Behind the scenes: How the Braver Angels Debate Team gained new life in challenging times

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Don’t be spooked. It’s just debate! Members of the Braver Angels Debate Team get playful at a virtual meeting for Halloween 2021. (Photo courtesy of BA Debate Team)

In the past year of chaos and change, it can be difficult to find the good. With this in mind, we at Braver Angels have been reflecting on a part of our organization that has flourished during the pandemic: The Braver Angels Debate program.

A new normal

When the pandemic hit, the Braver Angels Debate Team was forced to adapt to changing circumstances, bringing all debates online. 

“Suddenly we were able to scale these debates up into being truly nationwide,” said Red-leaning Publius Fellow for Public Discourse, Luke Nathan Phillips. “You could have people calling in from every corner of the country and from sometimes a broader array of backgrounds than you were able to get in person.” 

When social media proved a precarious site for Americans to have tough conversations, debate at Braver Angels drew a large number of new participants seeking to combat political polarization.

“There was a real desire for opportunities to interact,” said Leslie Lopato, a Blue Assistant Director for National Debates.

With this new influx, the small-but-mighty debate team spearheaded the largest and fastest-growing program at Braver Angels, hosting two debates per month and serving over 15,000 people over the course of a year.

“All of us who worked on the national debates team at that time were like… ‘Wow, we are doing the kinds of things that a lot of people say they wish Americans were doing,” Luke said. “‘We’re proving that it’s possible.’” 

The tipping point

But there was a challenge: The small team was stretched to the breaking point. To remedy this, Braver Angels hired social entrepreneur Silas Kulkarni for a part-time fellowship as the Debate Team Chief of Staff, working with the team to scale the program.

With this new ability to grow, the team hit marks it had previously thought impossible, hosting debates on everything from race in America to the very nature of what makes something a fact. National debates alone drew over 10,000 participants. But just as the finishing touches were placed on that foundation, Silas’s year with the organization came to a close; It was time to ask who would be able to fill the very big shoes he left behind.

Enter Leah Sargeant, a 2011 Yale graduate whose resume boasts a varied range of experience.

Leah finds a key common denominator in her varied background, spanning everything from Yale’s debate team to policy research to HR for a remittance startup: “I think the thing that often attracts me is where can I be someone who connects different people,” she said. “There’s some step that’s hard or not suited for everyone that I can be the person who steps into that gap so that things can work.” 

In the spirit of taking on tough challenges, Leah invited her friends to shift their online arguments to offline debates. Starting in 2014, she hosted monthly debates for more than a year from her living room, making her position at Braver Angels a natural fit.

The road ahead

As Braver Angels looks to the future, Leah views herself as a steward of this growing program. 

“I’ve been given a thing to take care of,” she said. “We know we have something that people have a real hunger for; how do we offer it to more people in a way that we can sustain?”

Debate sits at the very heart of this organization. The debate team is central to much of Braver Angels’ work. As one of its leaders, Leah strives to maintain the debate space as a positive site to build understanding.

“[Debate] is a way of thinking well of your ideological enemies, to think that they genuinely want to make the world a better place but might be substantially wrong about … how to do it,” she said. “Debate is a way of taking seriously the power other people have to make the world better or worse, asking them to use that power differently, and making a real case for them about why.” 

Many on the debate team feel that attending a debate is the best way to understand what the organization is about, even calling it a Braver Angels “gateway drug.”  People inclined to take on the important work of depolarization are encouraged to volunteer for this unique program.

“We think it’s a valuable and fun experience and people really have a good time. We will train you to be a member of the team but we really want to get some more people involved,” said Leslie.

If you’d like to join the debate team, contact us at debates@braverangels.org.

More to explore

3 thoughts on “Behind the scenes: How the Braver Angels Debate Team gained new life in challenging times”

  1. “Congratulations” to Leah and “Thank You” to Silas for the heartfelt service they have given to Braver Angels❣️👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
    Leah, thank you, also, for reminding me that the Service we offer to Braver Angels for the love of our Country and her Citizens truly is an act of “Stewardship”!
    Best Wishes and continued success as you take on the helm of BA Debates. 💕
    And Best Wishes to you, Silas, as you move on to your next endeavor while remaining a dedicated Braver Angels Member! 💕

  2. Is there something else on Homelessness than the podcast of David Lapp interviewing Morgan Brown?

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