Power to Speak: Debate Team Partners with Local Law School Helping Youth Find Their Voices

The idea for creating a Debate Team started from his notebook. As Jerjuan Howard entered his last year at Western Michigan University in 2020, it was a year of virtual classes tied to the pandemic. Howard found his track to law school important to pursue when in-person classes resumed. After graduating and returning to Detroit, it was an opportunity for him to reflect on his ideas and plans to give back to the community.  

Despite serving as President of the Black Student Union and in the military, Howard describes growing up as a shy kid. But it was his attendance in debate class at Renaissance High School in Detroit which changed that. 

“It was a shift for me in regards to my own personal development,” Howard said. “So, in 2020 I realized how big of a role debate played in molding me in regards to my confidence when I speak, how I articulate myself, research purposes, understanding what someone else is saying and how to disagree with them in a formal way.” 

Howard would ultimately create the Umoja Debate Team, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit in 2021. The organization aims to use debate as the avenue to “provide students with the opportunity for self-expression, critical thinking skills and conflict resolution skills.” 

Jerjuan Howard, Founder of Umoja Debate Team

Last year in partnership with Detroit Public Library and Gleaners Food Bank, Umoja Debate Team held its inaugural debate summer camp at Parkman Branch Library. The 6-week camp had a total of 15 youth participants. It included a curriculum tailored towards proper research, public speaking etiquette, confidence and conflict resolution. 

After a successful first year, Umoja Debate Team is now expanding the program with the help of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. 

This program plans to introduce several new features including a new location, an increase in youth participants to 50, a 2-week extension making the program 8 weeks total, community engagement at Umoja Village and impactful mentorship by college interns majoring in education or pre-law. 

“This partnership does so much for our youth. It allows them to experience a law school campus. That type of exposure at an early age has the power to make something that can sometimes be viewed as far-fetched, more realistic and tangible for our future leaders,” said Arieana Hemphill, creative content director for Umoja Debate Team. 

“We’re excited about this partnership. It’s a great opportunity for our Metro Detroit youth to begin seeing themselves as lawyers,” said Courtney Griffin, assistant dean for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at Detroit Mercy Law. 

“I tell my students, of course lawyers use debate, it’s a great skill to have, but is it not good for entrepreneurs to know how to negotiate a good price? Is it not important for a clothing designer to be able to articulate what a certain piece of clothing is? Is it not important for any profession or ordinary individual to be able to communicate effectively? Yes, it is debate but these skills transfer over into so many different areas of life.” 

Howard said he has seen first-hand how his students’ personal development has improved, including their critical thinking skills as well as confidence. 

The group plans to start the camp on June 21 and will meet on Mondays and Wednesdays at the School of Law’s Riverfront Campus in the heart of downtown Detroit and on Fridays at Umoja Village for the community engagement portion of the camp. 

Youth ages 11-14 are eligible to join the summer debate camp. The 50 spots will be filled on a first-come basis. 

Howard’s program and summer camp partnering with University of Detroit Mercy Law School is a major opportunity for Detroit students and a meaningful expansion of the program he founded. 

“It’s very hard to become what you don’t see. Unfortunately, a lot of Detroit youth never step foot on a college campus, let alone a law school. This partnership and being in this space will allow our students much appreciated and needed exposure.” 

Howard seeks to keep the program free and accessible. The Umoja Debate Team is actively seeking sponsorships and donations at umojadebateteam.org 

Howard continues finding a way to give back, helping Detroit youth find their voices and their power to speak, just as he did. 

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