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Diverse Debater Retention Guide

This guide was compiled by one of the 2014-2015 APDA Women’s Initiative directors, Juliana Vigorito. Input was solicited from teams with varying levels of diversity to inform the contents. Any questions can be directed to APDAWomenInitiative@gmail.com.


When planning what to prioritize for this year’s programming, Women’s Initiative chose to focus on diversity more broadly than in previous years. As APDA grows, it is essential to discuss the presence of all kinds of minorities on our league - gender, race, ethnicity, non-native English speaking, and disability are just a few. This guide primarily focuses on recruitment and retention of racial, ethnic, and gender minorities in debate, in response to increased attention to those groups in recent years. We hope that readers will consider the following recommendations thoughtfully, and urge anyone with positive or negative feedback to share it with us!

Foundations for Diversity

The first step to improving the diversity of your team is identifying how much of it already exists. Taking stock of your current and past members (including dinos who remain involved with the team) is part of this. Even if your team consists of exclusively men or exclusively white debaters, identifying diversity of experience is a useful exercise. For instance, count up how many members participated in high school debate and in which formats; consider socioeconomic and geographic backgrounds; think about sexuality as well as gender identity; identify variety in political leanings; and look for trends in how people interact socially. This last factor is key - increasing diversity in debate, which is a heavily social activity, requires handling interpersonal relationships respectfully and in a non-confrontational way. Any team member who has abrasive tendencies or is known to make offensive comments, even if only intended as jokes, should be spoken with about changing that behavior, and possibly not invited to information sessions or tryouts.

Making a concerted effort to improve diversity can sometimes require formalized steps. If your team has historically been unwelcoming to minority debaters, or if your university has a particular lack of diversity, consider appointing a member to oversee diverse debater retention specifically. This designation need not be advertised to prospective debaters, and could easily be included as part of the responsibilities of an existing “Novice Mentor” or “VP Internal Affairs.” We encourage teams who take this recommendation to not just assign this role to the lone woman or person of color on your team - choose an individual who is friendly, outgoing, and active on APDA. Mentoring newer debaters on a league as social as ours becomes much easier when the new members have opportunities to meet and befriend a wide range of people.

Another way to lay a strong foundation for a diverse team is to make sure that all current members are educated about how to be anti-racist and anti-sexist in their dealings with other people. Most campuses have abundant resources that can facilitate this - consider contacting your school’s Title IX Coordinator, office of multicultural affairs, or LGBT center. A variety of programming can then be set up, ranging from presentations (as on bystander intervention and/or creating a “safe space”) by a professional to testimonials from minority students. If your campus lacks such resources, APDA has supplementary ones. Look for EOF and WI-sponsored events at tournaments, and encourage your teammates to attend. You can also contact these committees at any point in order to seek advice: eofs[at]apdaweb[dot]org and wi[at]apdaweb[dot]org.

Advertising Your Team

This is an area that is very school-specific, but we have a few suggestions in case you are unsure where to start.

Something to be considered when advertising is how best to reach the women and people of color who participated in high school debate, but who may not want to continue in college because of the bias present on other leagues. Reaching these individuals can be the most difficult, since even fliers that they see will not convince them to try APDA. There are a few ways to combat this.

Demonstration Rounds and Information Sessions

Advertising for your team is only the first step - generally, those advertisements will explain how to get involved with the team through attending info sessions, demonstration (“demo”) rounds, and/or tryouts. Demo rounds are a useful tool to introduce new prospective member to the APDA format, especially for those with high school experience who may be wary of collegiate debate. Consider your first interest meeting/demo round carefully, since it will set the tone for what new members expect of the team. Demo rounds, for instance, should attempt to show gender and racial parity if possible.* They should also use a case that is well-known to all the debaters participating, so as to facilitate a strong performance. If gender/racial parity is shown, try to make sure that those individuals are not only the member speakers. It is also good to keep in mind that using swear words and personal jokes makes the round less accessible to spectators.

