Jake’s Golden Heart Award recipient, 2023 Melissa Maxcy Wade 72C 76G 96T 00T
Emory wasn’t in Melissa Maxcy Wade’s original plan after high school. Neither was pursuing debate. That changed when Wade’s mother—a teacher—introduced her to Burt Carroll, Emory’s director of admission at the time. Carroll told her about the Barkley Forum—Emory’s award-winning debate team led by Glenn Pelham. After meeting Pelham, she knew Emory and debate were for her. “He was the most important teacher I ever had,” she said of Pelham. “I learned that debate was not a death march to a trophy but a key to learning and service.”
After graduating from Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Wade earned several graduate degrees at Laney Graduate School and Candler School of Theology. Emory’s many schools nurtured her love of interdisciplinary learning. “Emory was a fabulous academic playground for me,” she said. Early on, she found a passion for using debate as an instructional method across disciplines, particularly by using Paulo Friere’s approach of encouraging student-centered instruction. “Once I truly started listening to students, I realized what a great teaching tool this could be,” she said.
Wade combined her passion for education with Pelham’s commitment to service and was a key founder of the Urban Debate League (UDL)—an organization that began as a graduate school project in 1982 and developed into a collaboration between the Barkley Forum and Atlanta Public Schools that aims to equalize education opportunities within under-resourced schools. It has now spread to 24 major U.S. cities and more than 30 international cities and has supported more than 150,000 people, ranging from third graders to those in their 70s.
Thanks to Wade’s leadership, UDL has leveled the playing field for thousands of students who would not have even considered participating in debate. “Many high school debaters enter college having developed graduate-level research skills and exceptional critical thinking.” She also credits debate for broadening the perspectives of privileged college students who coach and mentor high school students. “Students learn empathy fostered in multi-sided perspective taking.”
Others may see Wade’s legacy as the 30 national intercollegiate debate titles her teams won or her push for representation of women and people of color in debate, but she sees it quite differently. She says it’s all about collaboration. UDL would not be successful without Emory debate students and staff members, UDL alumni volunteers, high school teachers, Emory alumni, graduate students and faculty, as well as nonprofit, international, and community partners. She said, “Ultimately, debate is its own legacy. Debate, deliberation, and dialogue training teach people to listen to understand rather than listen to respond. On that foundation, they can engage the needs of the world by examining all sides of problems with respectful discourse.”