Our History


For more than 33 years, the Atlanta Urban Debate League has cultivated a forum in which local and regional communities can access the skills of critical thinking, research, public presentation, and advocacy through quality debate education.

Founded in 1985, as a partnership between Atlanta Public Schools and the Barkley Forum of Emory University, the Atlanta Urban Debate League sought to provide students interested in debate with opportunities to participate in programs, workshops, and tournaments. Early funding from Atlanta Public Schools, Phillips Petroleum Company, Gulton Foundation, and the Atlanta Bar Association, allowed more than 3,000 students to participate in debate programs by 1995. Due to the success of the Atlanta Urban Debate League, the first urban debate league in the United States, The Open Society Institute invested $600,000 in the Atlanta program and used the urban debate league template to launch a similar program in New York. As a result of seeding programs in other cities, often partnerships between school systems and universities, there are now 24 urban debate league programs in major U.S. cities. Since 1985, more than 40,000 students and teachers have participated in the Atlanta Urban Debate League, with 90% of student partcipants graduating from high school and 75% matriculating to college.

As the needs of the community changes, the Atlanta Urban Debate League has extended its programs to reach across dozens of counties, and into neighboring states, as it continues to be a laboratory for innovation in debate education theory and practices.

Since 2010, Debate Across the Curriculum, an initiative to train and support teachers with the integration of debate educational theory and practices in the classroom, has generated much interest and demand in school systems across the country. Hundreds of teachers have since completed this training which has expanded access to debate to thousands of students.

My three years with the AUDL have taught me how important establishing communities is to the wellbeing of students. Through AUDL debate camps and tournaments we have really gotten to know the kids and I think that has made their experience with learning debate more meaningful and enjoyable.
— AUDL Student Intern, Emory Class of 2019

In 2014, the league nearly doubled in participation. This propelled students to seek more challenges and opportunities in debate. What resulted was a collection of veteran AUDL debaters establishing the debate ambassadors program, an initiative that allows the group to travel on more competitive regional circuits to compete against top debaters in Atlanta, the southeast, and the nation.

Seeing the benefits produced through their secondary student participation in debate, Atlanta Public Schools requested an AUDL pilot of elementary debate programming in 2014. The pilot took off, and the division opened up to welcome all elementary schools in the state and southeast region.

“We are in the middle of this world that needs critical thinkers. You need to be that thinker.”

— 9th Grade AUDL Debater

In 2016, Emory University created the Center for Civic and Community Engagement, and it became a new home for the AUDL. The AUDL looks forward to continuing its mission of impacting the quality and accessibility of education and life skills through debate alongside new community collaborators.

Major support for the programs of the UDL in Atlanta comes from the Atlanta Public Schools, Glenn Pelham Foundation, National Debate Project, Emory University, and Georgia State University. Now there are Urban Debate Leagues in 22 cities across the U.S. as a result of the success of the AUDL.