The Evidence is Affirming: 5 Ways Debates are Creating a New Era of Thought Leaders


( ENSPIRE Community Spotlight ) This Year Chicago Debates is Celebrating a Milestone Anniversary of 25 Years

ENSPIRE Contributor: Alexandra Rivera 

As the school year is starting again, it is the perfect time for students and parents to look for extracurricular activities. Chicago Debates is giving students an extracurricular outside children’s go-to, sports.  

Business and civic leaders who were passionate about bringing the benefits of debate into Chicago’s Public Schools founded Chicago Debates, formed in 1995. The group went from partnering with five schools to over 85, including middle and high schools. Together they have served 20,000 children and teens. Chicago Debates is the largest policy debate forum in the nation. 

Photo of Logo from Chicago Debates

Youth Debate supports students as they find their place in civic engagement and citizenship. Youth debates create the leaders of tomorrow. 

Debate is a vehicle for development, education, and empowerment. It is designed to drive the next generation of leaders with Academic Achievement, Social/Emotional Skills, Career, Leadership, and Life Skills, Confidence in Advocating for Self and Others, and Defeating Stereotypes and Negative Imaging.

Dr. Toinette Gunn, the Executive Director of Chicago Debates, wants to share the many ways debate has created leaders and will continue to. She joined the group in August 2018 after leaving Programs for Chicago Scholars, where she served as the Vice President. 

Dr. Gunn was a first-generation college student whose life was shaped by her education. She firmly believes in the power that education holds in breaking down the negative inter-generational cycles. 

Photo From Chicago Debates

ENSPIRE recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Gunn on ways to get involved with Chicago Debates and other endeavors.

Have you seen a growth in interest in debate since you joined the group in 2018?

Since 2018, we’ve expanded the program to serve nearly 1,800 students in a year—the most in our 25-year history. During the height of Covid, we experienced decreased participation in debate, but that wasn’t always because of a lack of interest. As we look to return to in-person debate this year, interest has been overwhelming. With 82 schools (10 new) already signed up, we’re well on our way to serving 1,500 students across 90+ schools this year. 

How do you try to instill empowerment and leadership through debate? 

Empowerment and leadership skills are key components of what debate cultivates. Debate encourages students’ school, civic, and social engagement and helps to improve GPAs and standardized test scores. Rather than imparting knowledge through lectures, our debate coaches engage students through learning games and debate exercises. Coaches direct students in research activities, while students collaborate to build their knowledge of debate subtopics. Our highly engaged high school students spend an average of 400 hours per year on the debate. This time commitment, along with the academic rigor of debate training, is uniquely effective in improving student outcomes.

Overall, debate cultivates critical academic, social/emotional, career, leadership, and life skills, such as critical thinking, research, data synthesis, writing, empathy, listening, communication, relationship building, collaboration and teamwork, creativity, self-confidence, advocacy, civic engagement, and community awareness. All of this empowers students to seek excellence and prepares them to lead in whatever fields they choose, long after they complete their education.

Debate may not fix all the world’s problems, but it can shape the next generation of leaders who will. We exist to ensure that the next generation includes some of Chicago’s most marginalized youth.

How can interested youth and their parents find out more information about joining Chicago Debates?  

Students and parents can get more information by visiting Students should also check to see if their school offers debate. If there isn’t already a team, they should contact us to discuss how to start one at their school. Additionally, we rely on a large network of volunteers—college students, debate alumni, professionals in the community, parents, and teachers—to ensure that we are able to host 40+ debate tournaments each year. 

Photo from Instagram

What is the “Make Room for Debate” Gala? 

This year, along with presenting sponsor The Bascom Group, Chicago Debates is celebrating 25 years of bridging the educational opportunity gap for Chicago Public School students by helping them find their voice, succeed in college and career, and become leaders in their communities. As the largest urban policy debate league in the country—serving 1,500 students annually across 80+ Chicago Public Schools—we will honor 25 of the most influential people in our 25-year history at our Make Room for Debate Gala on October 27, 2022. NBC personality Leann Trotter will emcee the in-person celebration, and over 30 sponsors will join us for this memorable event. For those interested in becoming sponsors, please visit

How can businesses and individuals support the organization’s upcoming “Make Room for Debate” 25th Anniversary Gala in October? 

We are welcoming businesses to actively support our debaters by joining our mission as sponsors of our 25th Anniversary Gala, which is open to the community. Individual tickets can be purchased on our website. In addition, the gala event will include a silent auction. We would love for local businesses and organizations to donate items for the auction, such as tickets to sporting events or entertainment venues, autographed memorabilia, vacation rentals, luxury items, etc. To donate auction items, businesses can contact Director of Development Marissa Barnes at

Dr. Gunn is committed to instilling power and leadership in the next generation of children across Chicago through debate. Debate can help improve GPAs and standardized test scores, and teach children how to use their voices. The gala will be held at Hilton Chicago on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m.

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