Former debaters Kate Selig and Ilana Cuello-Wolffe gained the attention of the National Debate circuit during the National Championships, earlier this summer, when Kate held up a sign with the words “2/28 womxn, top 14 teams” . The poster was meant to address the gender imbalance in Public Forum Debate and highlight the inequities on a livestream of the awards ceremony.The National Speech and Debate Association hosts the tournament annually. Beyond Resolved spoke with Kate and Ilana to get to know their story a little more, specifically their experience as female debaters, and their activism and outspoken support of a more inclusive debate space.
This Q&A will be the first of many in Beyond Resolved’s new monthly Unsung Hero series, where BR will be highlighting debaters who’ve made considerable contributions to the cause that BR advocates for.
*Note: the interview has been edited for clarity.
BEYOND RESOLVED: CAN BOTH OF YOU JUST TELL US SOME BACKGROUND INFORMATION ABOUT YOU AS A DEBATER, WHY YOU JOINED AND WHY YOU STAYED?
Kate Selig: My name is Kate Selig. I debated for the Bromfield School for five years. I first joined speech and debate because all the kids on the math-olympiad team quit math-olympiad for speech and debate and I was a follower stayed on the team in part because a lot of my friends were on it, but also because I had a really cool femxle captain at the time named Carlisle Ferguson and she was really big on encouraging me and my partner Hannah to stay in the event and keep signing up for tournaments even though we were taking major Ls. Our first year, I think we had two wins and fifteen losses.
Ilana Cuello-Wolffe: I’m Ilana Cuello-Wolffe. I debated for the Dalton School for three years. I joined sophomore year because one of my friends from theater camp did debate and he loved it a lot. So I showed up to the interest meeting! Like Kate I was also off to a rough start – I was plunged in the deep end at Big Bronx and went one and six, but decided I loved debate. Everything fortunately went upwards record-wise from there, but I stayed because I loved being in round so much and because of the people.
BR: CAN YOU BOTH EXPLAIN THE BACKGROUND STORY BEHIND THE POSTER THAT WENT VIRAL AND REACHED 40K PEOPLE ON BOTH OF OUR SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS?
Kate: [smiles] We should probably start from the prep group.
Ilana: Yeah! So, we were part of a prep group together. It was us and… [three other teams that we knew from other schools, and] ¾ people in that prep group are female second speakers with first speakers who are male, which is awesome anyway. So there was already a female-empowerment vibe going into Nats (Nationals).
Kate: Yeah and then, Nats went pretty well. I think it was after maybe, I don’t know if it was round ten or eleven when people started to comment on how few womxn were left in the pool. And then by round twelve, I think it was just Ilana, me, and this other girl, and then round thirteen, it was just me in the pool. So then, after we dropped in round thirteen, we were all getting lunch together at the convention center and then Ilana was like, “We should bring the number 5 on stage for the number of womxn left in round eleven, or round twelve.” And then, we thought it was a great idea. But then, tabroom messed up the information they gave Ilana and Ilana found out that she was not going to be on the stage.
Ilana: And then Kate did the sign by herself, which was really brave.
Kate: And I continued the legacy. So, I dabbled with Ilana about what she thought would be a good idea for the sign, and then the sign took shape at dinner. It was me, my partner, and Lake Highland. We all went to CVS, bought the posters, made the sign the next day at Nats with … [my friend] Sajan, and devised an elaborate scheme to sneak it up on stage. We schemed the sneaking up part too. And then it happened.
BR: WHY DID YOU SNEAK THE POSTER UP ON STAGE?
Ilana: We were told that they were gonna take the poster away from us if we went up with the poster. We also just thought having some visual aspect would be important—Nats is just a big show and celebration of debate, which is awesome but can also feel really isolating at times. We knew that the Livestream was going to be seen by lots of people, –especially young impressionable debaters watching— and having some sort of visual representation of what we wanted to sayin a tournament filled with logos, signs, and badges, would just be a striking image and it was.
BR: WAS THERE ANY REACTION FROM THE NSDA AFTER IT HAPPENED, OR DURING IT?
