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Debate in the Neighborhood

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Debate in the Neighborhood is an IDEA initiative to bring discussion and debate to youth too often denied a voice. Piloted in 2007 in Rotterdam in partnership with Arminius, and inspired in part by the Open Society Institute's Urban Debate Initiative, Debate in the Neighborhood was first developed by IDEA's Amsterdam office, under the direction of Boudewijn Bekkers and Sanne de Kieviet.


The neighborhood is an important and basic place for people. It is the location where people meet, where people talk, where all groups, young and old, different cultural backgrounds, different levels of education are living together. Unfortunately ‘living together’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘interacting’ or ‘being/ feeling involved’. On neighborhood level the consequences of decisions made by politicians are influencing us most: it affects our local shop, our street in front of our house, our green in the neighborhood, it affects the livableness in our neighborhood. It is frustrating for people and most undesirable for democracy when people are just living together, without being involved in decision-making processes, when people don’t know what is happening in their own neighborhood, or are not talking to their neighbors because they simply have a different ethnic background or religion. Communication between people is necessary as unknown makes unloved and it’s a basic asset of democracy.

A requirement for this is that people know about how to do it, how to get themselves involved, how to communicate, with local politicians, but also with their neighbors. Learning how to debate with each other, listen, learn how to identify differences and express your opinion are steps to really living together with being involved. Debate is a friendly and respectful tool to deal with differences in opinions. It stresses the importance to consider and research different perspectives on issues and to listen to other people’s arguments. It is a tool to understand each other better, to make people active citizens which is important for democratization.

To start with this IDEA has developed a special program, to develop debates in the neighborhood, mainly focused on youth. The specific target groups and the approach differ per neighborhood, city and country but the basics for each program are the same: training of trainers (debate mentors), training of some youth(debate trainees), training of large groups of youngsters(lower educational level) and organizing debates in the neighborhood.

Goals of the Program

The expertise of IDEA in developing projects in many, different countries and for different target groups is combined with expertise of local organizations for achieving the goals of the program:

  • stimulating communication between youth, adults and elderly.
  • to teach young people about differences in personal opinions and to respect these
  • make young people enthusiastic about debating
  • teach young people debate skills and different format of debate
  • to improve participation and involvement of young people in democratization
  • to improve social cohesion within neighborhoods

Aims of Neighborhood Debates

Debate is a formal event (with varying degree of formality), with or without public, in which advocates on opposing sides of a controversial issue make use of argument and the power of speech to express their own points of view and react to opposing points of view. Public debates are debates organized in a public space accessible to the members of local community, for the benefit of a large and non-specialized audience. Neighborhood debates have different aims:

  • Contribute to the Public Sphere and bring communities together. Public debates have the potential to encourage members of local communities to experience an actual and sustained engagement with issues- particularly the issues affecting the lives of local communities. By promoting a dialogue between parties on opposing sides, and between experts and non-experts, neighbourhood debates provide a deeper level of interaction than that which is normally afforded by mass communication (TC, radio, press) and are particularly important within mixed communities, where members of different ethnic and religions groups live together but have little opportunity to interact with each other.
  • Promotion of discussion of local issues

Organizers of public debate can use debates as a tool to carry a message on a variety of issues to the members of local communities. Neighborhood debates increase visibility of a given issue by bringing it up in a public sphere in terms of promoting a discussion on local issues but also issues of national and/or global importance and also provide an incentive to address an issue: by providing space for a discussion on possible solutions to existing problems.

  • Building up skills from both youth as well as all the other participants of the debates

Through public debate, debaters learn how to analyze, criticize, and advocate ideas, to reason inductively and deductively, and to reach factual or judgmental conclusions based on sound inferences drawn from unambiguous statements of knowledge or belief. Public debate – by adding additional elements such as moderator and audience – has the potential to promote a deeper experience in critical thinking. Attentive audience members at a public debate will hear and appreciate the speakers and they will also follow and evaluate a line of argumentation. Through an extensive training program and skills transfer in the area of debate, the neighborhood debate project will aim at building the capacity of young citizens in target communities to advocate for themselves and their communities as citizens and residents and to work for democratic social reform on behalf of their communities. The project will lead to the development of more convincing community leaders who are not only capable of engaging their community but are also effective spokespersons and advocates for their communities.

