Its debatable…Speak Up!

April 30, 2010

“Great Debate” = Great Success

I am writing about an exciting new speaking opportunity CSU Chico and the Chico City Council has introduced to our community this semester and which it looks like we will be continuing into future semesters.  Designated as the “Great Debate”, this was a one-day event that took place at our City Council Chambers (and two additional meeting rooms in that facility) and involved students from our Small Group, Public Speaking, Argumentation and Debate, Forensics, and some select English classes.  The process actually began before this semester, when we met with the Assistant City Manager for Chico, who was looking for a way to foster more healthy and civil discussions at City Council meetings and other political events in the area.  We discussed controversial issues that would be of interest to the citizens of Chico as well as the students and landed on the Tax, Regulate and Control Act of 2010 – a marijuana legalization initiative that will appear on the California ballot in November.

We had stakeholders from the community come to campus and do presentations and answer interview questions from the English students, who then posted the interviews on a website for review.  We assigned students in select sections of Small Group communication a group presentation representing a specific stakeholder group in the debate – law enforcement, recreational users, medicinal marijuana users, addiction counselors/health care workers, local/county officials, and state legislators.  The presentation was designed to be an informative presentation on the stakeholders position.  Public Speaking students from select sections of the Public Speaking course were assigned a persuasive speech on marijuana legalization – taking either the pro or con stance.  Argumentation and Debate students researched and wrote affirmative and negative cases on adopting the initiative in the State of California.  Finally, two debaters from the Forensics team were assigned to do a demo debate on the issue for the “main event”.  Top performers in each of the classes were invited to present at the City Council offices throughout the day, with webcasting being done for those presenting in the City Council Chambers.

The “main event” consisted of the team debaters from the Forensics team doing a debate on the initiative, followed by a debate between community members who are active in the marijuana legalization debate.  The debate between the two debate team members was amazing – it was a proud moment for me and I think the audience and the community members who had to follow them were extremely impressed.  Footage of them made up the bulk of the local TV coverage at 11 p.m. last night!  The debate between the community members was also impressive – respectful, insightful, educational, and truly representational of what can be done when you get rid of the hostility and partisanship that often is involved in these debates.  The speeches were not designed to be filled with sound bytes, but actually included research, studies, and valuable information for the audience-members.

I’m not sure that anyone’s mind was changed or made-up because of the events that took place in yesterday’s Great Debate, but I can tell you that students were made to feel like what they had to say mattered for something other than a grade.  Community members were made to feel like their opinions were important, but were not the ONLY opinions that mattered.  Faculty were shown that students can do amazing things when empowered and given a forum.  Finally, the community was shown that contentious issues need not be discussed in a contentious way, but instead can be presented in an open forum, with both sides well-represented and articulately explaining their position without ad homs or anger.  I think we all learned a lot from the experience and I look forward to learning more each semester from this program.

Here are some additional links to coverage of the event:

TV coverage of daytime student presentations

Newspaper coverage of evening events

I encourage all of you to explore ways to reach out to your community if you are not already doing so.  I was shocked to hear from one of the initiative’s spokespersons that this was the FIRST forum of its kind on this initiative!  This initiative has received nationwide attention and has been in the media for months.  I can’t imagine this being the first forum that involved both sides in a format that allowed both sides to present their concerns and their hopes and their fears.  What better way to foster good decision-making in a democracy?  If you are in California and would like to put a similar program together in your area, I know the initiative representatives are interested and I bet you can find some community members who are also interested.  Its a great way to have your students see the value of debate and public speaking in the public arena and I really can’t say enough good things about our experience!

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1 Comment »

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