Baltimore Students Redefine the Rules of Debate

Baltimoreans Dayvon Love and Deven Cooper made history this year as the first African Americans to win a national debate championship. Love and Cooper explain how they won the debate by not following the rules.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we've been talking today a lot about Baltimore's past. Now, we'd like to talk to two young men who may help to shape a brighter future for the city. Deven Cooper and Dayvon Love are the first two African-Americans to become national college debate champions. Both grew up in Baltimore and attended Baltimore city schools. They're both here in the studio today to talk about their city and their path to the championship. Welcome, thank you for coming. Congratulations.

Mr. DEVEN COOPER (National College Debate Champion): Thank you.

Mr. DAYVON LOVE (National College Debate Champion): Hi, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Before we talk about your big event, I'd like to ask you about the '68 riots. Obviously, you were both too young to have lived through this, but I'd like to know what you heard about it, Dayvon?

Mr. LOVE: Yeah, I know - my father would tell me stories because my father was eight years old when Dr. King died, and so he would tell me stories about how when he went to school, there were people on top of buildings, or you know, soldiers I guess on top of buildings or officers with guns. He said it was just a really crazy time period. So that's, you know, the oral history that I have growing up.

MARTIN: Deven, what about you?

Mr. COOPER: For the most part, my grandmother and my mother talked about it a lot, and my grandmother actually took her children and started home schooling them instead of sending them to school, so it could be a safer environment for them because she had about seven kids. So at that time, my mother was 12, and my grandmother had two other kids. So that's what she started to do to try to protect them.

MARTIN: Does this come up at all in your - I mean obviously, you know, who would sit around sort of talking about 1968? But I wondered, does this history affect you in any way that you are aware of, Dayvon?

Mr. LOVE: I mean, I think it probably should come up more than it does. I mean, being a former Baltimore public city alum, I think that it should probably come up more, so we can kind of understand how the city got to the condition that it's in. But I mean, it's come up here and there, you know, throughout school, throughout my high school career, but...

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about you now. You're at Towson State. You're both at Towson State. You're members of the debate team. How did you get into debating, Dayvon?

Mr. LOVE: It was actually just kind of a weird accident, almost. You know, I was at Forest Park, and there was a friend of mine who kept trying to get me to join the debate team, and I kept saying no. I didn't want to. I didn't think I'd be good at it. And one day it was cold outside, and I wanted a reason to get in the building early in the morning because they had practice at seven in the morning. And so I went up, and I met Andreas Spiliadis who was the coach at the time at Forest Park. And then from then on, I just kept coming and you know, thought it was fun.

MARTIN: Just because you wanted to get out of the cold?

Mr. LOVE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Deven, what about you?

Mr. COOPER: For me, I went to Lake Clifton, and I was in the Larval Aid Education Program. And a woman came up to me one day named Patricia Hamilton. She' s like, you know, you should join the debate team, and we have this free trip to go to Atlanta. So I was like, OK. So went to debate camp at Emery University and it was fun. It was two weeks long, and that was the first time I had ever - I had gone to Atlanta. And from that, I just sprung. Yeah, because at the tournament at the end, I won five out of the six rounds, so I was just like, oh, OK, I can do this. This is fun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: OK, evidently you can! What was your winning argument? What was the proposition that you were debating?

Mr. COOPER: So generally, there's a college topic that's given throughout the entire year, and this year is United States' constructive engagement with Iran, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority and Afghanistan. But what Dayvon and I decided to do was talk about the practices of the debate community and how it purveys the kind of racial inequalities that continue to exist today in society. And so we'd talk about the specific ways in which the academy oftentimes either is complicit with or perpetuates those inequalities.

And we also talk about the ways in which that can relate to some of the problems that go on in those particular countries, but our argument is that we have to change this particular activity of the debate community first before we can effectively have policy discussions about, you know, United States' constructive engagement.

MARTIN: So, Deven, one might argue that you were off topic with this?

Mr. COOPER: Yeah, we were, completely.

MARTIN: You were! Why do you think they went for it?

Mr. COOPER: Well, basically because our arguments are true. Like, we're not just like making up some random argument about, you know, just falsified claims, because it's basically proven stuff about white privilege and the way it functions and manifests itself in the visible ways. And you know, a lot of times people don't want to confront those issues, and I mean a lot of people were - met us with shock in a sense.

But there have been teams that use arguments talking about, you know, white privilege and how it functions in a debate community, like Louisville, because my first two years of college, I went to the University of Louisville. And I transferred to Towson, I still wanted to debate in that style. And I felt that, you know, there was still a voice needed to talk about those issues because they wouldn't have been talked about for the most part if no one else did, because Louisville changed their argument to something totally different. And I still thought that was a gap, and there's a problem there, so...

