Grapevine Feature: Women's Debate Institute

Nov 19, 2021

What is the history of WDI? How did the organization get started and why?

The WDI was founded in 1999 by Leah Castella, Jeff Shaw, and Kari Mar. The founders were concerned about the lack of women on the debate circuit. Although girls, and boys joined debate in equal numbers, something happened in the junior and senior divisions that drive women away from this vital, empowering activity. Jeff and Kari were convinced something had to be done, and they conceived the idea of a debate camp that would be just for girls. Leah, a staunch advocate for debate’s role in helping marginalized communities, helped design a program that would incorporate both high-quality debate instruction and personal empowerment. With the help of some of the top debate minds in the country, the founders created a camp aimed at serving dozens of women each year and closing debate’s gender gap.

What draws members/students to your organization?

The WDI is unique because we are one of the few tuition free summer camps available to debaters. We focus not only on preparing our students for the upcoming season, but on building a community of empowered young people. We understand because of students’ diverse backgrounds that each one of them has a unique perspective to bring to the activity. Unfortunately, we also understand because of student diversity they will face unique challenges not only in the debate community but in the world. We give students the tools to understand and navigate the challenges they may face. Students are drawn to the WDI because of the community and support they find at camp.  

How has WDI evolved over time?

The first WDI was a small day camp hosted in a high school gymnasium. Since then, we have evolved to be a multi-day, tuition free camp with a variety of interactive programs our students can choose from all year round. The WDI is gender inclusive, we seek to serve not only students who identify as women but transgender, and non-binary students as well. We believe it is important to reach underrepresented students in debate and help them build the tools to navigate their unique experiences. We also host a summer lecture series, and provide Anti-harassment training to high school, and college programs.  

How can you see the impact that you’ve made through your programs?

After hosting camps and launching innovative programs for the past 20 years, the WDI has made a tremendous impact on students. This is best demonstrated by some of our student testimonials.  

“I was inspired to take on the world…to be the best I can be, to not be afraid of what the people around me are going to say or think of me.” -WDI Student

“I’ve come away from the WDI with a passion for debate, and a desire to debate in college…I told myself it wasn’t an option…The WDI completely changed that.” -WDI Student

“[The WDI] made me question who I am, redefine what matters to me and what my values are, my place in society (i.e. what oppresses me and how I benefit from the racial/socioeconomic privileges I possess), how I can actively combat the systemic oppression I am presented with daily, and most importantly, how I can use my privilege to fight on behalf of/act as an ally for others. It makes me wish the whole world was like that even though, quite frankly, we do not exist in an all-inclusive bubble. It also fostered an intense desire to cultivate that same level of respect, camaraderie and openness on my team, too…truly, I cannot get those four days out of my head and I hope I never will."  -WDI Student

What is WDI focused on right now?

After moving to an online format for the past two summers, the WDI is excited to announce we will be back in person for summer 2022. We are still finalizing a location, but we are committed to making our upcoming camp the best WDI yet. In addition, we are working on expanding our anti-harassment training program.  Too many students face harassment and bullying in high school and college, including when participating in extracurricular activities. In 2017, the WDI decided to expand its efforts to make speech and debate more inclusive by launching a training program to combat harassment and bullying in high school and college speech and debate environments.  Since 2018, we have provided in person, virtual and online training modules designed to make spaces safer for women, LGBTQ, gender non-conforming and BIPOC speech and debate participants. Our training is developed based on the latest in anti-harassment and bullying research and tailored to the speech and debate community, including summer camp programs and college teams. As educators of high school and college students, the Women’s Debate Institute believes it is critical for every staff and faculty member at organizations serving youth in debate to be effectively trained in preventing, identifying, and responding to bullying and harassment.

How can people get involved and support WDI?

There are a few ways people can support the WDI. First, donate. We are constantly expanding our curriculum and programs. Our debate camp is completely free for students. We pay for their travel, lodging, and meals, which means we rely completely on donations to put on our camp and pay our staff. The second is volunteer work. We hire Resident assistants and instructors each year for our camp. Travel for our staff is covered by the WDI and all staff also receive a stipend. Finally, people can spread the word! Follow the WDI on our social media platforms, like and share our posts. We are consistently updating on projects about the organization. Spreading our message is important to building the WDI community.

How are your alumni engaging with WDI and helping WDI drive its mission?

Our alumni often come back to our collegiate scholars’ program, become resident assistants, mentors, and even employees for the WDI. After 20 years, and serving hundreds of students our alumni often become strong advocates for racial and gender justice. As well as active members in the debate community.