Kate, Ilana: No, not at all.
BR: SO WE WANTED TO TALK A LITTLE ABOUT THE RESPONSE TO THE POSTER, FROM ALL DIFFERENT SIDES. THERE WAS AN OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE RESPONSE TO IT. HOW DID THAT MAKE YOU FEEL AND WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S IMPORTANT?
Kate: It was super cool to get Instagram messages from people who I didn’t know saying “Oh this sign inspired me so much” and then getting a chance to talk to some of those people. Aside from that though, I think that the day after Nationals, because a lot of it was spent packing and flying back, I didn’t see the response unfold. So by the time I got on Facebook, the first thing that jumped out at me was a super negative post. So, reading through that and trying to decide how to respond and ultimately not doing so actually made me feel pretty bad because my thought process was, “I’ve spent all this time in debate learning to respond to people and make counter-arguments and try to defend myself but now that there’s something in the real world, I can’t bring myself to do it.”
BR: WHY DO YOU THINK THAT THAT WAS THE CASE?
Kate: My first instinct at this specific post I’m talking about was one that said: “So are you saying that some of the guys up there didn’t deserve to be there [on the stage]?”
So my first reaction was that is what I mean” because well I’m not saying, “Oh take the bottom three guys and take them off the stage and put in three girls instead”, but more that if what we are saying is legitimate, which is that a lot of womxn are pushed out of the activity before they get the chance to succeed, and even once they stay in, they are still pretty categorically disadvantaged, then technically yes I do think more womxn should have probably been on that stage in an ideal world—and I guess the converse of that would mean that some of the guys up there wouldn’t have been up there.
Ilana: It’s just frustrating because we as a community can recognize, and a lot of individuals are often applauded for recognizing that there are individual acts of sexism, or racism, or classism in debate but then we’re not willing to extrapolate these instances of exclusion and talk about how that applies to the broader trends of success in someone’s career. While I think that just because someone is successful doesn’t mean that they didn’t earn it—everyone who is successful also works very very hard for it— but implicitly within rankings or broader metrics of success are all of these systemic privileges which allow you to get there. And it’s all right and good if, in the status quo, you are calling out those acts of oppression, but we should also apply these same criticisms and look at who we talk about in clout culture, or who we celebrate on stages or who we look to in the debate rankings as well, because until we solve all of those systems, the most successful people are not always going to be the best debaters and also, are still going to have gotten there because of different forms of privilege.
BR: I WANTED TO ASK YOU A SEPARATE QUESTION. I KNOW WE TALKED ABOUT THIS A LITTLE BIT BEFORE THIS INTERVIEW, BUT THERE WAS A COMMENT ON THE POST THAT WAS SAYING, “OH WHY ARE THEY NOT DRAWING ANY ATTENTION TO THE FACT THAT THERE ARE NO LATINX PEOPLE ON THE STAGE” AND I KNOW THAT THAT STRUCK A NERVE WITH YOU SO I WANTED YOU TO TALK ABOUT THAT BECAUSE IT’S DEFINITELY IMPORTANT.
Ilana: Yeah, so there was a Latinx debater on the stage; there was Daniel on the stage. Just a brief note about that before I get into the question. It’s upsettingwhen people assume you are not Latinx or you are based on how you look. You know Latinx is an ethnicity which encompasses quite a few countries, and a label which encompasses individuals who are white-passing because of colonialism and imperialism, as well as afro-latinx people. Also peoples parents and families can obviously come from different places, which means that all of this even harder to ‘designate’. This was a side note, but yes, it’s frustrating when people assume individuals race/ethnicity, so I didn’t really appreciate that comment. I also didn’t appreciate it because obviously the sign is by nature only talking about a single issue. It is obviously upsetting that there are not that many Latinx debaters in high levels of public forum, but there are also not that many black debaters either. It’s fantastic that our community is majority non-white, but yes there are conversations to be had about who is represented in our small community within that broader categorzation of non-whiteness. All non-white individuals deal with racism and bigotry both in and out of debate, but it is important to note that its harder to weather the storm of this if you don’t have judges who look like you (because judges are typically parents) or other competitors who look like you to help provide support systems. So yes, it is important to talk about what races/ethnicities are not represented in PF debate, especially at high levels, but their comment was not the way to do it..
