Kids debate shows candidates what civil discourse looks like

Nonprofit founded by UChicago alumni teaches students essential skills through mock debate

Skye Freeman, 13, is an eighth-grader at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools who wants to be a lawyer when she grows up. She’s already practicing oral arguments.

On Oct. 20, Freeman and six other kids aged 10 to 13 debated each other as presidential candidates with their own platforms in a live Zoom webcast moderated by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.), a University of Chicago Law School alum and former presidential candidate.

The event was organized by Debate it Forward, a nonprofit founded by recent UChicago alumni Leah Shapiro, AB’18, and Josh Aaronson, AB’19. The organization hires and trains college students to teach debate skills to kids aged four to 16, including low income students and students with learning and developmental differences. The teaching, like the debating, now happens virtually.

Several of the students that participated in last week’s event attend Hyde Park area schools including the Laboratory Schools, Bret Harte Elementary and Whitney Young Magnet High School.

“Our students have a lot of really passionate and mature viewpoints that they don’t get to express a lot of the time, so we wanted to create an event that would feature them in a fun, novel way that was true to what we do,” Aaronson said.

The debate showcased some of the core skills the students have learned from participating in Debate it Forward’s curriculum: reasoning, empathy and how to present their own beliefs in a constructive way.

“I was really nervous. But after it was all over, I just felt accomplished,” Freeman said of debating live in front of Sen. Klobuchar and a large audience. To prepare, she wrote down notes on a variety of topics, reviewed them with Debate it Forward coaches and her parents, and practiced in front of the mirror at home. Her Zoom setup included a podium next to the fireplace.

During the debate, students shared their thoughts in some of the big issues facing society today, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, systemic racism and education policy.

“I will confront the COVID-19 pandemic and establish much better ways to address the situation, including making it mandatory for people to wear masks in public settings,” Freeman said in her opening statement. “I want to slow down or even stop the impact of global warming. I believe that if we work together, we can help to improve America. We will truly stand united.”

Policy proposals from the kids were ambitious and wide-ranging on a variety of issues. Khalil Hannah, 11, wanted to support small businesses affected by the pandemic.

“As president of the United States of America, I will provide loan relief to small businesses with delayed repayment for 24 months,” Hannah said. “This will give us time to successfully create and implement an effective vaccine that will allow the economy to get back to some form of normalcy.”

When Freeman asked how he would pay for it, Hannah was ready with a reply: “Along with a lot of my other policies, we can salvage the money from the extra taxes from the super wealthy.”

Climate change received more attention than it has in many of the actual presidential debates, with proposals that included funding for wildfire mitigation, corporate incentives to become greener and a national clean energy buildout.

On one topic, most of the young candidates agreed: The voting age should not be lowered, because kids might be too heavily influenced by their parents. But youth activism should continue to spur change, they said.

Klobuchar, JD’85, was impressed with the debaters.

“This has just been incredible,” she said afterward. “I want to thank you guys. For me, it’s inspiring to see how you have all been able to articulate your positions in a civil way.”

Freeman said she has no plans to run for office at this time. But she has some advice for adults who are worried about having difficult conversations about politics with one another.

“You just need to express your views,” Freeman said. “Because who knows—maybe somebody out there agrees with you, but is too shy to speak up.”