Leah Shapiro (back row, second from left) and Debate it Forward campers pose on the steps of The Adler Planetarium in Chicago in 2018. They visited the museum for their debate about whether people should colonize space.
Heilicher alum Leah Shapiro (Heilicher ’08) is redefining debate — what it looks like, what it sounds like, and, most importantly, who can participate. She created My Voice Matters, a debate camp with programs for pre-K through tenth-grade students, with the concept that all children deserve to be heard and feel empowered to share their ideas.
Leah started debate in her last year at Heilicher. She joined the St. Louis Park high school debate team in sixth grade and in her senior year ranked the third highest debater in the country.
While studying comparative human development at the University of Chicago, Leah founded Debate it Forward, a nonprofit camp with the mission to teach kids to “better listen, think, and speak through debate-based games.” She ran the camp for six years and served over 3,000 families. Leah has been back in Minneapolis for nearly a year now and wanted to carry on her work here.
“When I came to Minneapolis, I knew that I wanted to take the most successful kid- and parent-loved program we did in Debate it Forward summer camps and build a business solely around this program.”
So Leah and her co-founder Angelina Harris started My Voice Matters. At My Voice Matters summer camps, campers spend the morning on a field trip, learning hands-on about the day’s debate topic. They then use their research and insights from the field trip to develop a point of view, engage in a team debate with their peers, and have fun.
For example, they might go to the zoo to talk with zookeepers in preparation to debate the ethics of animal captivity. Each day includes debate games and free time, and topics and activities vary among age groups.
“My ultimate vision is to build My Voice Matters camps beyond just the summer — I'm hoping we'll be able to launch school-year camps next year and grow within Minnesota,” Leah said. School-year camps would take place during school breaks, even one-day breaks like President’s Day.
She continued, “I hope that within five years, we'll be serving about a thousand kids annually. More than that, I hope we can contribute to a world in which all children feel that their voices matter and that their ideas are important.”
Leah said Heilicher has influenced her work. “I learned in Judaica — and other subjects — the importance of critical reasoning,” she said. “Heilicher instilled in me that, rather than taking everything I learn at face-value, it is okay to respectfully ask why. That debate and discourse are cornerstones of a healthy and functional democracy and that it's important to advocate for what you believe in and why.”
In reflecting on her time at Heilicher, Leah said, “What most sticks out to me is how supportive the environment was and how much Heilicher made me feel like I had a community behind me. My very best friends today are mostly friends that I made during my early days at the day school.”
Learn more about My Voice Matters.