[eDebate] Policy wonks, personhood, and problem solving

Ede Warner ewarner
Sat Nov 17 07:36:51 CST 2007

Dear members of the NDT/CEDA debate community,
Hey, just wanted to say kudos to the CEDA leadership for the courage to make a historical and important decision yesterday.  I was proud to be there for the vote.  Second, thanks to all of those engaging in the dialogic process, either publicly or backchannel over the years as we've tried to find answers to some difficult questions.  Finding solutions to difficult questions is not easy, nor always fun, but it is possible and debate is living proof of that.  The dialogue step is critical before determining effective policy solutions which is where I will spend my energy next.  I have always told my students, "don't bring me a problem without a solution", and I've spent the last couple of weeks; no wait, years; no, maybe that's decades, trying to solve some problems without any real understanding of a solution.  That has made life difficult for "us" and I want to thank you for your patience while we tried to sort it all out.  I want to personally thank those for engaging me, especially when sometimes things got heated and personal: regardless of our perspectives: especially Josh Hoe, Duane Hyland, Scott Elliott, Sherry Hall, Jeff Parcher, Joe Bellon, Joe Zompetti, and Kade Olsen just to name a few.  We fought about difference, sometimes respectfully, sometimes not: but we kept talking and participating and at the end of the day, what makes debate transformative is if we can turn those fights into a productive, societal good.  Personally, I see a vision of the world where now, more than ever, we can.  
Anyway, I'm going to fold in all of the separate discussions in a final post before I go back into the laboratory loosely called my mind and attempt to generate a first draft of a treatise for the future of policy debate.  In looking for the ultimate compromise that can refocus our activity in a way that is meaningful and purposeful for everyone, despite our differences.  When I complete this document, I'm going to send it to a bunch of people that I debated, was judged by or coached by as a policy debater, to gather their thoughts.  I trust them.  I trust that they will be able to remember who I am, more than who many today think I am based on what we have chosen to do for the last seven years.  I also believe that they are the most qualified to think about this issue: many have left the "game" of debate for the political real world, trying to make decisions and arguments to create political change in a multi-cultural world.  I think the one place that we all can agree, is that the connection between the two worlds is important and can and should be examined to make sure we are doing the best for all of our students.  If I can produce a document they can get behind, then I will bring it to you.  I will also talk with my mentors and colleagues about implementation strategies if they think the ideas are worthy.  If not, I'll go back to the drawing board until I can find a compromise.  I know it can be done, I saw it yesterday at the Executive Council meeting, which produced a major policy change that will have a positive effect on addressing regionalization in debate in significant and important ways.  The decision to have conferences will create the possibility for having both safe spaces: whether safe means geographically friendly, resource friendly, ideologically friendly, or some combination of them all.  Anyway, here it goes.  If you've read this far, you know I won't be brief, so I won't pretend it will be.  This is a narrative about the evolution of 10 Black policy wonks (aka debaters), in an attempt to humanize the discussions I'm having with Josh and Duane in particular, but also with all of the others.
Chapter 1 - Malcolm X and Thurgood Marshall and Shirley Chisholm.
These are Black policy wonks.  Their policy wonk careers occurred at a time where they were systematically excluded from the policy wonk table, but occasionally they had the opportunity to engage the rest of the policy wonks, but had to engage on someelse's time and schedule.  Thurgood and Shirley debated against other Black policy wonks, in the separate UDL called the HBCU.  Their training had a clear purpose: preparation for leadership in the Black humanization project.  Their preparation in those separate UDL's of that time produced leaders who thrived in integrated America when that opportunity came, they were prepared to fight for Black rights.  Marshall in particular, was able to broaden his fight in the courtroom discussing benefits for everyone (fairness and justice similar to MLK), with solutions that uniquely benefited minorities.  Shirley did the same in the walls of Congress.
Malcolm's career was a little different, but at the end, his use of debate was more directly tied to a clear purpose that I think embodies the same benefits that Thurgood and Shirley used.  Debate gave them all the chance to fight for what they believed, it gave them a chance to disprove stereotypes of inferiority through direct interaction, but just as important, it gave them a chance to publicly raise the self esteem of others like them, beaten down by an institution system that enforced their inferiority, by not treating everyone the same.