The Program

The program consists of the following steps:

Step One: Training of debate mentors

The first step of the program is training of debate mentors. These debate mentors can be youth workers, but also teachers or other important key persons in a neighborhood. Someone who knows the neighborhood and its people. These people become debate debate mentors and learn about different debate techniques, formats and the best way to teach debate techniques to others. The key persons are the future debate mentors, coaching the debate trainees. Frequently exchange meetings are organized where experiences of other debate mentors from other neighborhoods are shared.

Step Two: Training of debate trainees

The debate mentors recruit future debate trainees from the target group. These debate trainees are young people that assist the debate mentors in giving training to youth in the neighborhood (peer-to-peer technique). The debate trainees need to:

  • be part of the target group
  • have close proximity to the target group (good contact with youth)
  • show affiliation with debating
  • experience the job as trainer as a challenge

The training consists of teaching debate techniques, how to teach other young people debate techniques and how to make other young people enthusiastic about debate and organizing debate-events. The debate trainee will get support and coaching from their mentors.

Step Three: Training of Youth

The debate mentors and debate trainees train youth in the neighborhood in debate techniques. Each young person gets personal coaching. This training aims to teach young people how to debate with other people, to understand the value of proper and thorough research on a topic and how to get this information, how to form an own opinion and how to communicate your opinion with others. Instead of being a victim, they learn how to take responsibility. Presenting, listening, argumentation, giving clear answers are some of the important skills that these young people will be confronted with in the training. As part of this training the young people also practice debate in small settings (community centers, schools). Because every target group is different for each neighborhood, the training will be adjusted to the specific situation, with a lot of space for contribution from the participants.

Step Four: Organizing public debates

The whole neighborhood will be involved within this last stage. Youth will organize public debates in their neighborhood, whereby all the people of the neighborhood can participate. Different formats and settings are possible, like public debates in schools, companies, community centers, shopping areas, debates with politicians, with a large or small public, and even big debate festivals. This is done in cooperation with local organizations.

Phases of the project

The program takes 1-2 years and can start again every year with the people who have been trained.. Every year consists of all the different phases (except the preliminary phase and phase on: these phases will only take place during be the first year of the project).

The whole program takes three years, with repetitions of the trainings each year; with two start moments each year.

Preliminary Phase

Before the start of the specific project, the organizations (local educational, debate and youth organizations) involved develop a project plan and discuss this with youth. This phase is important for further development of the project.

Phase One

During the first phase the project is developed by the project team, in which every organization has a member. IDEA is coordinator of the project team. The main task is to develop the project plan into a plan that is specifically focussed on activities per neighborhood, selection of youth workers, key-persons etc. In this phase the search of the neighborhood is an important aspect. Before implementing a specific project in neighborhoods, it is important to do thorough research of the neighborhood: what are the specific problems, what is the target group, who are the key persons, how are decision making processes done now. Mostly the local organization working in (different) neighborhoods has all this information.

Phase Two

In phase two (starting during phase 1 and repeated twice) the key persons in the neighborhood are trained. As soon as possible the debate trainees are also involved in the trainings. Immediately after the training of these debate mentors, the start of phase three starts.

Phase Three

Youth are trained in debating skills. We are talking than about a real intense training, where debate and communication skill will be learned and experienced. Also evaluation and exchange days of the debate mentors are organized.

Phase Four

In phase four debating starts. Different debates are organized: first public debates inside school, community centers with a small public, later bigger debates at more open spaces, like shopping centers and streets.

Phase Five

In phase five the final round of debates will come together in a neighborhood debate festival, organized by all debate mentors, debate trainees and participating youth.

See Also

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