Meet the Team: Former debater Elizabeth Jones
Malcolm X once said that education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. Not all educational experiences, however, are of equal value. Some fill our heads with useless data, while others lead us to discover ourselves and our purpose. For attorney Elizabeth Jones, her experiences as a member of the University of Louisville Malcolm X Debate Team were of the latter group—she came to the squad as an accomplished student without a clear objective and left as an activist intent on eradicating injustice.
Liz, as she is known by friends, stumbled into debate accidentally. As a senior at Jeffersontown High School, located in a predominantly white suburban area, she didn’t have any particular interest in the activity, but decided to check it out based on the recommendation of an English teacher she liked. After several months of repeatedly losing to other schools in the county, she’d seen enough—sports and other extracurricular activities promised more rewarding competitive opportunities. Despite her team’s lack of success, however, Liz’s performance in debate was enough to catch the attention of Dr. Ede Warner, Jr., Director of the University of Louisville Debate Squad. Warner, who watched Liz in a debate round and was impressed with what he saw, called to personally offer her a scholarship if she would join his squad.
While she appreciated Dr. Warner’s offer, Liz didn’t need it; she had already been offered scholarships at several universities. She would be attending the University of Louisville after graduation, but had no intention of continuing in debate. Although she had declined the offer to join the UofL squad, however, Warner’s description of their decision to forgo the usual speed reading of debate in favor of holistic arguments that embraced racial identity intrigued her. As the child of a white mother and an African American father, Liz knew what it was like to try to straddle two different cultures, so she was curious to see if the UofL team really could create a space for Black students in the white-dominated world of debate. Her interest was further piqued by that year’s topic—Africa.
So it was that, in her first semester at UofL, Liz found her way to the debate class being taught by Dr. Warner. The classroom discussions on institutional racism fascinated her, and before the semester was over, she had signed on to the debate team, a decision that changed her life. Liz entered college unsure of her intended course of study, although she thought she might become an engineer. She entered college with little more than a passing interest in racial consciousness, although her mixed racial heritage had led her to consider it. She had entered college with no passion for activism, although she had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and knew that injustice existed everywhere. Debate changed all that. Through debate, she learned to reconsider everything she thought she knew about the world and her place in it.
The year Liz joined the squad, the students and the director made a collective decision to employ an argument strategy that exposed the existence of privilege in the debate community. By only evaluating one form of expression, the norms of debate silenced minority voices and experiences—racial minorities, socioeconomic minorities, gendered minorities. The strategy was met with strong resistance from debaters and coaches who liked their game and had no interest in changing it. Backlash against the “Louisville Project,” as it was called, was intense.
As a member of a squad that was demonized by the rest of the debate community, injustice became a deeply personal experience for Liz. She and her teammates were unprepared for the fierce opposition to their desire to express themselves authentically and examine issues through a racial lens. She was disturbed by the controversy created by their race-based arguments and by attempts to cast their unique exploration of ideas as a threat to the educational value of debate. Liz knew from her readings on critical race and dominant ideologies—done in preparation for debate rounds—that the resistance to was simply an unwillingness to relinquish privilege. Debating issues from one’s own social location wouldn’t destroy the benefits of debate, but it would allow those outside the dominant culture to gain access to them.
Liz is living proof of the power of debating from one’s own social location, and of incorporating one’s own experiences and perspectives into arguments. By weaving poetry and spoken word into her speeches, she created a vivid image of oppression—in the world and in the debate community. She discussed her identity and how it shaped her understanding of each year’s topic. She brought privilege into the open and opened the eyes of those who possessed it. As a result of her efforts, Liz could easily be considered one of the most prominent African American women ever to compete in intercollegiate debate. She and her partner, Tonia Green, advanced to the quarterfinal rounds at both CEDA National and the NDT and she was the first African American woman to be named Top Speaker at the CEDA National Tournament.
Liz began her time with the University of Louisville Malcolm X Debate Team undecided—about her major, her identity, and her future. She left with a degree in Liberal Studies that included concentrations in Political Science, Pan-African Studies, Philosophy, and English. She left with clarity on who she was and what was important to her. She left with a commitment to fighting injustice, to serving others, and to being a social activist. She arrived as the daughter of her mother and father but left, as her mother liked to say, as the love child of Angela Davis and Malcolm X.
After leaving the University of Louisville, Elizabeth Jones went to Georgetown University Law School, where she took courses presented by scholars, like Mari Matsuda, whose work she had read in debate. She became a Public Defender in New Orleans, where she works to protect the rights of those who have fallen victim to an unfair system that places no importance on their existence. She has devoted her life to working for those who are less blessed then she is, and toward a future world where peace, love and justice prevail, and everyone has equal access to education and opportunities for advancement.