There’s no debate. This nonprofit helps kids manage civil discourse

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CHICAGO — Childhood friends Leah Shapiro and Josh Aaronson run "Debate It Forward," a nonprofit debate program that teaches kids across the city the value of civil discourse.

“We think that debate skills are really critical for students," Aaronson said. "You have to be able to express yourself in a concise, persuasive manner — whether it’s in class or later on in life in a job setting. [To] be an active participant in democracy, you have to be able to express yourself.”

Aaronson has a background in education, and Shapiro debated competitively for seven years.  She said she first got the idea for the program a few years ago while driving with her then 6-year-old cousin Danny, who was having a temper tantrum.

“In an effort to restore everyone’s sanity I said, ‘Daniel, we’re going to play a game called ‘Debate.’ I’ll say something, and you have 10 seconds to prove me wrong.”

She said Danny was captivated by the challenge. He liked, "really using his critical thinking, and using his cognitive skills, and how he was able to de-escalate his tantrum and focus on it."

Shapiro said she began to think that maybe all children could benefit from this skill set.

“It’s really just to help build kids confidence, their empathy skills and their perspective making,” she said.

Students learn to understand and listen to another’s point of view.

The duo said they initially planned to teach debate as a college side gig, but “Debate It Forward” quickly snowballed into success.  With a summer camp, as well as during and after school classes, the program is now Shapiro and Aaronson's full-time job with a teaching staff of 29. All employees are required to pass a 10-week training course.

While debate is generally considered competitive, Shapiro and Aaronson point out there is more to gain than winning.

“We are not creating the next wave of great debaters,” Aaronson said. “But instead we want to give the students the skills they need to succeed.”

Shapiro and Aaronson hope to turn "Debate It Forward" into a national program.

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