“No matter who you are, you have a voice, you have a platform. Use that platform to be empathetic and to not be willfully ignorant.” -JR Riojas
In this episode of Community Chats, our team chats with JR Riojas and John Hydrisko from the Warren Debate Union. Recently, the duo won awards in the Intercollegiate Advocacy and Dialogue competition hosted by the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Their project discussing Confederate memorialization in the southern United States won Best Letter, Best Creative Argument, and Honorable Mention in Best Use of History. Tune in to hear about that as well as how speech and debate can foster conversation and understanding within communities.
When writing their award-winning letter, Riojas and Hydrisko were given simple but vague instructions. Given it was the first year of this competition, they were initially at a loss for what to write.
“We knew that they had invited schools from different states across the American South, so we wanted to really focus on Mississippi in particular,” Hydrisko said. Their letter addressed the controversial past of Mississippi’s involvement in the Confederacy, the memorialization of that past, and the evolution of the Lost Cause narrative used to justify that past.
They wanted to highlight the parts of Mississippi’s history that painted the state in a lighter tone. “As we pull down the worst of our state, we also really want to elevate the best and elevate the things that ore often ignored in history that can unite us,” Riojas said. Mississippi, for example, boasts a history of native artists, musicians, and authors.
In writing this letter, the two had to undergo a lot of local history analysis. “You engage with not just the present community but also the past community and how we got there,” Riojas said. They want people to recognize that when you do not engage with your community, either past or present, that that is when the harms in society progress, so be engaged and do so with empathy and understanding.
The Warren Debate Union also hosts public debates in a normal year like their Sunflower Charity Invitational in which they invite debate teams from colleges across the country to compete to raise money for the Sunflower County Freedom Project. Open to and judged by the public, these events are great ways to learn how to have open and productive conversation and engage with different viewpoints. The invitational raised over $3,000 for the Sunflower County Freedom Project last August.
To learn more about the Warren Debate Union and upcoming events, you can visit their Facebook page or their page on the Trent Lott Leadership Institute’s website.
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