Mollie Clark was a debater for four years, from 2010 to 2014, at Eagan High School in Minnesota. Upon graduating, she attended college in Iowa and coached for Theodore Roosevelt High School. This past year, she transitioned back to coaching at Eagan High School. She has also spent three of her four last summers as a lab leader at a popular Public Forum summer camp, NDF. Clark has coached five state champions in the past couple years—four in Iowa and one in Minnesota. She has had teams place in the top 10 at NSDA’s for the last two years. Over the summer, Beyond Resolved interviewed Clark about her career thus far, specifically what it is like being a female debate coach, which is a field that like debate itself, is dominated by men.
This Q&A is the second installment of Beyond Resolved’s new monthly Unsung Hero series, where BR will be highlighting debaters who’ve made considerable contributions to the cause that BR advocates for. To read our last Unsung Heroes Q&A with Kate Selig and Ilana Cuello-Wolfe click here.
Beyond Resolved: How did you get involved in debate and why did you stay in the activity?
I was aggressively recruited as a middle schooler. We had a debate class that we had to do. and I just had done really well in that singular class. My teacher who also happened to be a rad rad lady was , “you need to do debate.” I did not think I was smart; I thought I was kind of an idiot. I was a really artsy kid–I just liked to draw. And so I didn’t really believe in myself. But, the people in charge of the program just told me they’d signed me up for the novice camp that Eagan hosts to acquaint new debaters with the activity. The second I got there, I had to pick my partner. And then I couldn’t quit because I had a partner. She was a really big reason why I stayed in the activity, were were both nerdy young women. So, we had each other and we had a really cohesive partnership. We went through a number of novice coaches who were female, but other than that, we had male coaches. And there was a lot of sexism, especially in 2011-2012, I think since the activity was still so new.
When I went to college, I was asked by a couple of the Des Moines teams to coach for their schools. So I had a lot of options to coach and honestly almost the second I graduated, they were asking me if I could come. I think the outreach right after people are done this activity is really important. Because from my experience, my friends on the team who didn’t start coaching immediately after they graduated have never come back. So that’s one of the reasons why I think it works so well. Then after that, I had a lot of really amazing mentors over the course of my time coaching. For example, Lauren McCool, who was our head coach for Theodore Roosevelt. Just having her there supporting me and letting me determine the curriculum that we were going to have and giving me a lot of agencies to run the PF team how I felt we needed to was really, really positive.
Beyond Resolved: How different was the activity back then?
It was really quite a bit more explicit than I would say it is now. Routinely, we were told that we were not allowed to wear pantsuits, that we had to wear skirts and heels instead, and that we had to wear makeup and have our hair back. We had judges telling us that we were “catty”. Other people on our circuit nicknamed us the “Eagan bitches”; that was our nickname on our local circuit, which now I think would happen but would be called out. Back then though, everybody was completely fine with that behavior. So as much as there hasn’t been as much progress as I want, at least there’s been able to take a hold of our own narrative, because when I was a debater there was very little effort to organize females in debate and call out those problems. Usually, the answer was to move you to a girl-boy team, which I think is not actually a solution, because girl-girl teams are some of my favorite types of debaters to watch.
BR: What was it like transitioning from debating to coaching?
It’s a hard transition that not a lot of people talk about. Learning to judge is a completely different skill. If you’ve ever flowed a round versus evaluated a round, you can already see that the flow looks different. What I would say is there’s even more than that behind it too. You have to be aware of fairness and the rules; you have to put your personal biases down on the table and let yourself just evaluate the round which can be really hard to navigate. There’s also almost no resources for new judges. So I think that people just assume that because you did the activity, you don’t need any support. And I think that we’re learning more and more that that’s not the case, that we especially need to support people in those first couple months of transition when they’re learning to judge. It’s just a completely different skill set.
BR: What factors do you think lead to the lack of representation of minority groups in coaching services?
I think part of that is the people who are idolized as good debaters are often those with the most privilege. That leads to problems in the hiring process because, especially for first year outs, they hire the really good debaters who were really successful on the circuit and those also happened to often be members of majority groups. So the pools in which we’re drawing coaches from are already skewed towards advantaging certain groups of people.The whole clout issue plays into coaching, since schools aren’t going to hire coaches who they don’t think are at the top of their game, but the way that we measure people being at the top of their game is rooted in structural discrimination. I also think that a lot of schools don’t necessarily do a lot of outreach to get new coaches. It’s kind of the same thing we see in the job sphere which is that a lot of times men or people who have different elements of privilege will apply to jobs they are unqualified for just to see. Women and other people who are in minority positions will not apply to those jobs, because they know they don’t quite meet all the requirements. I think that also plays into the coaching; if you don’t have the confidence to coach a team, if you haven’t seen people who look like you or talk like you on the circuit coaching teams, it can be hard to tell yourself that you can do that.
