Finding Their Voices, One Debate At A Time

Kansas City Public Schools students to be honored on May 7 by DEBATE-KC


Kansas City, April 30, 2020:  Michelle Sall and Emmarie Miller have found their voices and are ready for a fight.

Michelle is a senior and Emmarie is a sophomore and both are members of the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy debate team. They are among 27 Kansas City Public Schools students who will be honored by DEBATE-Kansas City during a virtual awards ceremony from 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, May 7 on Facebook. (Scroll down for a complete list of KCPS students who are being honored at this year’s ceremony.)

Michelle and Emmarie are happy to be recognized for their debate success and pleased that DEBATE-KC is hosting the virtual ceremony even as in-person events are on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, for both of them, nothing is better than the experience of presenting a winning argument during an actual tournament.

“It feels really good,” Emmarie said. “I was really looking forward to competing at nationals and it’s disappointing to not experience that, but I am grateful to get this recognition.”

These are strong women who aren’t afraid to make their case. They have worked hard and overcome significant challenges to get to this point. Though their experiences differ, both shared a willingness as children to voice their opinions with their parents and a reluctance to do so in public.

“I’ve always liked arguing and that’s always been a problem for my parents,” Emmarie said. “But I definitely wasn’t like that at school. I finally gained the confidence to join debate in my freshman year and I’ve loved it ever since.”

Michelle indicated that she has a similar type of relationship with her mom, who is French-Senegalese and has traveled around the world to teach French language. Michelle has lived in four different countries and three states. That global experience gave her a unique perspective on the world but proved a challenge when she started attending public schools in the U.S.

“My first language is French, and with my accent, it’s sometimes hard to be understood,” she said. “I was shy and I would avoid speaking in class. I finally realized that I needed to do something about that, so I joined the debate team to be able to gain confidence.”

DEBATE-KC was founded in 1998 in order to re-introduce middle and high school debate as an extracurricular option in the urban portions of the Kansas City metropolitan region. Though the organization facilitates a wide variety of formats, it centers on a classic debate between two teams around an overarching topic that is presented at the start of each season.

Michelle Sall and Emmarie Miller pose with their trophies following a debate tournament.

This season’s DEBATE-KC topic was focused on whether the federal government should regulate the international sale of weapons and other military equipment in order to influence foreign governments. Both Michelle and Emmarie take pride in being feminists and they saw an opportunity to apply that lens to this topic.

“We felt that it was very important to switch the entire discussion. Gender rights are not something that is usually discussed when officials are making policy about foreign arms sales,” Michelle said. “We want women’s lives taken into consideration while we’re making these big changes that affect literally everyone.”

“The premise of the argument is that masculinized foreign relations are promoting sexism,” Emmarie explained. “Foreign arms policy and military policy is formed on the construct of gender. Militarism is very centered around masculinity.”

The duo spent hundreds of hours researching the topic, crafting their core argument and gathering evidence to support their case. This degree of effort is common among students who participate in debate, according to Lincoln Prep coach Charles Palmer.

“We are meeting at school three hours a day, three times a week, and that’s just practice,” said Mr. Palmer, who teaches history at Lincoln Middle School. “Those same students are spending hours at home putting together their arguments. Then they might spend several more hours on the weekend competing at a tournament.”

Grit is one of the key components of a successful debater, according to Michelle and Emmarie, and it’s a quality that’s often overlooked. They described working together late into the night on a case, only to come up short with the judges at the tournament. Where others might give up, debaters see a chance to sharpen their argument.

“Every time you think you’ve perfected your case, your opponent will bring a whole new argument, so then you have to go back and keep working on it,” Michelle said. “Every tournament makes your case stronger. It’s very important that you’re constantly learning and constantly getting better.”

Mr. Palmer is thrilled to see so many KCPS students being honored at this year’s DEBATE-KC awards ceremony, including Michelle and Emmarie.

“Michelle is just brilliant. The power in her voice, her ability to break down an argument are almost unique. And she’s the ultimate team captain. I don’t really need to coach her,” he said. “Emmarie has probably grown the most from year one to two. She spent a big part of her summer last year at a debate camp. That’s how committed she is to this team.”

Both Michelle Sall and Emmarie Miller credit debate for helping them develop the skills they need to nurture bright futures: assertiveness, confidence, insight, curiosity and a fearsome fortitude.

Michelle is preparing to move to Washington, D.C., where she plans to study international relations. Her goal is to become a lawyer and be in a position to help improve gender equity around the world.

“We tend to forget that there are women in other countries that don’t have the same rights that we have in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s the 20th century, you don’t expect things to be as bad as they are. There are so many restrictions on women’s lives. This is not a fight that we’ve already won. We need to keep fighting so that all women have the same freedoms and the same rights.”

Emmarie is looking for a new partner for the next debate season. She’s starting to develop a deep interest in going to college to study both physics and philosophy.

“I really like public speaking,” Emmarie said. “It makes me feel really confident. I like having a platform to talk about things I care about.”

KCPS DEBATE-KC 2020 Honorees:

  • Jafar Al-Hassan, Lincoln College Prep
  • Jude Anderson, Lincoln College Prep
  • Dulce Benavides, Foreign Language Academy
  • Jacob Bowles, Foreign Language Academy
  • Shamar Conrad, Central High School
  • Austin Daniels, Lincoln College Prep
  • Kathryn Glaser, Foreign Language Academy
  • Zahraa Hassan, Lincoln College Prep
  • Sophia Herrera, Lincoln College Prep
  • Azaria Hindsman, Foreign Language Academy
  • Jessica Huynh, Lincoln College Prep
  • Philomina King, Foreign Language Academy
  • Reina Knauff-Urgiles, Foreign Language Academy
  • Isaac Lainez, Foreign Language Academy
  • Emmarie Miller, Lincoln College Prep
  • Amanda Orozco, Foreign Language Academy
  • Julissa Reyes, Foreign Language Academy
  • Nadia Richard, Lincoln College Prep
  • Michelle Sall, Lincoln College Prep
  • Tino Seebart, Lincoln College Prep
  • Wah Shee, Lincoln College Prep
  • Russell Smith, Foreign Language Academy
  • Gus Thomas, Lincoln College Prep
  • Jaelyn Tramel, Foreign Language Academy
  • Jazzlyn Turner, Foreign Language Academy
Members of the Foreign Language Academy debate team pose with their trophies following a tournament in early 2020.