BR: RIGHT. THE CONCEPT OF BEING PRESIDENTIAL—PEOPLE HAVE THIS IDEA THAT PUBLIC FORUM SHOULD LOOK LIKE WHAT POLITICIANS LOOK LIKE BUT POLITICIANS ARE ALL WHITE, MALE, AFFLUENT, ETC.
Ilana: I agree. I mean all of those things matter to us completely, so calling us out on not having the sign also say that there weren’t enough Latinx individuals—I mean we would have gotten criticized if the sign had said “There are no Latinx debaters and no black debaters on the stage, there are no debaters with X income, there are also no womxn debaters.” We would have gotten criticized no matter what was on the sign and we thought that making it more streamlined and visually easy to understand was probably the best call in that instance, and that doesn’t mean that all those other issues don’t matter to us And also, obviously people are intersectional. Kate is a womxn of color, I am also a womxn of color, so all of these things matter to us,and calling us out for not putting each issue on the sign is just placing impossibly high burdens on an 18 x 28 inch piece of paper. Ultimately we would have been criticized no matter what we did.
Kate: One of the interesting interactions I did have afterward, through my Instagram, was one kid who reached out to me and said: “I used to be in this debate activity, but the overwhelming subtle queerphobia ultimately pushed me out and to be able to respond to that person and to say, “‘I actually can relate to where you’re coming from and it’s really hard to put up will all of that at tournaments and still want to stay in the activity and how the LGBTQ community in debate isn’t really a strong one at all.’” It inspired me at VBI to go help on VBI’s inclusivity day, to volunteer to help run the gender and sexuality workshop, which previously was one I didn’t feel comfortable doing because I felt that by offering to lead that I would out myself. I started becoming more comfortable with putting myself out there just a little bit so that maybe people who are less comfortable doing so can look to me and see me as someone that’s inspiring.
Ilana: You inspire me, Kate.
BR: YOU INSPIRE A LOT OF PEOPLE. THAT’S A GREAT SEGWAY INTO THE NEXT QUESTION BECAUSE IT’S TALKING ABOUT ROLE MODELS THAT Y’ALL HAVE HAD IN THIS COMMUNITY, BECAUSE I THINK YOUR INDIVIDUAL STORIES MATTER TOO, AS A FEMALE IN THE COMMUNITY.
Kate: I was reflecting on this a couple of days ago about how as a debater for the majority of my career, I didn’t have any female role models, especially when it came to coaches. Most of the people who I looked up to on the circuit and wanted to be when I eventually became a coach were mostly male. I remember for the majority of my debate career, whenever we would watch out rounds at tournaments, I would usually just follow my partner around, Nikhil, to go watch other guys on the Massachusetts circuit do their out rounds, so I didn’t really have a chance to find female role models at that time. Perhaps the most notable round was last year at NSDAs, I watched an out round with Theodore Roosevelt (Ellie and Sophia) and surprisingly, that one stuck out in my mind a lot and to make it to late out rounds at Nationals this year as they did was something that was cool to me. Then to come to NDF and lead a lecture with Ellie was just really really cool.
