Boston Debate League

A Better Way Forward

January 16, 2023 | By Kim Willingham

Listening, Humility, and Empathy — A Recipe for Healthy Discourse

As we look ahead to the work we’ll undertake at the Boston Debate League (BDL) in 2024, we do so considering the context within which we do this work. About this time three years ago, we watched as the nation’s Capital was stormed in response to the results of the presidential election. In the days and weeks that followed, tensions mounted across the country, and today, we continue to navigate a widening chasm in our political landscape and an erosion of civil discourse. Turn on the news or scroll through social media, and it’s not uncommon to witness pundits, politicians, and citizens across party lines embroiled in arguments about topics ranging from interpretations of free speech; to crusades against diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; to justifications for war. Too often, these exchanges are divisive and vitriolic and lead to further polarization and stalemates.

It makes the case for what we do at the BDL even more profound. At the Boston Debate League, we’re creating vibrant learning communities where young people connect and see one another’s humanity, even when they disagree. In education, we seek to develop critical thinkers, but it’s equally important that we help young people learn to listen – listen not just to form a response but to consider and seek understanding of another’s point of view. Doing so doesn’t necessarily yield or require agreement, but it does mean being in conversation, exercising humility, and practicing empathy. At first blush, these ways of being may seem counter to debate, at least as one might think about the activity, particularly when we have as models political candidates speaking over and insulting one another and bent on gotchas. We want students to understand that we don’t have to threaten or tear one another down because we don’t see eye to eye or normalize such behavior.

“The lessons students learn through debate are vital; they transcend the debate or classroom space. Students will take these sensibilities into discussions on the playground, in school hallways, at their places of employment, within their families, and in their communities.”
– Kim Willingham, BDL Executive Director

In November, I was a panelist at a convening of the National Governors Association (NGA). NGA Chair Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Vice Chair Colorado Governor Jared Polis hosted the second in a series of bipartisan events in support of Governor Cox’s Disagree Better Initiative in Denver. Our particular panel was focused on teaching youth about healthy conflict. I shared how we’re helping young people to develop the skills of listening and curiosity – engaging in discourse from the position of wanting to learn more about what others are thinking and presenting. These habits get at the heart of what we name in our vision statement: that all young people in Boston are engaged in critical discourse, informed by evidence, and empowered to lead. By listening, students are better informed; they can make arguments grounded in sound evidence and reasoning. What we see too often in the public sphere are arguments steeped in emotion –– fear, distrust, and sadly, hatred. We know there is a better way.

The lessons students learn through debate are vital; they transcend the debate or classroom space. Students will take these sensibilities into discussions on the playground, in school hallways, at their places of employment, within their families, and in their communities. During our most recent Coach Camp, a BDL alum and now Brandeis college student shared with coaches examples of how she uses the skills of debate both to engage in her courses – analyzing new information and interrogating perspectives (her own and others) – and as an activist using her voice in powerful ways to speak up for the things that matter to her. That, of course, has meant that sometimes she’s pushing back against prevailing voices that seek to silence hers or that are carried by others who intend harm with their words and/or policies. What she’s developed through debate are the muscles to listen with a sense of wonder, to find the holes in faulty arguments, to communicate counterpoints, and even acknowledge or be swayed when her opponents make more compelling arguments. This is what debaters do. Rather than attack one another, they probe the substance of arguments and leave one another’s humanity intact. Sometimes they win, other times they lose, but they do so equipped with new knowledge and strategy that doesn’t result in destruction or hate-filled diatribes. We need more of that in our society. Engaging young people in this type of learning is not just an academic endeavor; it’s an ingredient for a thriving and healthy democracy and has the potential to transform lives, communities, and the world as we know it.