MARTIN: Can you - I know the debate encompasses many minutes and is quite complex, but I just wondered if you could just offer a couple of your key points, particular ones you thought were perhaps most persuasive?

Mr. LOVE: So one thing that we talk about is - so in debate, when we discuss policies, one of the things that's often encouraged is that you kind of divorce yourself, your own personal agency, from the policies that we discuss. And one of the things that we argue is that that divorcing of your own personal conviction in relation to policy is problematic because it causes us not to recognize the ways in which those policies affect people personally.

And so our argument - and if you look at society and look at the ways in which racism continues to purvey itself, it has you know, effects - psychological effects on people of color. It has economic effects. And a lot of times when we divorce ourselves from that political - from that relationship to policy, then we end up making policies without taking any consideration of their people who are affected as a result of those policies.

So that's one particular thing that we talk about because that's a very prevalent practice in the debate community, is that you're required to divorce yourself and be completely, you know, objective in evaluating policy. And our argument is that, you know, as individuals that have agency, that have political agency, we have to insert ourselves in evaluating policy or it creates, you know, policies that don't see the humanity in individuals and how they exist as necessary.

MARTIN: OK, I can see that. But I could also make you an argument that if you have no ability to divorce yourself from your own reality, there can be no connection. I mean, from the standpoint of a white person, for example, they need to get out of their own reality in order to connect with you, right? So isn't the favor to be returned?

Mr. LOVE: Well, I think that white folks have the responsibility of understanding their own relationship to those policies, as well. And so, even if they don't have, or see themselves as having, a relationship to those policies from a perspective, you know, in regards to racism and white supremacy, our argument is that there's a unique and specific role that white folks have to play in that process.

And so, you know, even though they may not have or see themselves having a clear position in that fight, I think it's important for us, as all of as Americans, to be able to position ourselves in ways that can advance the cause for everybody.

MARTIN: Deven, I understand that you also had some stylistic innovations. That you introduced hip-hop into the presentation?

Mr. COOPER: Oh, yes, and sometimes our own type of poetry. Because another one of our arguments is that, you know, debate just uses people from academia like traditional authors. And like Dayvon said, it divorces ourselves from personal experiences. So we incorporate, like, hip-hop, poetry, and our personal experiences in how we relate to the argument because why do we always have to, you know, differ to people who write books when we have personal experience with some of those things ourselves?

And it's just like that robs us of who we are because we're just reading cards that never really address our social location, but only in like superficial ways that they probably never lived under.

MARTIN: The head of the Baltimore Urban Debate League called your win a momentous day for the city. Did it feel like that?

Mr. LOVE: It was wild. I mean, we didn't think we'd win the entire tournament and most people didn't think we would.

MARTIN: You just thought you were making a statement? You just wanted to say your piece, whether you won or not?

Mr. LOVE: Yeah, I mean we knew we would get to elimination rounds, and I was thinking maybe quarter or semis, you know, but not, you know, the win the whole thing.

MARTIN: The big megillah - the whole thing. So how does it feel?

Mr. LOVE: I mean, it still hasn't - I mean, it's hit me a little bit more now. But you know, and actually if you look at some of the - like the blogs, there's thing called cross-x.com where like a lot of high school debaters go and they, you know, check up on, you know, college teams that they are, you know, keeping up with. And you can see as the time has gone on, it's like, how is Towson doing? You know, how did they get to the quarters? How did they get to the semis? How'd they get - you know, and it's interesting because our argument in the debate community can be frowned upon.

MARTIN: OK, very exciting. So what's next for each of you? Dayvon, what's next? Law school, right?

Mr. LOVE: I mean, I don't know. I haven't decided about what I want to do after undergrads.

MARTIN: But it involves talking, I bet.

Mr. LOVE: Yeah.

MARTIN: OK. Deven, what about you? What's next for you?

Mr. COOPER: For me, once I graduate from Towson next year, I'm going to go to grad school either at University of Louisville again, or at California State Fullerton or Long Beach.

MARTIN: Dayvon Love and Deven Cooper are champion debaters. They won the Cross Examination Debate Association's five-day tournament in Wichita, Kansas. They made history by being the first African-Americans to do so. They were kind enough to join me here in our Washington studios. I should also mention they are Baltimore natives and attended Baltimore city schools. Thank you both so much, and good luck.

Mr. COOPER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. We'd like to welcome our new station in Rhode Island, WRNI. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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