Information session format can also be influential in who gains interest in the team and ultimately sticks around. If you have a formal executive board, have those individuals introduce themselves in an approachable way - for example, including their name, year, major, hometown, and whether or not they debated in high school. Try to plan the meeting’s format in advance, so that team members aren’t just talking over one another and being repetitive. Additionally, avoid APDA-specific jargon that will be foreign to newcomers. Use an initial info session to explain the good things about APDA (openness to creative cases, informal nature, and social aspects) as well as the rudiments of American parliamentary debate (2-person teams, 6 speeches in a round, 5 preliminary rounds followed by elimination rounds). Delving more specifically into the format is best saved for a later meeting. Make sure to emphasize the fact that APDA is what one makes of it - debaters can compete every weekend or twice a year, and run cases about everything from academic subjects to television shows.

Another possibility during a demo round or information session is to show part or all of a good round video. If you should do so, be sure to choose a round that has high quality visual and audio so that the audience will stay engaged. Choose a round with gender parity, and ideally one where the female debaters perform as well as or better than their male counterparts. Rounds including people of color, while harder to come by, are also good choices. Above all, make sure to discuss the video with your audience afterwards so that they understand the mechanics of the debate. For a list of recommended round recordings, go here.

*As a freshman, I attended the Hopkins demo round, which included two male Hopkins debaters, one female Hopkins debater, and one female Maryland debater (who the existing team pretended was a Hopkins debater). While misleading, I was encouraged by seeing gender parity and approached the Maryland debater after the round to speak with her about debate. Though not the best case scenario, having an outside debater participate can be a useful option!


Having tryouts, whether or not they involve cuts, is a choice to be made within individual teams. While the Women’s Initiative and APDA broadly don’t have the power nor inclination to force teams to choose one way or the other, it can be helpful to consider the merits of various options. One recommendation that applies regardless of whether a team has tryouts is to have new members join both at the beginning of the academic year (usually September) and at the midpoint (usually January). By incorporating new members at two points in the year, increasing diversity becomes more possible by the numbers alone. You may also have more perspective by a later point in the year about what has limited diversity on your team in the past, and how to combat those things. For instance, you may make connections with a multicultural resource office during the first semester, and gain their help in advertising your team for midyear additions.

Having tryouts with cuts is a successful strategy for some teams. It allows for those with limited budgets and/or varsity to focus on building a smaller, but more tightly-knit team. For teams who use this tactic, it is extremely important to consider how you structure and evaluate tryouts. Building a diverse membership necessitates giving everyone who tries out a fair opportunity to show their potential. Facilitating this can happen in a few ways. Teams sometimes offer prospective debaters a list of topics to choose from, allow a set amount of preparation time (5-15 minutes) and then ask them to deliver a short persuasive speech (2-6 minutes) followed by questions from an audience. Other teams may ask that prospective members arrive with a topic in mind or speech already prepared to deliver. This second option, while technically more open, may be daunting for individuals who have never done debate before. Therefore, the former is probably more accessible, but only if the list of topics is varied enough. For instance, the topics could include one political or economic idea, one feminist or queer theory idea, one international relations idea, and one religion idea. “Stock” APDA cases can make the best tryouts topics; “when starting a religion, it is preferable to preach reincarnation rather than a heaven/hell afterlife,” for example. It is also possible to have prospective member tryout in groups, by having a shortened 2-on-2 round. This method requires the same consideration of possible topics. It may be more difficult in these cases to determine the unique strengths of a prospective member, since 2-person teams will prepare their speeches together. However, it is also a useful test for their ability to work together and respond to another person’s arguments. When evaluating speeches in this tryout format, try to listen to them individually and evaluate the speaker as a single person, rather than just automatically cutting the people who were the 3 and 4 in the round.

