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Empower Expression has peers mentoring peers across state lines

Student nonprofit to host its virtual debate tournament this June


Anjali Aggarwal, a junior at W.T. Clarke High School in Salisbury, has been spending her time during the coronavirus pandemic helping students who want to improve their public speaking skills.

Kate Li, a junior at Howland High School in Youngstown, Ohio, is also an avid public speaker, and has been meeting virtually with students to teach them different styles of debate. And Jason Cai, a junior at the MacDuffie School in Granby, Mass., has been teaching students how to speak Mandarin and French.

The three recently launched a nonprofit called Empower Expression, which offers free mentoring to high school students in a variety of fields, including public speaking, design, music, writing, language and film production.

“We just really wanted to help other people with their confidence and with their communication skills,” Li said, “to help guide their future and careers.”

Aggarwal added that their mission became even more pertinent because of the pandemic. “I feel like [our mentees] are benefiting from having someone to talk to and learn from,” she said. “Being alone could be very isolating, and virtual mentoring is something that could bring people together right now.”

The three students met last summer in the Harvard Pre-College Program, a two-week course for high school students who live on and take classes at Harvard’s campus in Boston.

Li is Empower Expression’s president and executive director. She has experience in congressional and public forum debating, is a Ted-Ed Student Talk leader and has taken part in piano competitions for 12 years. Aggarwal, the vice president and secretary, has been a standout in writing and business competitions on a regional and international level. And Cai is a native Mandarin speaker who is fluent in French.

“We all stayed in touch after the end of the [Harvard] program, and that led us to start working together on Empower Expression,” Aggarwal said.

The group is hosting its first #SpeakForTheArts Online Debate Tournament June 6-7. There will be two divisions, one for high school students and another for graduates, and include three categories of debate: Public Forum, Lincoln Douglas and Congressional.

Public Forum is a debate between two teams of two, and focuses on issues and questions in U.S. current affairs. Lincoln Douglas is a morality debate between two individuals, in which each argues a scenario based on a philosophical or economic value. And in Congressional debates, participants argue for the passage of bills and mandates, like the U.S. Congress.

The tournament will be held in partnership with United 4 Social Change, a nonprofit that supports civic action projects. The tournament will be hosted by classrooms.cloud using the same format as the National Speech and Debate Organization.

Registration is available at speakforthearts.tabroom.com. To compete in the Lincoln Douglas and Congressional debates, participants pay a $3 fee. To compete in the Public Forum debate, teams pay a $5 fee. The registration deadline is May 28, and the payment deadline is May 31.

The debate tournament will be Empower Expression’s first fundraiser, and the money it raises will provide supplies, like musical instruments and film equipment, to mentees who cannot afford them.

Nicholas Esponoza, a sophomore at Clarke, has been involved in the program since it began in January, as a mentee of Aggarwal. The two met through the school’s DECA business club, in which Esponoza is on the board of directors.

Esponoza said that he was an avid business student, but has had trouble sharing his ideas with a crowd. “I’ve always been kind of a shy person, and been in a lot of situations where I have to speak in front of people,” he said. “In business, you have to have good public speaking skills, and I knew I had to receive assistance to be more successful in the DECA club.”

Although all of this spring’s DECA events have been canceled, Esponoza has practice his skills by videoconferencing with Aggarwal. “I think it’s very helpful, and we need to get the word out,” he said of his time with Empower Expression. “There’s a lot of people in our community and in Ohio who want to take an interest in things, but they don’t have the resources to get [help].”

Empower Expression is seeking other mentors and mentees. Those who are interested can sign up at www.empowerexpression.org. Potential mentees will be asked about their interests and skills, and will be paired with one of roughly 20 mentors who were recruited from the founding members’ communities and networks. Potential mentors will also be asked about their skills and experience before being interviewed by Aggarwal, Li and Cai.