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University of Oregon Forensics team harnesses community spirit to push for inclusion in collegiate debate

In the dim aura of hazy bar lights, amid piles of french fries and freshly drained pint glasses, members of the University of Oregon Forensics team huddle around a tea-light table candle squabbling loudly about the proper response to a question they’ve just been asked.

Suggestions are shouted around mouthfuls of half-eaten burger — bad ones shot down quickly between swallows of Ninkasi and good ones greeted with the clink of a celebratory cheer. Ultimately, a consensus is reached, an answer scribbled, and the team’s response carefully passed along to a moderator.

It’s Monday Trivia Night at the Cornucopia bar in downtown Eugene, and generations of debaters from the UO’s speech and debate club are gathered in a weekly match-up of pop culture references and geographical factoids. Though the glow of the dim bar is far from the sterile florescence that usually illuminates the team’s competition space, their collective dynamic remains much the same: critical, yet constructive. Dissenting opinions and contrary perspectives are openly voiced between teammates unafraid of harming the unspoken assurance of unwavering community support.

It’s an atmosphere where people thrive.

Oregon debate has a history of success, borne largely of their history of inclusion: anyone, regardless of demographical, ideological or technical background is encouraged to participate. This year, the team sent three debate duo’s to an invitational tournament reserved for the top 55 teams in the country. At the tournament, UO senior Liz Fetherston was the first in Oregon history to win the distinction of top speaker. Her partner, Kehl Van Winkle, took fourth.

Yet, ask any member of the team what sets this year apart and national success won’t be the only thing that comes to mind. Instead, they’ll likely point to an influential member of the team that you won’t find hanging out at Cornucopia on Monday nights. Her name was Megan Gaffney.

A senior and philosophy major from San Diego, Gaffney was a four year member of the UO’s Forensics team with an affinity for learning and a passion for making the world a better place. An accomplished debater of eight years, Gaffney was respected as one of the top debaters in the country and as an ardent advocate for increasing female representation in the traditionally male-oriented activity. She died last fall.

Though her loss shook the team both personally and competitively, the group forged powerfully ahead — rededicating its efforts in honor of Gaffney’s vision.

“That tragedy caused the whole team to reflect more deeply on why we are doing this activity, why it is important to us and what we can do to make it better and reflective of the kinds of changes that Megan was an advocate for making,” UO Director of Forensics Trond Jacobsen said. “Oregon has been a program that encourages ethical advocacy, intellectual experimentation and responsibility toward improving society … It’s for the purpose of making society better — that’s why we do what we do.”

The UO Forensics team’s primary goal is to help spread the benefits of critical thinking, research and public speaking fostered by debate to demographics who don’t typically participate in the event – a goal they target through an open-door participation policy, high school recruiting efforts and outreach to inner-city youth. In addition, many of the team members — Gaffney included — shape their arguments to address prominent social issues and offer suggestions for their remediation, both within the world at large and in the debate community.

“One of the things that speaks to our goal as a team is that it doesn’t matter what your level of experience is or what kind of speech and debate or mock trial interests you — you have a home on our program,” Jacobsen said. “To me, the biggest thing is more than the kinds of awards we win — it’s that we are helping shape people who will make a significant impact both in our community and in the larger area.”

According to Megan’s mother Nancy Gaffney, it was this attitude of communal support that first attracted her daughter to the team. In turn, Gaffney loved to help train those who shared her passions.

“Megan was very intellectual. She loved to learn about things. That’s what she did for fun … but she was also very passionate about the topics that she was debating,” Nancy said. “If you were at all interested in debate, Megan would do anything possible to help you. She loved to be able to help people and teach … I’m proud of the fact that she would help people and reach out to them.”

Ben Dodds, a former competitor for Oregon debate and the team’s current Forensics Coordinator, remembers one of Gaffney’s last interactions with the team as an example of her role as a mentor. In a presentation, Gaffney taught the team to format its research with a computer template — both showcasing her personal expertise and teaching her teammates how to improve their own arguments.

A metaphorical template herself, Gaffney’s skill, compassion and dedication to making a positive impact on her community made the senior a prime example of the type of student that UO hopes to produce, Dodds said.

“(Gaffney) is the reason we’re able to have the team shaped the way it is and dedicated to the things it’s dedicated to,” Dodds said. “When she got here four years ago, things that we do now were just ideas on paper … she was kind of the template for the team — she actually did it.”

For second year debate member Truth Mallon, Gaffney’s influence played out not only in terms of argumentative technique, but also personal acceptance. Gaffney went above and beyond to help accommodate Mallon, who identifies as transgender — even calling ahead before tournaments to assure the availability of gender neutral bathrooms.

In another telling instance, Gaffney brought along extra Halloween costumes to the team’s annual dress-up tournament last fall. She herself went as the Lorax – equipped with extra Truffula tree costumes for anyone who needed a way to participate.

“(That tournament) was really reflective of what Megan did on the debate team. Like ‘here’s a way to be a part of us. Not just be a part of the team, not just read our arguments, but really be a part of us,’” Mallon said. “That spirit really helped us when she passed — that idea that we had all been made to feel like we belonged.”

Though Gaffney is gone, the communal aspect remains. From trivia night to tournament, the UO Forensics team is in it together.

“Yeah, we’re working on debate, but also working on growing individually and ensuring that if you have problems you have someone to talk to,” Assistant Director of Forensics Steve Clemmons said.

“It feels really good. It feels like home. It feels like family.”

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Sami Edge

Sami Edge

Sami is the Editor In Chief of The Emerald. Former intern at Willamette Week and aspiring international investigative reporter. Swimmer, writer, dreamer, reader, thinker, explorer and drinker of strong coffee.