What It’s Like ... to Debate a Defining Moment in History

July 07, 2020

By Adrienne Egolf

In a debate hosted by the Jamaican Association for Debating and Empowerment, Gabby Shepherd ’22 lends her voice to the complex fight for equality and justice.

Gabby Shepherd ’22 aspires to change somebody’s life. As a half African-American, half Puerto Rican woman, she understands acutely the power of representation, and that is why she is pursuing a career in law. The English major joined the Rollins debate team her first year at Rollins to sharpen her skills at argument and understanding. Shepherd shared what it was like to debate for the first time on a topic that not only resonates deeply with her on a personal level, but one that is more relevant than ever amid a historic movement for racial equality.

I found out three or four days before the Jamaican Association for Debating & Empowerment (JADE) debate that I was going to be a part of it and that it was going to be broadcast on Jamaican National Radio.

I got a call from [philosophy professor and debate coach] Eric Smaw, and he said, ‘No pressure, I know you haven’t debated in an official competition before, but we think you’d be the best person to represent the team in the JADE debate.’ I had a lot of anxiety because it was my first official debate, but I remembered the words of my fellow debaters who always praise my performance on opposition because I can come up with good points on the fly. And the chance to represent diversity was so important to me in this debate, so I decided to persevere through my nerves.

We were arguing the opposition, meaning we were debating against the resolution: “Black people should prioritize solidarity and self-sufficiency.” Basically, fellow debater and team captain James Payne ’20 and I had to argue that Black people should prioritize inclusion with other races, and we started by focusing on economic aspects. For example, Black-owned businesses are able to thrive more when they have support from a plethora of people. Also, today’s economic supply chain is expansive, and it’s practically impossible to track a chain from the beginning and guarantee that it is composed only of Black people.

It’s always a little hard to prepare when you’re arguing the opposition because you really have to think on your feet in the moment. On top of that, it was a weird place for me because when you debate, you have to argue the position you’ve been assigned with everything you have. This topic really made me consider my own opinion and whether or not I agreed with what I was arguing.

Being a minority, it really made me think about my own experiences with racism, especially being from a household where one side of my family is Black and the other side is Hispanic. Growing up I was actually around mainly white individuals, and I’d never really thought about that before, so it was interesting to come to that awareness and debate on a topic that I was personally invested in, that had such personal implications.

Gabby Shepherd ’22

Debates like this allow you to look at both sides of the argument, to consider the other point of view. I had never had to consider whether or not it was important or subjectively better for Black individuals to unionize independently from the rest of society. But after really examining the intricacies of this issue, especially with the racial tensions that are boiling over now, it’s not surprising that Black individuals lean toward the side of sticking together and prioritizing their race.

Over the past few months, with everything going on in the world, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to ask me for the first time in my life if racial tensions actually happen in real life or if that’s just propaganda—which really took me aback. My hope is that these kinds of debates continue both at the college level and on the world stage and help make people more open-minded. Instead of criticizing Black people for wanting solidarity, everyone really needs to understand why.

Arguing with something you don’t necessarily agree with and taking the time to understand someone else’s position is something that’s lacking in our society. You can understand someone and not necessarily agree with them; it’s not mutually exclusive, and we can all grow when we really strive to understand the complexities of an issue. When it comes to issues of race, it’s important to remember that things are not black and white.

Student at commencement ceremony at Rollins College.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Racial Justice at Rollins

At Rollins, we’re committed to doing our part to advance racial justice. We’re here to learn, to listen, to convene, to create space for all voices to be heard, and to be part of the solutions.
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