During the Bay of Pigs in the early sixties--where Janis talks about the theory of "groupthink", in particular a group of like minded, similar policy wonks, make bad decisions because their isn't enough difference at the table to thoroughly challenge ideas and perspectives--I wonder if Kennedy's cabinet had some of the Black policy wonks sitting at the table, would the likelihood of nuclear war been substantially reduced.  I wonder if Janis theory would have been proven or disproven.
During the same time period, I wonder if Black policy wonks had metaphorically sat at the table of intercollegiate policy debate as debaters, coaches, and judges, which they were legally excluded from, would they have influenced different decisions then what were made in the early and mid-sixties or would debate have gone down the same path as it did?  I wonder if those decisions would have been better since the table had a very homogenous group sitting in the room?  I wonder.
Part 2- Ede "Doc" Warner
I debated from 1978-1985, except one semester in college, where I ran the intramural sports leagues at a tiny school called Augustana, in Sioux Falls.  In eight years of debate, I never even thought about being a Black policy wonk, I was just a policy wonk, and I was grateful for the opportunity to be a policy wonk.  I was grateful for the experiences I had with amazing people like Roger Solt, Ross Smith, Michael Pfau, Phil Voight, Al Louden, Karla Leeper, Jeff Parcher, Sherry Hall, Joel Rollins, Mark Deloach, John Fritch, Dallas Perkins, David Bloom, Glen Strickland, Melissa Wade, Cindy Leiferman, Tim Hynes, George Ziegelmueller (the last two gave me 30's) and so many others that I can't come close to naming them all.  I was grateful for my experience, but the reality is that not one of them, knew enough about Black policy wonk debate and thus, they couldn't help me use debate to fully find out and empower myself.  No one thought about how to make non-strategic impacts, like race arguments, strategic.  Why?  Because we were all too busy trying to win and the reality was that winning meant ignoring minority interests because that was how the game was designed by the homogenous group of policy wonks earlier.  And we all learned to play that game.  
So when I returned to Gary, Indiana, I couldn't relate very well to Black people.  While I did become a policy wonk through NDT debate, I certainly couldn't identity myself as a Black policy wonk, now could I?  I went to graduate school in 1990, and I had to catch up.  I had to figure out a way on my own to become a Black policy wonk.  Why?  Because while in Gary, watching the death and destruction that institutions could disproportinately put on GOOD people, I figured out that "playing the race card" needed to be played, no matter how ungrateful someone else thought I was.  I taught myself to use debate in an all white world to become a Black policy wonk, the same way that Malcolm taught himself.   But not the way that Thurgood and Shirley learned, they learned with other Black policy wonks and I suspect their training was different.  I wonder
Part 3- Rashad Evans
During my exploration into how to use my training in policy debate to become a Black policy wonk, I met some folks along the way.  I met Toby Arquette and the Wayne State women, who taught me how to fight for identity in your policy making whenever you could.  I met bill shannahan and the Texas crew, who taught me that although the game of debate made minority interests non-strategic through impact assessment that privileged bigger every time, this kritik argument leveled the impact playing field for minorities, by giving them a vehicle to address their issues, in the round., or at least, so I thought  By the time that the most successful Black debater of all time in NDT CEDA debate entered the competitive fray at the turn of the century, Rashad Evans had some strategic tools that I never had during my policy wonk training.  Now Rashad, ultimately decided to use the kritik tool less than the policy tool.  And today, I fully understand his choice.  The policy tool was safe, his decision avoided ever having to engage in any challenge of his personhood and could outdebate all the other policy wonks who wanted that level of engagement.  But the kritik came at a cost.  
Many of the policy wonks felt the kritik wasn't "real" debate, and that for Rashad to use it, which he tried, meant that other policy wonks saw him differently, some might go so far as to say "ungrateful" and a "cheater" and certainly "inferiority" to the "real" policy wonks who did it the right way.  They saw that invocation of the kritik with relation to his personhood was using race inappropriately. So Rashad focused more on winning as a policy wonk and not a Black policy wonk, to keep his personhood from being attacked and denigrated.  When Malcolm, Thurgood and Shirley debated, they had no choice in how they would engage other policy wonks, they were for the most part excluded in helping debate determine how the issues important to Black policy wonks would get treated.  As their son and as a result of that choice to exclude them, I got no help or encouragement from other policy wonks to even learn that I was a Black policy wonk. Why, because the other policy wonks were bad people who didn't care about my issues?  No, perhaps because the policy wonks were also at a disadvantage as a result of the early exclusion of the Black policy wonks, so they couldn't help me achieve my full potential, they couldn't help me in ways that my parents could have, had my parent's been allowed to compete.  Now here I was, with my son Rashad at the policy wonk table, and I had no better answer for him then the policy wonks had for me.  Because my training was bad as a Black policy wonk, I couldn't help him, even when I knew that I needed to, but the help I brought him, a fork in the road forcing him to give up his talents at being a policy wonk, or claim that he wasn't a Black policy wonk, hurt him deeply, as it did others who came before him (Bailey, Rhodes, Hylton, Griffith, Reid, Lee, Roland, just to name a few).  And the other policy wonks weren't helping him either, because we both were making him feel worse about his choice to debate, just for different reasons.  I now understand and I can see why he made his choice, to walk away.  I wonder.