Ilana: A brief note on the coaching thing, like I mentioned before, I think it’s important to talk about the kinds of people who tend to end up becoming coaches in this activity, I mean 1. a lot of womxn or people of color or low-income people end up leaving this community because of not feeling like it’s an actual community for them so they don’t end up becoming a coach in the first place, but 2. this idea of hiring who did performatively best on the circuit means that you may be hiring people who look and think similarly, given that these more concrete measures of success are easier to attain with different forms of privilege. People who are structurally disadvantaged from attaining the same type of levels of success still have quality analysis and if anything has to work harder at it, so if you have the ability to pay lots of money to hire one of the top teams, you probably also have the financial resources and connections to look for someone who excelled in less concrete ways – through stellar ideas/analysis, or other specific skills!.,
Second of all, I agree with Kate. I didn’t have that many role models as a debater, but I had lots of emotional support. The first time I had a role model in debate was when I came to camp and met Eden—a successful female second speaker—and then started watching more of Eden’s rounds. And just having conversations with her and talking to her at office hours, she was just exactly the debater that I wanted to be. I was already doing things implicitly like her but being able to have a more concrete visualization of their implementation (in someone who was so good at it) just opened my eyes and gave me clarity of thought which allowed me to make that strategic shift and see the bigger picture in debate. And I think that’s why they there’s so much power in telling stories about our experiences, because it has the power to make other people feel seen. I also think that is also important to note that, you don’t have to have a role model who looks exactly like you to to be able to exist in this community, because there are so many people, especially black and Latinx debaters where that representation just isn’t there. And so to say that, only if there’s someone who looks exactly you who’s doing well, is the only way that you can do well means we’re going to have a self-supporting system. And so I think that you can substitute role models with groups of people who emotionally support you, and/or people who debate like you even if they don’t look or identify exactly the same as you do And this can function the same way (if not better than) a traditional role model would, by inspiring, supporting, and motivating you. And who knows! Maybe all of this even makes you that person that other people who do look or identify exactly like you end up looking up to.
BR: YOU TALKED A LITTLE BIT EARLIER ABOUT HOW IT WAS POWERFUL WORKING WITH OTHER FEMALE SECOND SPEAKERS. WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE BEING A FEMALE SECOND SPEAKER WHO WAS DEDICATED TO STAYING IN THAT POSITION, AND NOT TRYING TO CONFORM, ESPECIALLY THIS YEAR?
Kate: in my freshman, sophomore years of debate, I remember looking around the MA debates circuit and after one local tournament, I worked on counting up the number of females debaters, and then the number of females who are speaking second versus first, especially in female-male partnerships. And the number was, very, very low. So at that point, I thought to myself, well, I should counter this and go be a female second speaker. I also remember during my freshman and sophomore year, some of the other guys on my team told me that biologically women can’t speak second because they are better at big-picture thinking that summary speaking requires. That also bothered me a lot and made me want to be a female second speaker.
And actually , the whole argument that, women can’t debate compellingly , and that women can’t do the line by line, actually came back to me at equity day of a camp I was teaching at, a week or two weeks ago, when during my equity presentations, one of the kids in the audience asked me, basically, “Oh, so you know, how women have lower IQ’s than men, right? Isn’t this why we’ve got a gender gap and PF debate?”. So I respond to the person but then I think a couple of minutes later, I started thinking back to freshman year, and how painful it was to hear from members of my team that I couldn’t do the job that I wanted to do that I started to tear up and I left the room. So those things that people say a while back, they do stick with you for a while.
Kate: In terms of actually, second speaking, I don’t know. It might have been paranoia, but I felt like I could see before around that when they’re male second speakers on the other team that they might have thought their injury easier crossfire by crossing me. I remember I would have judges who would assume that my partner Nikhil was the second speaker on the team even before asking us what our speaker orders were. But I like to think that that bias has gotten less prevalent, especially as the role of first speakers has expanded and become more important, but also hopefully, the circuits got a little bit more progressive.
Ilana: I share a lot of the same experiences as Kate I think, a lot of female second speakers do. I will say that it is true that at the beginning, I probably was not as clear or as ‘good’ as some of the male debaters on my team. And a lot of that had to do with internalized sexism; I didn’t think that I had the capability to engage with some of the arguments that people were making, because I didn’t think I was smart enough, or I didn’t want to occupy enough space, or I wasn’t confident enough in my voice. I wasn’t explaining things as clearly as I could, I definitely, had the intellectual capability to, but I don’t think I was presenting as well as I could. And so it did mean a lot that upperclassmen on the team, took the extra time to support and mentor me. I do think that potential looks different if you haven’t been told all of your life that your voice matters, and you’ve internalized these kinds of things. At the same time, there were definitely a lot of boys who became second speakers on the team at the same time as me, who were full of a lot of hot air, but spoke really confidently and so it seemed like they had more potential. But then I ended up doing better than them because I worked harder, but also because I definitely did have the same, if not more inherent capabilities—it was just a matter of gaining confidence and finding my style. .