Bonnie Butkas, Managing Director of Development, joined the BDL in February of 2024. She is a community-minded nonprofit leader with a background in arts administration and front-line fundraising. She led development efforts at Geva Theatre Center, the York Theatre Company, TADA! Youth Theatre, and Bristol Valley Theatre, and led foundation relations at Rochester Institute of Technology. She was the Executive Director of Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell, MA for five years and most recently served as a development consultant at the New Art Center in Newton, MA.
Julianna Maximo, Administrative Coordinator, joined the BDL in October 2023, but has been involved in the League since she was a sophomore at Brighton High School. Over the years, she has worn many hats for the organization – from coaching debate at English High School, to being a tournament operations volunteer and logistics intern, to helping organize the first EBA Across Boston Conference in 2016. Beyond the BDL, Julianna worked in the service industry for almost ten years, focusing on education and quality control in specialty coffee. It was through this work that she became directly involved with labor organizing and local mutual aid groups, and realized her passion for building and fostering community, whether that be chatting with the coffee shop regulars from behind the counter or hosting neighborhood-wide events. Outside of the office, Julianna spends most of her time out on walks with her dog, making ceramics, or reading.
Kelly Cody, Senior Volunteer Manager, joined the BDL in October 2021. In her role at BDL, she manages and stewards relationships with volunteers and volunteer partners as well as helps lead the external affairs work of the organization. A former policy debater and coach with over 13 years in the debate community, she is no stranger to the world of debate and loves leveraging her position to positively impact the community that she feels influenced her so heavily. Kelly has a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Master’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Texas at Dallas. She enjoys using her scientific background and previous experience in the biotech industry to emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of debate and how the skills cultivated from the activity are crucial in all fields.
Joshua Nixon, Resolved/After-School Program Manager, joined the BDL in July 2022. In his role at BDL, he co-directs Middle School tournaments, collaborates with administrators and teachers to launch and manage debate teams and practices, works with the Assistant Director of Programs and facilitates Resolved sessions at partner schools alongside another Program Manager. Since graduating as a BDL alum in 2009, Josh has remained involved with debate, from coaching at his high school, Academy of Public Service, and at Brighton High School, to leading judge training and even volunteering as a judge. He loves working for the BDL because he believes that debate can help so many individuals who really need it. The passion and love his co-workers have for their work is extremely inspiring and keeps Josh working hard as well. Before coming to the BDL, Josh served eight years in the US Army National Guard as an IT Specialist/ Analyst. He lives in Quincy and loves spending his free time relaxing,
Douglas Matute
Douglas Matute, Program Manager for Debate en Español, joined BDL in July 2022. Prior to his arrival at BDL, Douglas worked as a Laser Research and Development Engineer while simultaneously teaching 9th-grade Physics at the Margarita Muñiz Academy, a bilingual high school located in Jamaica Plain. During this period, he also served as a coach for Muñiz’s Debate en Español team. In his role as a program manager, he aspires to expand Debate en Español across Boston Public Schools, aiming to help Latinx students enhance their debating abilities while mastering challenging topics. He holds a BS in Physics from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. When not working at BDL, he enjoys shredding gnarly MTB trails or bouldering in the woods.
Ranner Faugas, Director of Resolved, joined the BDL as a full-time staff member in 2015, but has been a part of the BDL community for over 15 years – as a debater in high school and an intern during his college years. As a staff member, Ranner has served in many different roles, including Operations Associate, program manager, and Assistant Director of After School Debate. In his current role, he leads the implementationt of the Resolved program in Boston Public Schools to engage and empower Black and Latino boys and young men in middle and high school. Ranner holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston and a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership from the Institute for Nonprofit Practice. In his free time, Ranner enjoys reading and traveling.
Roger Nix, Director of After-School Debate, joined the BDL in July 2015. Before joining the organization, he was involved with BDL as a founding debate coach, EBA teacher leader and grad class content leader (precursor to Debate-Inspired Classrooms) at the Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. Outside of his debate work, Roger taught math and special education classes, and started the baseball and track teams at EMK. He has an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Northeastern University and a master’s degree in education from Boston College. He also has a certificate in Nonprofit Leadership from the Institute for Nonprofit Practice. His favorite thing about working for BDL is helping build a community of students who care deeply about the program and want to give back as interns, judges, and coaches when they graduate. Roger currently lives in Roslindale, loves spending his free time bowling and playing softball, and chasing his one-year-old daughter around the playground.