Part 4- Tonia Green, Liz Jones, Jennifer Harris, Ebony Floyd and Corey Knox
Their choice, encouraged by me, was to say, we are Black policy wonks, but we are not policy wonks.  Their choice was to fight for what they believed debate should look like for them and damn everyone else.  But let's remember, that's where they ended their careers, not where they started.  They started by talking slow and debating racial aspects of the topic. They wanted to be Black policy wonks who debated other policy wonks on the selected topic.  They wanted that topic to be broad enough to include their interests, but other than that, they had no issues with any structure, norm, or procedure.  They wanted what I promised them: the ability to slow down and have the race conversations Clinton promised but never had.  They wanted the debates that Malcolm had:  choosing any topic, finding the racial perspective, and then engaging whites on that perspective. 
In their first year, they were Black policy wonks who thought of themselves as policy wonks.  But when they moved to varsity, the strategies used against them, made them feel like their choices to be Black policy wonks in ways that worked for them, were not respected by the other policy wonks, whose thinking was still really fighting over the value of the kritik, let alone more radical interventions. They felt that their choices to be different policy wonks, but policy wonks just the same, were being marginalized, and their personhood was devalued as a result.  They felt like Rashad, but where he chose to abandon efforts at being a Black policy wonk because it hurt to much, Louisville remained, committed to demanding their seat at the table as Black policy wonks, not just as policy wonks.  But had Malcolm, Thurgood, and Shirley sat at the table, would speaking slow and persuasively and being more creative in the presentation of ideas, and developing a game that didn't allow for the erasure of impacts through diversionary tactics or privilege bigger and speculative over structural impacts occuring now.  Would those innovations been so radical today?  I doubt it, but I wonder.
So where am I at today?  I believe I'm right back to where I was in 2000-2001, looking for a solution to allow people to compete in ways that are comfortable for them, which includes making some choices that perhaps are mutually exclusive.  I think that the kritik failed to achieve it's purpose: it became a substitute for what really should have happened: the creation of a policy debate format that doesn't privilege bigger impacts over smaller ones.  That has a procedure to address when culturally different policy wonks devalue or dismiss what's important to each other.  The hope and faith that I've repeatedly heard expressed by the other policy wonks: like Tejinder and Dan in our quarters debate at the NDT and most recently by Sherry in the harassment meeting bring me pause.  We don't need changes because people aren't inherently good and we shouldn't want to affirm that goodness when we can.  Tiffany Dillard, a new Black policy wonk that grew up with those in part 4, but will lead the charge to a new existence for all minority policy wonks, understands the need for enforcement when bad actions occur by good people, often the result of a training in a structure that facilitates or even encourages those actions, usually in unintentional ways.  Sometimes those actions occur simply because we can't accept the differences of other policy wonks when we get too invested in our type of policy wonk, like we did to Rashad.  So we need a system with checks and balances to respect our differences.
I understand the need for systems to be reevaluated that were created by a homogenous group of people that worked well when the participants were homogenous, but don't work when cultural difference is added into the mix.  So instead of wondering, I'm going to use my experiences, all as chronicled in the above stories, to try and create a new system that can allow the beauty and splendor of the policy wonk discussion that Josh eloquently speaks to, but also doesn't box us in, in ways that we don't get all types of policy wonks participating, because the more culturally different policy wonks we have at the table, the better our decisions will be for America.  And not shooting nuclear missiles because a diverse group of policy wonks is sitting at the table, is a great place to start.  Thanks if you got this far.
With respect and love,
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