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Meet the first-ever Black girl duo to win Harvard's international debate competition

16-year-old Jayla Jackson and 17-year-old Emani Stanton are both members of the Atlanta-based Harvard Diversity Project.

Meet the first-ever Black girl duo to win Harvard's international debate competition
Cover Image Source: Instagram/Harvard Diversity Project

Two Black girls from Atlanta made history this week by becoming the first Black female duo to win the annual summer debate competition at Harvard University. 16-year-old Jayla Jackson and 17-year-old Emani Stanton, who are both members of the Atlanta-based Harvard Diversity Project, reportedly bagged the historic win by defeating over a hundred debaters from around the world. "We did it AGAIN! Our 4th consecutive championship win was brought home to Atlanta by Jayla & Emani with an #UNDEFEATED record as they became the FIRST EVER Black girl duo to win Harvard’s international debate competition against over one hundred debaters from around the world," the Harvard Diversity Project wrote on Instagram.


"They have shown the world what's possible when the playing field is leveled," the program added. According to Black Enterprise, Jackson, a rising junior at Holy Innocents' Episcopal School, and Stanton, a rising senior at North Atlanta High School, have secured the fourth consecutive championship for the team with an undefeated 10-0 record. The topic for the debate was "Resolved: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization should substantially increase its defense commitments in the Baltic States." Speaking of the historic win, Jackson said: "We want to use our platform to show people what’s possible when the playing field is leveled for those who need it most."


The Harvard Diversity Project was founded by Harvard's assistant debate coach and author Brandon P. Fleming as an educational equity initiative for the school, reports AJC. "During its inaugural year, the Harvard Diversity Project became a national media sensation after achieving a historic win at the Harvard summer debate residency," the program website states. "In the months leading up to the summer, the first cohort of students sacrificed their Saturdays to study in Atlanta under the tutelage of Brandon Fleming, Harvard University’s Assistant Debate Coach. Fleming, an at-risk youth turned award-winning educator, leveraged his Harvard debate faculty position to create the Atlanta-based pipeline for the purpose of increasing minority representation at the Harvard residency."


"The end goal of the Harvard Diversity Project is to promote educational equity by creating opportunities for underserved youth to gain exposure and access to academic training that will distinguish them as top candidates in the college admissions process," the website adds. Every year, the program recruits about 25 Black youths with little to no prior debate experience. They then undergo a rigorous 10-month training regimen, "where they are introduced to debate through the exploration of academic disciplines that foster critical thinking, public speaking, and argumentation."


In the past four years, Fleming has reportedly raised more than $1 million to enroll over 100 African-American students into the Harvard debate residency on full scholarship. All four cohorts trained by him so far have gone on to win the international debate competition at Harvard. However, Fleming emphasizes that the program is "bigger than debate" to his students. "The achievements of this program and our scholars reveal to the world the power of educational equity," he said. The team also made history last year when Madison Webb of Langston Hughes High School and Christian Flournoy of the Westminister Schools won the competition.


According to WAGA-TV, Webb became the first Black female winner and Flournoy the youngest Black male winner ever in the competition. "One thing I've learned from this program is when you stand up and answer a question - if you're told to sit back down or to think deeper it's not about being told to sit back down, it's about having the tenacity and courage to get back up," Flournoy said of the Harvard Diversity Project. "So I bring that now everywhere that I go."


"The message I want to send to Black kids all around the world, despite all the racial stereotypes and no matter who or what tries to limit you-- there's always someone rooting for your success on the other side. And that for us was our community here in Atlanta," Webb said. "So the only thing missing from the equation was opportunity and that's what the Harvard Diversity project stands for."

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