Carlos Monteiro, Debate-Inspired Instructional Coach, joined the BDL in 2021. Carlos is a Math and Science educator with 10 years of experience teaching English Learner (EL) students in Boston Public Schools before moving to a district position in Boston for an additional three years as a Data Inquiry Facilitator. As a teacher, he was part of the school’s Instructional Leadership Team (ILT) as the Science team leader while also teaching Algebra and Physics to students who had recently arrived in the country. In the district, Carlos worked alongside six school leaders each year helping to organize and plan the school staff structures (i.e. teacher team meetings, ILT, and professional development). In his role as a Data Inquiry Facilitator, Carlos also helped plan and lead district wide professional development sessions aligned to district priorities. He holds a BA in Math from Boston College and an MEd from UMASS Boston. Carlos is currently a Debate-Inspired Classrooms Instructional Coach at three schools across Boston where he works directly with teachers to create engaging activities that promote students’ thinking and discourse. As a father of three girls, he loves the work-life balance that BDL provides.
Sarah Mayper, Senior Instructional Coach for Debate-Inspired Classrooms, joined the BDL in 2014. Her longevity in the organization is due to her absolute love for her job and her colleagues, as well as her endless optimism about education and her belief in the power of young people. Sarah graduated from Brown University with a BA in English and American Literature, received her MA in Literacy, Language, and Culture at Stanford University, and received her Ed.D. in curriculum and teaching from Boston University. Over the course of her career in education beginning in 1987, she spent twenty years teaching English, Humanities, and Theater, and directing plays in public schools. Her interest in arts education led her to work with the California Arts Project and serve as the Director of Education for a Latina feminist theater nonprofit in San Francisco, as well as lead professional development focused on the arts and literacy for teachers around the Bay Area. With the BDL, Sarah has been a Debate-Inspired coach in nine Boston schools and led a research project on Debate-Inspired Classrooms with a team from BU School of Education, funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. She adores her BDL colleagues and appreciates their patience with her endless need to explain word derivations.
Marisa Suescun, Managing Director of Programs, joined the BDL in July 2013. Marisa has spent 20+ years working on behalf of public education equity through many avenues: she has taught students, coached teachers, trained youth leaders, and fostered community partnerships. She began her career teaching elementary school, in the first cohort of NYC Teaching Fellows. She completed the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, and helped lead Coro’s Exploring Leadership program for NYC high school students. Before joining the BDL, Marisa worked at Teach Plus in Boston, facilitating district and school partnerships to foster teacher leadership. Marisa earned her BA in American Studies from Wesleyan University, and MS in Education from City College of New York. At the BDL, Marisa leads and works alongside an incredible team that implements BDL’s three programs, After School Debate, Debate-Inspired Classrooms, and Resolved. Marisa savors being part of a BDL community of students, educators, staff, and supporters who are as brilliant as they are empathic, critical but also earnest, and who bring joy and humor to the work of striving for a more just world.
Kimberly Bartlett-Ra, Managing Director of Operations, joined the BDL in July 2015. In addition to the BDL, Kimberly’s 20+ year career in the nonprofit sector includes two years of service with AmeriCorps*NCCC, several years at a social enterprise organization serving adults with mental health disabilities, and several years as the founding Director of Operations at the Brooke Charter Schools. Kimberly has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Brown University and an MBA from the Yale School of Management. In her role at the BDL, Kimberly leads the Finance, Human Resources, and Office Management functions of the organization. Kimberly appreciates being a part of a vibrant community of staff, educators, and debaters that are constantly pushing to make the world a better place and will not accept the status quo.
In 2021, Kim Willingham was named Executive Director – the first woman and first Black leader – of the Boston Debate League. Before being named ED, Kim served as the BDL’s Director of Culture and Engagement and prior to that as an Instructional Coach on the Debate-Inspired Classrooms team. Throughout her 20+ years in education, Kim has held multiple leadership positions. She began her career as a Teach for America Corps Member in the Crescent City – New Orleans, LA – where she taught 6th grade ELA and Social Studies. Kim earned an EdM from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a BS from Eastern Michigan University. Her experience also includes several years in in school leadership and education consulting. Originally from the Motor City, she now resides in Dorchester with her two children. In her free time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time in nature. Kim is grateful for the joy she gets to experience daily working with the students, teachers, volunteers, and staff of the BDL community.
Jackney Prioly Joseph, Managing Director of External Affairs, joined BDL in September 2020. Jackney leads BDL’s efforts to engage and partner with community and corporate organizations to create a community of support for our students. She previously served as Director of College and Career Readiness at the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. She has diverse leadership experience in education, nonprofits, and city government where she served under Mayor Thomas M. Menino and former City Councilor, now Congresswoman, Ayanna Pressley. A Bryn Mawr College and Posse Foundation alum identified for her extraordinary leadership, Jackney works to secure partnerships that will tap and sharpen the leadership skills of our program participants. She is inspired by the young debaters who hone the use of their voices to not only make winning arguments but to advocate for change. Jackney received her Masters in Public Administration from Northeastern University and is an alum of the Institute for Nonprofit Practice.