Kate: That self-doubt that people put onto you as the as a female debater early on, it does stick with you into the time that you started coaching. Even judging now, when I first started judging at camp, I had this paralyzing fear that I was going to make the wrong decision that I put in my paradigm:” if you’re reading complicated econ arguments, can you slow down for me,” because I had that much self-doubt about my knowledge about economics. But then I mean, when I realized that that was translating into kids asking me before around, “do you need me to slow down on the trade argument on the aff?” Okay, come on. now that I removed that line, I want to be a little bit more confident in myself, so that if I don’t understand anything, or if people think I don’t understand a response, or if I think that a response was dropped on the flow, want to be able to trust myself a little bit more when I’m making those decisions. An example of that was at VBI semi-finals when the round came down to a turn on their case that I didn’t understand. I was terrified when I decided not to vote for the argument because I didn’t understand it. But then after the round, because the judge was a 3 woman panel for male debaters. I was talking to another judge after the round, and she said, “You know, I also couldn’t get it down, and when I was voting, I was nervous that I was just,, not that smart.” But in reality, we have to stop the self-doubt.
BR: DO YOU HAVE ANY MESSAGES OF ENCOURAGEMENT FOR YOUNGER FEMALE DEBATERS OR YOUNGER DEBATERS IN OTHER MINORITY GROUPS?
Kate: First off, find groups of people who support you. For instance, NSDA Nats was a far better tournament, because I had people like Ilana around me. And then second off, don’t compromise your style for anyone. You’re probably going to get nasty comments, you’re probably going to take L’s that you didn’t deserve to either way, but at least if you’re debating with your style, then you can you get that self confidence that you grew as a person and as a debater, even it wasn’t reflected in your record by the time you graduate.
Ilana: Absolutely, I think the thing that I got the most out of it was the analytic skills, and also the relationships that I made. Kate really said everything perfectly about the importance of finding your style! And also, as Kate said, the relationships that you make matter; debate people are the best people with the best banter and just—they’re just the best. But I also would say that there’s a lot of negative comments and instances that you have to weather. So, finding good people is important, but also finding people who support you for the right reasons, and who do, intellectually and emotionally respect you. There are a lot of people who will give you positive feedback or positive responses, but it won’t be for the right reasons. And that can be equally if not more upsetting as well.
BR: FOR SURE. LAST QUESTION, ANY MESSAGE FOR THE NSDA?
Ilana: There should be different types of judge strikes, right? There should be judge strikes for people who are performatively disadvantaged like female debaters, like debaters of color, or anyone else who have had comments that are about their identity, because they have to strike judges who give comments directed at that part of their identity rather than just striking bad judges, which people who don’t fall into those categories can do.
Kate: I think NSDA would also benefit by trying to find a way to compile statistics on the on what’s happening in PF debate. I think it’d be possible for them to especially start collecting, you know, gender, gender statistics and add maybe a question about that on tabroom optional for when you’re registering for tournaments. I think that in addition to having a lot of people speak out about their own experiences, having data and statistics being published on this issue, has helped sway a lot of people to realize that this is a real problem in PF debate. And the NSDA can help that because they can collect so much data more so than any individual researcher can.
Ilana: But also not just data! If they are committed to making debate diverse and making sure that all student voices matter they should also hire research teams, and use their large amounts of funds to look into tangible initiatives that can be done! Because ultimately we’re just high schoolers, and honestly, the majority of the things that we talk about and think about are probably on the social level, which matter a lot, but for them if they’re actually committed to furthering student voices, then they should be using a lot of their resources to look into initiatives and ways to help counterbalance all of these negative harms from the top down.
This interview was done by Sara Catherine Cook and Yukiho Semimoto, and was edited by Clara Koritz Hawkes.