There is no debate, Theron Hall, cherishes the Toastmasters Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary
The President of the Capital Toastmasters Club tells his story…
“For twenty plus years, the Oregon State Penitentiary has had support from local colleges and universities, and we have been competing in debates with them. Our goal was to greatly improve our debate program and with the support of our prison administration, College Professors, and our members, we have done just that. In 2009, Professors from Willamette University, Linfield College, and Northwest Christian University began volunteering their time to teach a Parliamentary style debate class to our members. At that point, our debate program began to flourish. In addition to our monthly meetings, cognitive classes, and speech contests, we now hold three debates a year with local colleges and universities and one debate tournament a year.
One of our most cherished events is our annual debate tournament, traditionally held on the first Saturday of each October. However, this year it was held in March. We began holding this tournament in 2010, and it has been a great success. Dr. Jackson Miller of Linfield College once said that he believes that we are the only prison in the nation that holds all day debate tournaments with colleges. Our format consists of four of our teams competing along with 12 college teams. The colleges competing against our teams this year are Vermont University, Vanderbilt, University of Mississippi, US Air Force Academy, Claremont College, Northwest University, College of Idaho, Lewis & Clark, Carroll College, George Fox University, Linfield College, and the Irish National Champs.
After three rounds of debate, the top four teams compete in a championship round to determine the overall winners.
The college students seem to really enjoy themselves and often say that we are their greatest competition they face all year. We are fortunate too in that schools from all over the United States (as far away as Florida) come and compete with us. In 2015, the British National Champion Debaters from England, Chessy Whalen, and Mathew Willmore, were touring the United States and they even came here and competed with us. The Irish National Debate Champions came from Ireland to debate in this year’s tournament.
Our debaters are not afraid to take on any topic and face the challenge of often having to debate against their own personal views. The topics range from things like gun control, mandatory minimum prison sentences, life without parole prison sentences, a shared capital in Jerusalem, police wearing body cameras, schoolteachers being armed, to Collin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem, just to name a few. This year’s topics range from Americas Foreign Policy towards China to whether or not the U.S constitution has outlived its usefulness.
The teaching we receive, and how they are applied, has certainly been paying off. In the last several years we’ve held this tournament, our club has won numerous times and each year we have had at least one team in the championship round. That says something for the teaching we receive from the professors, the combination of Toastmasters skills used in a debate environment, and our member’s dedication to not only learning but also applying newly learned skills.
To me, debate is a vital life skill. I believe one of the greatest things we learn in debate is to see both sides of an issue. This is really essential in a world that has become so politically polarized that discourse is becoming a fading idea. We may not agree with those that hold opposing views to our viewpoint, but when we can see where someone is coming from, we can find common ground and have an understanding of another’s outlook. This creates a connection and a place to begin a dialogue rather than creating separation that often leads to harsh words or worse, violence. Debate is so crucial in teaching a much-needed skill for a pro-social life, whether in prison or in society. We all are grateful for the opportunity to learn these life skills.
When society thinks of prison, the initial thoughts are generally of the worst things those housed within them have done. It is our hope at Capital Toastmaster’s that we can offer society a different perspective – a humane perspective – than that of our past. Our tournament is educational, but it is also evidence that regardless of an individual’s past, they are no longer defined by what put them there but by what they’re doing with their time inside. This is the constant effort to making amends for the harms we’ve created. We hope you take this opportunity to come see us in a different light.”
Theron Hall, President, Capital Toastmasters