BR: How do you think that issues regarding discrimination within transition into coaching and what do you think is the same or different?
I think there are a lot of similar issues. There’s a lot of crossover—the boys club of debate and who gets into round robins especially. Just from personal experience, if you’re a female coach, you’re less likely to get your kids into round robins because you don’t have those same relationships with the other coaches and aren’t perceived as high level as younger male coaches or older male coaches who have been around for a long time. So that’s one way in which I think the symptoms mirror the disease.
I think there are some different barriers too. As female coaches, we often get disproportionately burdened with certain activities. At least in my experience, I’m often asked to discipline my students more than my male colleagues or to do emotional labor for students. Sometimes, male colleagues will come up to me, telling me a kid is crying and I should deal with it. I think that if your student is crying, you should deal with it. But, they ask me to do that emotional labor, which is not to say that I’m not willing to do it but I just think that them just assuming that the woman in the room will do the labor is a little bit problematic. That’s a big issue. And then also when it comes to navigating problems, we’ve been tokenized a lot. Oftentimes, teams brag about how they have female coaches without actually listening to them and implementing systematic changes that would actually help uplift female coaches. There’s just scenarios in which having female coaches is used as to encourage students to join the team and view the team as progressive, rather than actually celebrating the women for their talents and skills and coaching successful students.
BR: Why do you think having diverse coaching is important?
Because we have kids with different identities. I think it would have changed my life if I had had high level or varsity female coach. I honestly think that would have had a huge impact on my career. Because we were trying to navigate judges telling us that we were too “catty”, having judges yelling at us for going too fast, even though we’re going slower than our male colleagues, judges yelling at us for not being aggressive enough, or being too aggressive in crossfire and the person giving us advice on that was not somebody who had experienced it.
I love coaching girl girl teams because I literally get it. I did that for four years. I have had girl-girl teams every single yearI’ve been a coach and I would say at least half of our teams are girl-girl teams because I refuse to split them up to solve an issue that shouldn’t be an issue to begin with. I think, especially for those girl girl teams, I can help them , learn from my mistakes and learn from my experience. I think that the same can be true for coaches of color. Only asking white people how to navigate racism in debate, isn’t going to solve the issue. It’s the same scenario. So, we can use our empathy to understand this huge problem that not a ton of coaches of color are being hired either and why it’s so important that we do.
BR: Do you feel as if competitors view you differently because of your gender or other aspects of your identity, whether you’re judging or coaching and how does that manifest?
I think competitors don’t always view us as authoritative. I get a lot of kids that when I give them an RFD, they start arguing with me about the RFD. I flow very precisely and I take my role as a judge in the round incredibly seriously. And so when kids are telling me that they don’t believe me, or that I misevaluated something, especially when they don’t do that to a lot of the male judges that they have, it’s incredibly frustrating. That’s not all the time though—it happens every once in a while. But I think that wears down your confidence. If a judge is sitting in a round, it’s their obligation to know how to judge the round. If competitors aren’t taking the judge seriously, that makes the round just deteriorate more and more. If they don’t know your name, because you were top of the circuit two years ago or the only coach who coaches a certain thing, they’re just not going to care that you’re in front of them in the room.. It is better on my circuit though because I have relationships with a lot of the teams and we know and respect each other a lot.
BR: Often, people say that female coaches are biased towards girl-girl teams or are always going to pick up the girl in the round. What do you think that that’s necessarily a reaction to? Do you think it’s true?
