Leah Shapiro’s six-year-old cousin gets credit for inspiring an innovative, award-winning nonprofit — and UChicago gets credit for helping bring the idea to life. When her cousin began to throw the mother of all tantrums, Shapiro, AB’18, distracted him by improvising a game using skills she’d honed as a high school debater and debate coach. The tantrum was over in a flash, and the idea for Debate It Forward was born: a debate program for kids to help boost their empathy, self-advocacy, and critical thinking skills.
Shapiro talked to her longtime friend and former debater Josh Aaronson, AB’19; together, they came up with a debate curriculum, recruited teachers from among their fellow students, and approached the UChicago Lab Schools for a trial run. When Debate it Forward proved a hit, the founders turned to the UChicago Neighborhood Schools Program for help connecting with more schools.
Aaronson and Shapiro focused the program on kids who don’t traditionally have access to debate: elementary schoolers, students from low-income households, and students with learning differences. In 2018, Debate it Forward won second place in the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation's College New Venture Challenge, taking home $10,000 — and received another $10,000 upon being accepted to the Polsky Accelerator’s 10-week intensive summer program.
“Polsky gets the right people into the room. We’ve talked with a host of people — venture capitalists, food engineers, education nonprofit consultants, tech experts. Getting ideas from other perspectives has been a real benefit.” - Josh Aaronson
Shapiro was also awarded a $25,000 Tarrson Social Venture Fellowship from the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation and The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business. And in 2019, Debate it Forward won Rustandy and Polsky’s Social New Venture Challenge.
“The money is fantastic, of course, but that’s the least important of the benefits of these programs,” Aaronson says. “Access to the resources and talented people that Polsky provides was incredible. Through the Accelerator, we had two coaches who helped us set goals and think through issues. With their help, the program is much more off the ground than it ever would have been otherwise.” Aaronson and Shapiro now work full-time at Debate it Forward; the program is in thirteen Chicago schools, including six in the South Side ZIP codes near campus, and Aaronson says they hope to expand nationally.