Detroit Native Kimberly Willingham Leads with Intentionality at Boston Debate League  

Kimberly Willingham   

Photo provided by Kimberly Willingham


Every single day Kimberly Willingham asks one question to start the morning and guide her throughout the day.

“I ask, ‘Lord, how can I be of service today?” the Detroit native said. “In all that I do, I want to be of service.”

Willingham asks that question because she wants to be a better person, mother, daughter, friend and servant than she was yesterday.

Willingham, who wears many hats, is now donning her latest hat as the executive director of the Boston Debate League (BDL), where she serves with her full heart.

Willingham, who has been with the BDL for six years, was first an instructional coach for the Debate-Inspired Classrooms initiative and most recently as director of culture and engagement. She is the first Black person (and the first woman) to be appointed to this role.

The BDL is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to integrate argumentation and competitive debate into Boston, Chelsea, and Somerville public schools to develop critical thinkers ready for college, career and engagement with the world around them.

BDL programs – After-School Debate and Debate-Inspired Classrooms – exist in 45 middle schools and high schools within the Boston, Chelsea, and Somerville public school systems. The BDL’s programming tailors its programs to middle and high school students of color and other students who have been denied educational opportunities, incorporates their experiences and strives to create inclusive learning communities where all participants are welcome and supported.

She will replace Mike Wasserman, who has served as the organization’s Executive Director since 2016.

BDL Board Chair Stone Wiske as quoted in a press release said that Willingham’s tireless work with BDL is evident.

“Kim Willingham is exactly the leader the Boston Debate League needs to achieve new levels of impact, growth and visibility. Kim is an inspiring educational leader, a builder of collaborative communities and a powerful speaker. In pursuit of the BDL’s essential mission, the board and staff all look forward to necessary, difficult and rewarding work galvanized by Kim’s leadership and high standards.”

Willingham told the Michigan Chronicle that she is “hopeful” for the future of the organization, and she looks forward to working with her team and board to advance its vision and mission in the service of young people in Boston, Mass.

“Together, we will continue to create and expand opportunities for youth to sharpen their critical thinking skills, develop their voices and exercise agency such that they are able to make good decisions and drive change in their own lives and within their own spheres of influence,” she said.

Willingham, who brings a wealth of experience to the executive director role, has a background in teaching, school leadership, consulting and direct service to youth and families.

Willingham, the mother of a 22-year-old daughter and a soon-to-be 16-year-old son, is an Eastern Michigan University graduate, who lives by this scripture found in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “What no one ever saw or heard, what no one ever thought could happen, is the very thing God prepared for those who love him.”

She said this verse of scripture inspires her personally and professionally.

“It’s a promise of what God has for me, things that I can’t even fathom,” she said.

Willingham told the Chronicle that her work at the BDL took the trajectory of where she is today because of her upbringing in Detroit and attending Cass Tech, where she “got lost.”

“I was a good elementary school student, but when I got to Cass … it was a big school for someone coming from a small Lutheran school with just one class per grade,” she said, adding that she “was surrounded by smart people” and she “lacked confidence.”

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. When I witness our debaters, I am in awe and I am inspired. Not because I don’t expect them to be brilliant and capable but because they possess such confidence,” she said, adding that both Cass and BDL debaters hold an air about them that is confident, articulate and analytical, all qualities she admired especially in middle and high school.

She said that her BDL debaters are similar to those at Cass when she grew up.

“Our debaters are engaging in conversations about things that we’re facing in the world — from access to clean water to criminal justice reform — they have something to say about these issues and their voices are necessary and powerful,” she said. “I’m proud that we’re creating a safe space for them to voice their thoughts and ideas, a space where they are seen and valued and affirmed, a space where they are making meaning of the world.”

Willingham said that her work is critical, and she continues to press on to elevate the voices of young people who want to be heard on their BDL platform.

“When I look back on my life, I want to know that I made a difference in the field of education and in the lives of young people and that I helped to provide transformative educational experiences for them,” she said. “I want young people to know that I saw them, that their lives mattered, that I believed in them and in what was possible for their lives. I know how important it is to feel affirmed and have others speak life into you, and I am committed to spending my life building up and speaking life into others… When my time at the BDL comes to a close, I want to be able to look at one of our program alum and say, ‘You’ve got next.’”

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