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SPNM Perspectives: Rhonda Haynes, National Association For Urban Debate Leagues

By: Rhonda Haynes 19 Aug 2021
Rhonda Haynes at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL. NAUDL Civil Rights Immersion Trip, 2019.

Rhonda Haynes is Executive Director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues and attended the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management – Virtual (SPNMV) Executive Education program at Harvard Business School in June. In the interview below, she discusses her experience in the program. 

Tell us about your work. 

The National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL) prepares young debaters for success as 21st century leaders by supporting structures that help them develop essential skills, providing platforms for them to achieve, fostering close-knit communities, and enriching career pathways.

As a backbone organization grounded in collective impact, NAUDL serves 22 non-profits nationally, which cultivate community for 11,000 students through the intellectual sport of debate. Together, we help students hone skills around critical thinking, citing research, presenting fact-based arguments, and collaborating in teams. We encourage the development and expression of each student’s own thoughts and perspectives.

NAUDL provides academic resources, hosts national events, and helps bridge key transitions from high school to college and career opportunities. In my role as Executive Director, I advocate for students, debate coaches and non-profit leaders while exploring relationships, resources, and opportunities to help propel them forward. That means I get to champion debate as a worthy investment and work with a brilliant team of people, each of whom is committed to providing the best possible experiences for those we serve.

What are the biggest opportunities facing your organization?

NAUDL is currently facing two major opportunities. First, like most non-profit organizations, we felt a particular sense of urgency around financial and programmatic setbacks during the pandemic. We trimmed down to the leanest possible operating scenario, eliminating our downtown Chicago office space and, thus, allaying tough staffing decisions or salary cuts by enabling fully remote work.

A professional world no longer constrained by in-person time and travel actually opened some unique opportunities. For NAUDL, this has meant piloting new initiatives and launching new platforms, ultimately allowing us to engage a wider network, attract new volunteers, and secure new sources of sponsorship revenue. All of which we expect to build upon as workplaces and schools resume a more natural rhythm and stride.  

In the way of programming, I can proudly share that NAUDL managed to swiftly pivot to a virtual environment last spring. As we had previously developed and maintained online data systems and resources, we were positioned to successfully collaborate with partners in drafting new best practices and support students virtually. Additionally, we converted a paid alumni internship pilot (now the White & Case NAUDL Fellows Program) from in-person to virtual, without impeding the career-readiness skills and outcomes. Next year, participating students will benefit from a more traditional internship experience.

The second opportunity lies in expanding our partnership network. Over the last two years, our team has worked to create an enticing narrative that we feel captures the spirit of our mission and the aspirational impact of our work -- not just the “nuts and bolts'' of debate. We know the value of debate extends well beyond crafting and delivering speeches, so we are focused on showcasing debate as more than an afterschool activity or an effective academic intervention.

The first thing most people notice about debate is speed with varsity high school debaters competing at a rate of 350 words per minute. Beyond “fast talking”, however, debate involves meticulous crafting of arguments as well as the practice of real-time analysis, cross-examination, and rebuttal of an opponent's argument. In addition to facilitating debate rounds, NAUDL remains committed to cultivating the next generation of diverse leaders.

We have an opportunity to include a broader network in supporting this formative pursuit and inclusive community. Colleges, universities and employers seeking to recruit students and employees who come prepared to contribute to a project, who adapt quickly to change, who think critically on their feet; who effectively communicate their positions, thoughtfully analyze and process information, and thrive in both autonomous and collaborative settings, need look no further than a debate league. Building partnerships with these kinds of institutions is our next big strategic priority.

What brought you to SPNM?

My motivation for attending SPNM was three-fold.  First, as noted above, I sought guidance from a professional and academic community in articulating NAUDL’s message to capture impact beyond our service levels, research results, and niche.  Secondly, I wanted to explore frameworks that could help me think more boldly about organizational potential.  Finally, I craved intellectual stimulation and directed conversation with a broader group of nonprofit professionals who shared my concerns and organizational aspirations.  Leadership is inherently lonely work, but isolation during the pandemic has felt more profound.  I believed connecting with a new learning community would provide additional support.

I considered it an honor to participate in SPNM, and each day sparked inspiration and camaraderie as much as new knowledge and perspective. While I expected the course to deliver a memorable and hugely beneficial academic experience, I was blown away by the level at which I felt energized and encouraged, especially virtually. 

Having completed SPNM, I feel prepared to make ambitious asks and emboldened to think much more creatively in problem-solving -- all with our mission top-of-mind.  I have a renewed resolve to strengthen NAUDL’s reach and impact.  Most importantly, participating in SPNM gave me the strategic tools and confidence I needed to believe more strongly in our ability to do this work in these times, fully embracing the notion that there are no other options.  NAUDL works to provide opportunities for brilliant young people.

Tell us about your virtual program experience. 

I admit feeling uneasy about attending an online course for seven days, even though I was ready to fully embrace the virtual experience.  On the first day of class, the team of lecturers and organizers shattered any trepidation with superior engagement and deliberate community-building.  In addition to course content, I learned new ways of leading and participating in virtual settings.  I added some new resources to my virtual toolkit and felt motivated each day.  SPNM’s multi-media instructional approach crushed the Zoom-fatigue I anticipated and left me feeling better equipped to engage more effectively in my own virtual meetings.  

How can someone interested in your work get involved or learn more?

Anyone interested in learning more about debate and NAUDL’s work may visit our website for overviews of our programs, impact, events and experiences. For active updates on NAUDL and the Urban Debate Network, we recommend connecting through our TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn channels. Rhonda Haynes may be reached directly at rhondahaynes@urbandebate.org.