Tryouts that cut some debaters should try to be as unbiased in evaluation as possible. This can manifest in a few ways: having several individuals watch and evaluate a tryout, or recording the tryouts and having the entire team listen to/watch the recording. Listening to a recording is strictly preferable, since it removes the distraction of appearance and any preconceived notions that may follow. It is also preferable to have as large a group as possible evaluate the tryout, though having your whole team actually be present can be very overwhelming and ought be avoided (having 2-5 people watch is reasonable). Make a rubric in advance to evaluate each tryout on the basis of argument depth, breadth, and presentation - optionally, incorporate additional ‘points’ for diversity or to compensate for reasonable accommodation (English as a second language, for instance). You should also collect information on the prospective member’s background (hometown, high school, prior debate experience, major, other interests) during the tryout process. This can provide context for the tryout, as well as help you actively increase diversity should you choose to do so (for example, admitting a member who had a weak tryout based on details from their background).  

Having tryouts without cuts is a successful strategy for some other teams. A tryout in this context may or may not reveal to new members that there were no cuts; that is a decision for the team’s existing membership. The advantage of tryouts, namely assessing the skill and potential of new members, is provided for by this method, while the potential harm of reducing diversity is minimized. Even if you do not intend to have cuts, tryouts can act as a warning of an individual who might actively detract from a safe, diverse space on your team. One way to elucidate potential problems is through a relevant tryout topic, like supporting or opposing cash transfers as part of American welfare policy. Asking prospective members to debate about something like this can offer insight into their existing biases about socioeconomics, gender, or race. When a prospective member shows signs of these biases, it can be helpful to be aware of them and fine-tune novice education accordingly. In cases where a tryout demonstrates extreme bias, it is reasonable to cut that particular individual.

Not having tryouts at all is the third major strategy that can work for APDA teams.This tactic can be a valuable one for new teams especially, since planning a tryout and evaluating prospective members is a time-consuming and often challenging process. For a team unfamiliar with APDA, trying to assess prospective members in a way that accurately relates to our league may not be useful - instead, trying to bring as many new members to a tournament as possible can do the job of assessing skill and potential for you. There are also advantages for more established teams. If a team wants an abundance of members at first and to let attrition happen naturally, that can work well. Admitting a broad range of members can be the easiest way to gain diversity, whether for a new or an established team. It can also be helpful to have a large membership, even if not everyone competes frequently, so that when planning a tournament there is a larger group of people to help out and judge.

Handling Team Finances

Too often on APDA, teams are underfunded and end up requiring members to pay dues or contribute out-of-pocket for travel or registration expenses. While dedicated upperclassmen are well within their rights to fund team activities if they so choose, asking newer members to contribute financially is something to avoid. If necessary, it is commendable to ask for additional registration breaks for novice teams. APDA has many hidden costs as well as the obvious travel and registration fees, like buying meals while en route to or during a tournament. For younger debaters who generally have meal plans back on campus, this can become a major added expense. For at least the first semester, make a concerted effort to have all team members eat tournament-provided food as a group, rather than splitting up. If time permits, teams could also gather to have lunch at a campus dining hall before departing for a tournament. If buying additional food becomes necessary, having an older debater cover it (and hopefully get reimbursed) is preferable. When handling dietary restrictions on your team, most of the same recommendations apply. Make sure to ask for dietary restrictions before you submit registration, and convey them accurately (including the severity of restriction, i.e. allergy triggered by airborne particles) to the host tournament. Don’t ask for people to report their dietary restrictions to you in front of others - solicit the info privately, so that individuals with religious or otherwise personal restrictions are not forced to explain them to the whole team. At tournaments, you should also advocate for your teammates with dietary restrictions - often times their accommodation will be forgotten or compensated inadequately, at which point approaching the tournament staff with that concern may become necessary.

Housing at Tournaments

For the majority of teams who cannot afford hotel rooms each Friday night, crash housing is the norm at tournaments. We all know these situations can be crowded and uncomfortable, and there’s some camaraderie to be found in them, but for newer debaters the experience can be unpleasant and harm their overall debate experience. For this reason, we have a few recommendations about handling housing.

