UW Tacoma alumnus Eric Ballentine, ’18 Urban Studies, looked up at the screen. There in simple black text was this: “Assuming the May plan is rejected, TH, as the EU Council, would not grant the United Kingdom further extensions on Article 50. “I’m thinking, what is Article 50?” said Ballentine.
Article 50 is the process that European Union member states can invoke to voluntarily withdraw from the union. Ballentine and current UW Tacoma student Zaira Rojas had 15 minutes to familiarize themselves with the rule and the current debate about Brexit as part of the 2019 United States Universities Western Regional Championships held at Pacific Lutheran University in late March.
The regional championships are a debate tournament. Rojas has some previous debate experience but her last competition was a few years ago. Ballentine’s history with debate included a course on urban debate with Meiches and a handful of practice debates with Rojas. “Before the first speech I had a moment where I wondered ‘why am I here?’” said Rojas?”
The regional championships were organized as a British Parliamentary-style debate. In this format two groups of two argue the government’s position and two more groups of two argue the opposition’s position. Now, it may seem like each side is working together — they’re not. Ballentine and Rojas had to out-argue the opposition and the other team on their side.
In the debate about Article 50, Ballentine and Rojas were the opposition. “I’m watching this guy present the government’s argument and, I’m like, ‘I can do that,’” said Ballentine. “I went up there, maybe stumbled a bit but then I got comfortable and I instantly knew I belonged, that this was something I could do.”
UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ben Meiches is reluctant to talk about his past. “I’ll never hear the end of it,” he says. Meiches’ secret isn’t salacious nor in the digital age can it truly be classified as secret. In 2003 Meiches won a national debate championship. “I’ve been doing this [debate] in one way or another for 20 years,” he said.
During those two decades Meiches worked as a policy debate coach at the University of Minnesota, program director at the Whitman National Debate Institute and assistant director of policy debate at the University of Puget Sound.
Meiches started at UW Tacoma in the fall of 2015 and almost immediately began laying the groundwork for debate on campus. “Debate is, in some ways, the most intense way to refine the core academic skill sets that are built around critical thinking,” he said.
In 2017 Meiches and assistant professor Sarah Hampson received more than $14,000 from the Strategic Initiative Fund (SIF) to develop urban debate and Street Law curriculum. In this context urban debate isn’t so much a form; rather it’s a philosophy that attempts to make the activity more accessible to a broader audience. “Debate has historically been a white, male and affluent activity,” said Meiches. “Urban debate is less structured, is community driven and tends to focus on issues that affect people personally.”
Hampson and Meiches built on this success. This past winter quarter Meiches taught urban debate. “The class structure was more free-flowing with the idea being that it matters less how particular we are about format,” he said. “Instead, we were focused on getting people to feel comfortable expressing themselves while learning the basics of argumentation.”
Ballentine took the urban debate class. Rojas, a junior studying politics, philosophy and economics, didn’t take the course but did visit the class a few times. Meiches later reached out to the pair to see if they were interested in getting some kind of debate program or club going on campus.
DIY Role Model
Zaira Rojas has a motto. “If there are no role models for you, then be your own role model,” she said. The future lawyer turned to debate in high school. “I knew nothing about it except what I’d seen on TV,” said Rojas.
Following her graduation from high school, Rojas attended Willamette University in Oregon. She joined the school’s debate team. “It was amazing to be in the room and, more often than not, be the only girl in the room, and then also be the only person of color in the room, and be on equal footing,” she said.
Rojas left Willamette after a year for family reasons. She grew up in Washington and her first visit to UW Tacoma had been when she was still in high school. “We came here for a debate tournament and I liked the urban setting,” said Rojas. Rojas made her second trip to campus in the fall of 2017, not for a debate, but as an enrolled student.
The results were in. Ballentine, Rojas and Meiches didn’t have high expectations. This, after all, was their first tournament. “When they gave us our scores back I thought, ‘wow, we really do belong here,’” said Ballentine. Out of the four teams arguing the policy about Brexit and Article 50, Ballentine and Rojas came in second.
61 teams competed in the Western Regional Championships. Ballentine and Rojas made it to the quarterfinals. Of the 122 individual debaters, Rojas concluded the tournament ranked number 18. “They went in there and blew everyone away,” said Meiches.
“Novice debaters like Eric and those with limited experience rarely clear to elimination rounds at a tournament of this size." — Ben Meiches
The pair debated a host of different topics including online classes, vaccines and police accountability. “Physically, we looked different, but we were also different in the way we argued and in the arguments we made — and people responded,” said Rojas.
Meiches has started the process of building a debate team on campus. He’s meeting with interested students every Monday during spring quarter. Ballentine and Rojas are scheduled to compete in more tournaments. Their success, or at least the opportunity to compete, is thanks to others in the community. “PLU waived our fees for the regional championships,” said Meiches. “We also got some promises from different coaches who were impressed with Zaira and Eric, who told me they’d be willing to waive fees in the future. We have the talent but ultimately the long term success of this program will hinge on getting more support.”
Their first tournament provided Ballentine and Rojas more than just experience. “It feels good to be able to amplify your voice and it’s important to understand that you can tear down the structure,” said Ballentine. As for Rojas, she credits debate with helping her gain confidence. “Debate literally helped me find my voice,” she said.
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org