If you had paused outside the board room at Joy Drive one afternoon last October you would have overheard a heated discussion about the pros and cons of human cloning. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a meeting of the program committee talking about possible program expansions at Lund, it was the culminating class of the SPEAK program.
SPEAK Inc. is a small 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to promoting debate, public speaking and advocacy and provides educational programs that use debate as a tool to improve the participants’ professional and public speaking skills. Started as student group at the Vermont Law School, it expanded through a partnership with the University of Vermont and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and is now an independent organization staffed by volunteers from both of the aforementioned educational institutions.
Debate is not something that most of the students in Lund’s New Horizons Education Program or our residential treatment facility usually have much experience with. Some may have heard of it in high school but for most it is an entirely new activity. Many of the participants in the 10 week class, facilitated by Jessica Bullock and Charlotte Gliserman from SPEAK and NHEP teacher Mary Farnsworth, started out questioning why debate was something that would be relevant or useful in their lives.
As the weeks went on, however, it became clear that the skills that the students were learning in the SPEAK sessions were having a positive effect on their work in other classes. “I’ve seen aspects of what they learned come into recent assignments in English class. In writing persuasive essays I’ve seen them consider and address counter points to their thesis; basically, practicing delineating arguments, a skill they first learned in SPEAK,” says Mary.
The 10 week session broke down each of the elements needed in a debate – the topic to be debated, the proposition, the opposition and public speaking skills. Jessica was accompanied by debaters from the UVM Lawrence Debate Society who gave demonstrations of ideas and skills each week and helped the women work on their own contributions to the debate. Jessica began each class going over the group norms and establishing a safe and supportive space for the women to practice their new skills. Students were frequently provided with constructive feedback and Jessica was very careful to ensure a positive and respectful atmosphere. The one baby who regularly attended the class was celebrated for his contribution and towards the end there was sometimes a little competition about whose turn it was to hold him and be rewarded with his enormous toothless smiles.
“Working with the women at Lund was an absolute pleasure. The participants were engaged in each session, and quickly developed into formidable debaters. Their final presentations were passionate and full of well-researched argumentation. We look forward to returning for a second SPEAK program with the Lund debaters in the future,” said Jessica.
Many of the women who come to Lund’s programs have been told that their voices do not matter and that they do not have a say in the things that happen to them or to their children. The stigma that society attaches to addiction, teenage pregnancy, poverty, incomplete education, mental illness or simply being a woman lays a stifling and silencing weight. The Speak program at Lund not only allowed a forum where their voices would be heard, respected and celebrated but also taught the skills and provided the tools that would help these women reclaim their voices and ensure that they could be heard.
The culmination of the session was the debate on human cloning – a weighty and scientifically complex issue. The arguments brought forth by debaters on both sides of the issue were cogent, articulate and heartfelt. An observer to the class commented that she could not tell who was a debater from Lund and who was an experienced hand from the UVM Lawrence Debate Society!
“I would also say that for some participants, it was a huge confidence boost,” says Mary. “They were able to express in the moment and afterwards how smart and empowered they felt in the moment of the final debate. One commented to me that during speak (and the final debate in particular) she had never felt more listened to,” said Mary.
Thank you to SPEAK and to the UVM Lawrence Debate Society. We look forward to welcoming you back soon.