When Jerjuan Howard was a sophomore at Renaissance High School a decade ago, he wasn’t the most outgoing or confident person.
But that year, teacher Pamela Norris’ debate class pushed him out of his shell and made an impact in his life for the rest of high school and beyond.
Howard said he learned how to find his voice and to think critically. After high school, he joined the U.S. Army and became responsible for leading 150 soldiers while at a military base in Georgia. Later, while attending Western Michigan University, he was president of the Black Student Union, which addresses the needs and concerns of Black people on campus.
The 25-year-old Detroiter credits all of those experiences to his debate class.
“Debate has been the foundation for a lot of things that I’m doing now and throughout my life up to this point in regards to leadership,” Howard told BridgeDetroit. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow, I really can speak and articulate myself in a manner in which I can be persuasive.’ I don’t think there’s any other activity for our youth that does that. It works wonders when taken seriously and taught the right way.”
Now, Howard wants to pass down the leadership and public speaking skills he’s learned to the next generation.
Last year, he founded the nonprofit Umoja Debate Team, which teaches youth critical thinking, self reflection and conflict resolution skills through debate. Umoja, (which means “unity” in Swahili), held a summer camp last year for 15 children and teens at the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library. This year, Howard will expand the camp, thanks to a partnership with the University of Detroit Mercy Law School.
The free camp will kick off June 21, meeting on Mondays and Wednesdays at Detroit Mercy’s Law School Riverfront Campus downtown. Other new features include extending the camp from six to eight weeks, allowing up to 50 youth to participate, mentorship from college interns and community engagement at the organization’s outdoor space Umoja Village, 15876 Stansbury.
Metro Detroit youth ages 11-14 are eligible to attend. Spots will be filled on a first-come basis. Registration information can be found at umojadebateteam.org. The deadline is June 9.
Umoja was originally looking to host the camp at Detroit Mercy’s main campus, but all of the classrooms were filled for summer classes and programming, Howard said. But after a meeting with Courtney Griffin, the assistant dean for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging for Detroit Mercy Law, the college decided to host the organization at its Riverfront Campus.
Norris, who taught language arts at Renaissance from 2003 until she retired from the Detroit Public Schools Community District in 2015, said she’s proud of her former student. When she reconnected with Howard last week for a phone call, tears were flowing, she said. It was the first time they’ve been in contact in almost two years.
“For him to open up a whole new avenue with the middle schoolers, that’s what’s needed,” said Norris, who now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. “A lot of times, school districts don’t understand the importance of debate. They should elevate debate in the same manner they do football and basketball. They could get just as much excitement from students.”
Norris remembered Howard being “good at everything” in her class and he eventually became one of the judges for classroom debates.
“I would say that he was not introverted, he was going to tell his opinion,” she said. “But once he became a judge, he was very much in control. He understood his responsibility.”
Learning skills in and outside the classroom
When it comes to camp programming this summer, Howard wants to help kids improve their speech and rhetorical skills, but he doesn’t want that to be the only focus.
One project students will work on is analyzing the ZIP codes that they live in, coming up with an action plan to solve issues in their neighborhoods and giving a speech about it, Howard said.
On Fridays, participants will head to Umoja Village on Detroit’s west side for outdoor activities. Howard said he and his staff members are still figuring out what projects the kids will work on, but they likely will center on community gardening and the environment.
“Last year, it was mostly all debate in our first summer program, so this year we definitely want to be more well-rounded and bring some other people in who have different expertise,” he said.
One participant who will be back this year is Michael Burley. The 11-year-old, who is a sixth grader at University Middle School in Lathrup Village, said last summer’s camp taught him research skills, how to project his voice and how to maintain eye contact when he’s debating.
Michael’s mother, Myka Burley, thought her son would benefit from the camp because he’s an analytical and detail-oriented person and she said debate could help him apply those skills in a healthy way.
“A lot of times, when you get people who challenge other people’s perspectives, especially for kids, it can be seen as defiant,” she said. “Sometimes it is, but more often than not, it’s just analyzing and being thoughtful. I wanted Michael to feel that there’s a safe place to do that and to also learn strategies of how to communicate the opposing perspective in a healthy and constructive way.”
Michael said he’s learned new researching skills and he can apply them in school.
“And I know how to talk to people and explain to them why they’re wrong in a respectful way,” he added.