Social Aspects of Debate

One of the best things about APDA is how many opportunities arise to make new friends and socialize. Because debaters give up their weekends (which would likely otherwise involve socializing) to compete, it is valuable and important to help new members feel like APDA is a welcoming, fun, and safe social environment for them. Most APDA tournaments include some sort of social event, whether it’s a party with alcohol at an off-campus residence, or just a banquet lunch on Saturday. Socializing between rounds in GA is also part of this spectrum, and helping new members enjoy APDA can mean helping them meet people and taking them to parties.

When introducing new members to friends from other schools, try to incorporate them fully into conversations and not to force them to only socialize with people you already know or like. It is also good to try and introduce new members to individuals with whom they have something in common - hometown, college major, outside hobbies or interests. Introducing female debaters and people of color to the same can also be useful, but is a trickier area to navigate. Be prudent, and use your judgment - do not just introduce newer members to people of the same race and expect they will find something to talk about. A good happy medium if you do not have many friends on APDA, or only know white men, is to reach out to the members of Women’s Initiative. The committee members are not only there to organize events, but also to be a resource for teams who struggle with diversity. You can also encourage newer members to sign up for a variety of hybrid programs facilitated by Women’s Initiative, the Novice Mentor committee, and the Expansion committee (where applicable). These opportunities can provide valuable mentorship, particularly for newer female debaters who might not otherwise get the chance to compete with a more senior woman.

Taking newer members to APDA parties can be a fun experience for all involved, but being honest about the realities of our circuit is important - heavy drinking and drug use are present, and all college party environments pose some risk to the individual. Avoid just toting all your novices along to a party; instead, ask if anyone wants to go in advance and ensure there is the option of not attending. For example, you can have one varsity take some novice to the party while another varsity takes some novices out to get food, or just to housing. As a varsity at a party with novices, try to either not drink/use drugs or do so only in moderation, to ensure that you are available to your novices if they need you. There is no need to hover, but keep an eye out for your teammates, especially if there are many people at the party who you do not know. Try to make sure everyone stays within sight, in whatever main party space there is, and take note if one of your newer members steps away into a private room. Don’t leave the party without everyone you came with. A difficult part of handling APDA party situations is getting your team to leave together when some may want to stay, keep drinking, or hook up with someone. I am writing this particular recommendation as a female upperclassman informed by my own experiences and those of friends - if a newer debater on your team wants to hook up with someone while drunk or on drugs, try to intervene. At best, they’ll have a tab scratch the next morning; at worst, they will be the victim or perpetrator of sexual assault. It’s difficult and annoying to try to talk a drunk person out of doing something, but erring on the side of caution is appropriate. This is part of bystander intervention, strategies for which have been explained at Women’s Initiative meetings in the past. While trying to plan for every possible situation is not feasible in this document, you are encouraged to seek out a member of Women’s Initiative or EOF should you have any questions about bystander intervention or sexual misconduct (assault, harassment, etc.) in general.


Partnerships are the fundamental building block of a team, and should be considered a tool for building diversity as well. While no clear pattern has emerged of the ‘best’ team formulation to grow diversity (survey respondents had varied trends on their teams about male/male, female/female, and female/male partnerships) it is the opinion of Women’s Initiative that having female/female partnerships can be particularly valuable. Where possible, encourage upperclassmen who identify as a minority to compete with newer debaters who do as well, in order to facilitate mentor relationships. These same upperclassmen might consider hosting separate social or training events for newer members, so that individualized attention and genuine friendship is facilitated. When creating partnerships for pro-ams, it is helpful to have the top debaters on your team take novices who are part of minority groups. When designating the free seed, consider switching it each weekend instead of always favoring one partnership.

In creating novice-novice teams, it is often natural to have upperclassmen merely decide the pairings. This can be a necessity, since not every novice will debate every weekend, and it can be useful, since upperclassmen are often adept at determining who will work well together. However, teams should encourage input from their newer members as early on as possible. Writing cases together can be a good method for this - figure out case ideas as a group, then let novices pair up based on interest to write them. People who have similar case interests will likely be more compatible as partners, and enjoy debate more. A separate consideration is how empowered newer members feel to speak up about their preferences. When possible, and especially with more shy individuals, try to talk privately about who they’d like to debate with and how to build complementary partnerships. This is doubly true of female and minority debaters - giving them partners they feel comfortable with may change debate from a stressful experience to a fun one, and keep those individuals around as a result.

