For many teenagers, attending a Harvard Unversity debate program and making history in a debate competition isn’t the first thing on their minds. However, for two Atlanta teenagers, it is in fact their reality.
Madison Webb, a 17-year old Langston Hughes senior and Christian Flournoy, a 15-year-old Westminster Schools sophomore, are a part of the three-time winning Atlanta “Great Debaters,” led by Brandon P. Fleming.
Fleming, who is the assistant debate coach at Harvard University, founded the Harvard Diversity Project in 2017 as a pipeline program for Black students. The elite program recruits and trains these select students through an elite summer residency at the institution.
For three consecutive years, Fleming’s “Great Debaters” have competed and won against hundreds of international students. This year, Webb and Flournoy made history as the first Black girl to win and the youngest Black boy to win in the competition.
We spoke with Webb and Flournoy about this program and how it has impacted the lives of these students.
How did you develop the confidence to debate in these competitions?
Madison Webb: We trained for a year with a rigorous social science-based curriculum. That’s what prepared us to compete against experienced debaters because we walked in with little to no debate experience.
What drives you to strive for excellence?
Christian Flournoy: You plant seeds to grow trees whose shade you may never sit under. That idea is what drives me, because it’s not about me. It’s about inspiring the next generation and generation after that to continue this Black excellence that we’re instilling within each other.
Describe the feeling after you made history with this win.
MW: Even though we weren’t there at Harvard it still felt like there was a target on our back. People literally applied to this program to try to beat us as Black people, that was some of their sole goals. On top of that, people knew that a Black girl had never won before. To finally get across that finish line, and listen to one of the judges to yell, “Yes, let’s go… Black girl magic!” is an unforgettable feeling. It showed me that despite all the racial stereotypes, no matter who or what is trying to limit you, there’s always going to be someone rooting for you on the other side.
How do you think this program has enhanced you as an individual outside of debate?
CF: They’ve instilled in us throughout the years … that you can’t fear failure. If you’re too afraid to do something because you think that you’re going to fail, you’re never going to do it. You will never have the experiences or feedback. They always tell us if you’re going to fail. Fail forward.
For more information on the program and how you can get your student involved visit www.harvarddcdp.org/