If somebody were to say that to me, I would say that’s how girls feel all the time, that men pick up the men in a round and men pay more attention to male debaters a lot of the time. So if you’re upset about girls getting more attention, I think you should examine the system that we’re critiquing. I also don’t think that necessarily female coaches are always preferring gender minority students. Internalized bias is a huge thing. I have a couple of women of color on my team who are most commonly dropped by white women judges. Not male judges, not white male judges, white women judges. And so I think that , it’s not necessarily true that if there’s a woman in front of you, they’re going to pick you up. Or if there’s a man in front of you, they’re going to drop you. It’s not that binary. But I think that there are ways in which we can all be more aware of the biases that we have. I know that I have a special place in my heart for female-female teams. But I also know as an educator, it is my obligation to not have a preferred team who’s getting all my attention. Male coaches should also check themselves on that. So I think it can be a problem on individual teams, but I don’t think it’s necessarily that women coaches are so righteous and self-righteous that all they care about are women debaters. That’s really not the case. It’s just they’re given the obligation to care about a group that’s usually not as cared a lot about. And so it sometimes appears as if they’re doing extra work in that area. I think everybody just needs to, be aware and call themselves on that so that they’re not giving preference to any team regardless of ability, age, gender, race, etc. You should just be coaching well, not letting that impact your preference of a team.
BR: Do you have any role models in the activity and if so, how did they positively impact you in your decision to become a coach or in your decision to stay in the activity?
The reason why I’m a coach is Bridget Baron, who doesn’t really coach on the national circuit, but was a novice coach for Eagan when I was there. She was amazing. She was just incredibly kind and understanding and really, I think helped convince me that I could do the activity in the first place.
The other role model is Lauren McCool. Like I said, just having a head coach who’s a woman who would tell me, “I hear you, I see the same stuff that you’re butting heads with,” and would listen to me and allow me to grow into my own as a coach, was incredible. She gave me space to figure out what I wanted to do and how I wanted to change this community—and let me go ahead with it, which was really, really cool.
BR: What can the coaches do in the community and among their students to promote inclusivity?
I think the first thing that you should always do with your team every year is talk about inclusivity. That’s something that I’ve implemented as the first conversation we have. We meet, we go over names and then we talk about inclusivity in debate. And then we revisit it over and over throughout the year. Because that way they know that that’s a big issue. And if they have inclusivity problems or violate the rules that we’ve set up as a team, that they know they’re in danger of getting kicked out of the team, or not being able to travel. So, drawing a clear line about what our expectations are for inclusivity. I think that that really helps get our team off to the right start. Then to follow up with that, making sure that you’re continuing to have those conversations, that you’re calling out behavior where it happens and calling out people who are not following those rules. It’s a really, really great way to get, especially young male debaters, change their behavior. If you nip it in the bud really quickly, oftentimes it’s not an issue. But if you do need to keep people from traveling or kick them off the team, you need to enforce those rules.
BR: Do you also feel the responsibility for correcting injustice falls on minority groups?
100%. I would say the vast majority of the time, I’m the person having the conversation on inclusivity and the one calling it out. When we have a problem at a tournament, I’m the one dealing with it. I don’t mind—I will deal with it 100% of the time, if I’m able. But I do think that, especially on a team where they don’t have women or gender minorities as coaches, male coaches have to step up and do the labor themselves. And so I think that there is definitely a shifted burden on women and gender minority coaches when they are present. So we should work to correct it; it ultimately should be everybody’s responsibility to be calling it out, disciplining when necessary and elevating individuals when they need elevated support, but I don’t think we are there yet.
BR: What would your advice be to both competitors in minority groups and ones transitioning to the coaching sphere as to how to handle injustices in the community?
I think the first thing is to reach out to others. I would not have been able to do any of this without support from female debaters, non binary and gender minority debaters and coaches. If you try and do it alone, it’s going to be really hard. If we do it together, it’s going to be a lot easier and we’ll have a wider impact. I think for competitors who want to be coaching, apply for coaching jobs and reach out. We can do it from the top down. We can shoot women’s names into the conversation about who people should hire. If someone asks me who to hire, I’ll throw in a couple of names to counter the narrative, I think we should try and retain as many folks in this activity as we can, because the coaching pool is still really white and male. Hopefully, we’re going to work to make it better. The activism of a lot of especially young activists in debate, has given me a lot of hope. And I don’t know if I had hope for a really long time. For a really long time, I just kept seeing the same issues over and over. My girl-girl teams would come home and be tell me what happened to them, and it made me feel like nothing’s changed since 2010. And now I’m finally starting to see a couple of changes, or at least people being louder about the problems that are happening. At least we’re supporting each other now,. We’re having these kind of conversations within the community.
This interview was conducted by Sara Catherine Cook and Yukiho Semimoto, and edited by Clara Koritz Hawkes.