Diversity and Expansion Schools

When building up a new team, it can be especially difficult (but also especially possible!) to recruit a diverse variety of members. Creating a diverse expansion team involves many of the same tactics discussed in the rest of this document, but has some singular issues as well. For instance, building up an APDA team on a campus that already has similar activities (model United Nations, policy debate, mock trial) can be a challenge due to the target audience of the activity being otherwise engaged. Explaining the particular value of APDA to that target audience can be a challenge, and sometimes futile. When doing so, consider the singular benefits of APDA: a history of high achievement by members after graduation, international success, and student governance. Carving out a niche for your team (and getting funding) can depend on proving the unique value of the activity, and creating a diverse team is just another possible unique value.

Sometimes when creating a new debate team, the membership is limited to people who have debated in high school. This creates the long-existent problem of white males making up most of a team. The founding members of a team should make an effort to expand their team from just a group of people who know each other to a larger, more diverse enterprise. This can entail word-of-mouth advertising as well as more formal means, and making a concerted effort to recruit broadly is prudent. One particular strength of newer teams is the absence of an existing history, since those sometimes include past sexism and racism problems. A blank slate for diversity means that you get to set the terms for your team in these regards. When approaching administration or student government to request funding, consider explaining American parli as the uniquely accessible format it is, without a focus on intensive research. Try sending your audience a round recording that shows diversity and a creative case, or invite them to a demo round that shows the same.

Equity and Diversity

Our league is fortunate to have an Equal Opportunity Facilitator (EOF) program that helps establish norms of respect and equitable treatment. Likewise, most tournaments appoint ‘equity officers,’ whether or not they are EOF members at the time. The functionality of both efforts for helping establish and propagate diversity is significant, since equity complaints often stem from a person feeling disrespected on the basis of their race, class, or gender. When introducing new members to APDA, it is prudent to explain the purpose of equity and how it can help make the league a better place. In particular, it is good to emphasize that EOFs can be approached about a wide variety of concerns as well as just in general, since they tend to be friendly people. Make an effort to introduce new members to the equity officer at a tournament, so that they feel comfortable approaching that person should a problem arise. Finally, try your best to make sure that newer members on your team feel comfortable approaching you or another more established member about equity concerns.

Building a safe and equitable environment on APDA starts at the team level, which is why coordinating trainings and presentations on diversity and equity are valuable. Ensuring an environment that promotes diversity is an individual responsibility as well. Part of doing so is creating a team that discourages excessive touching and flirting, heavy drinking/drug use, and inappropriate questions (for instance, asking an African American member if you can touch their hair). Try your best to promote a team environment that is particularly respectful of newer members, even if more established ones tend to make fun of each other. Let people get settled on your team before inviting them to social events with alcohol or drugs, and consider a moratorium on hooking up with new members for their first semester or year on the team. Relationships on APDA are common and there is nothing wrong with them, but it can be harmful to a team if a female novice is immediately flirted with by other members, for instance.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and an offhand racist or sexist remark may be made by some teammate to another. If this happens, try to intervene appropriately. You can speak up immediately (something to the effect of, “Hey, that’s not an okay word to use”) or wait to talk with the person later in private. It is also helpful to talk with anyone potentially offended afterwards, to gauge their discomfort. You can talk all together if the latter person(s) want to. When handling equity issues internally, make sure to do so in a way that is proactive rather than just reactive - if you set clear expectations in advance, it will be easier to curtail equity problems and to solve them if they do arise. Being able to refer back to some sort of code of conduct, whether it be in your school’s student handbook or drafted by the team specifically, is always helpful.

This document remains a work in progress. Please submit any feedback to us via email, or anonymously using this form. Thank you for reading!