SV Urban Debate aims to empower students

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Courtesy of Silicon Valley Urban Debate League
Angel Armenta argues his case in front of a panel of judges in 2018.

The Silicon Valley Urban Debate League aims to broaden the horizons of high school students by building their communication skills, and the organization offers many opportunities for the Los Altos community to become involved in the goal.

“Our mission is to empower Silicon Valley students, regardless of their race or socioeconomic status, to reach their full potential to become professional and community leaders,” SVUDL executive director Rolland Janairo said. “For me, it’s, ‘How do you elevate the life outcomes, particularly for young people, of students, to become awesome, productive members of the community?’”

SVUDL primarily serves Title I schools, which do not have school-sponsored speech and debate programs, and fills the void through the administration of an independent debate league. The organization seeks to break down the barriers of inequity in Silicon Valley, so all students can realize their full educational and professional potential.

“We live in a community of stark contrast. On one hand, you have this unprecedented wealth that’s largely driven by the tech sector, but then, on the other hand, you have members of our community that don’t have that same access, that don’t experience that same success,” Janairo said.

Los Altos resident Matthew Abrahams, a volunteer SVUDL board member, has worked for decades to expand students’ communication skills. He taught at De Anza College for 15 years, worked with high school speech programming for two and is currently a lecturer in strategic communication at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

“People far and wide should help young people get relevant, useful skills that can help them not only in high school, but in college and beyond,” Abrahams said. “Communication is critical to success in business and in life, and those who don’t have the opportunity to learn successful communication in a programmatic way might be at a disadvantage.”

Community contributes

Although the majority of schools involved with SVUDL are not within the Los Altos or Mountain View region, Abrahams said the community can and should offer its talents and resources to support its programming.

“I know in this community we have so many passionate, well-intentioned people who could look to support SVUDL and other programs to help these young adults be successful,” he said.

Abrahams added that financial donations or volunteering as a guest speaker or judge for SVUDL events are effective ways for local residents to become involved.

“There are lots of opportunities for Los Altos residents to contribute meaningfully to these students,” he said.

SVUDL hosted a virtual moot court competition July 1 in which seven students participated in a mock trial. The competition was based on the actual case of Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix that went before a panel of three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and the Sixth Circuit. In the case, the Brush & Nib Studio challenged a city ordinance that prohibited the studio from refusing to serve same-sex couples on the basis of freedom of religion and freedom of speech. The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in favor of the studio owners.

“Students came in with preconceived notions, but as they are diving deeper and deeper into the literature, they’re just developing more empathy. They’re understanding multiple perspectives,” Janairo said. “If they want to advocate for something, they need to understand the nuance and the depth of the arguments.”

For more information on the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League, visit

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