunteers Invited to Debate the Bard Prison Initiative Debate Team

In addition to our weekly sessions at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, several UVM debaters recently experienced a once-in-a-lifetime debate opportunity. On December 8th, Justin Morgan-Parmett, Co-Director of the Lawrence Debate Union and SPEAK consultant brought two SPEAK volunteers, Ariel Schuck and Maggie Pierce, to join Lawrence Debate Union member Rachel Kussick in competing against debaters from the Bard Prison Initiative at the Eastern New York Correctional Facility.

Undergraduate students founded the Bard Prison Initiative (BPI) in 1999 to provide educational opportunities for incarcerated folks in New York facilities. BPI's Debate Union started in 2014 as an extension of the program. Since its conception, BPI’s Debate Union debated against a series of accomplished collegiate debate teams, including West Point, Morehouse, Harvard, and Cambridge. BPI’s track record is strong, with 12 wins to 4 losses since its first debate. This year marks the second time UVM competed in the program’s 11-year period, with SPEAK board member, Luke Dodge competing the first time.

This year's motion read: The United States should adopt a Universal Basic Income. UVM opted to affirm the motion, and our debaters spent weeks constructing cases and responses in preparation for the event. In addition to exploring the topic, UVM’s debaters learned a new debate structure, the World Schools format.

The experience itself was unlike any other. We rarely debate in front of an audience or outside of college campuses. Incarcerated folks filled in the audience and watched the entirety of the event. BPI’s debaters provided strong argumentation and rhetorical excellence and, ultimately, judges decided Bard's teams defeated UVM's.

All UVM debaters agreed: participating in BPI is one of, if not the most eye-opening and rewarding debate experience. Maggie remarked, “After the debate, we got to chat with our competitors and the rest of their team. I love debate so much, but I can’t remember the last time I felt that same love in such a large group of people. Getting to shake their hands and talk to them – there’s nothing like that.”

Students also received feedback from their debaters about the best part of BPI’s debate program, and they are excited to implement similar strategies and approaches to their time at CRCF.

Justin, Ariel, Maggie, and Rachel would like to thank the folks at BPI for coordinating and inviting them to such an occasion. They also thank the judges, coaches, and supporters who made said vision happen. They are most grateful to the BPI debaters for welcoming us and giving a debate they will never forget.

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