By: Jennifer Jiles

Brandon Fleming’s journey to becoming assistant debate coach at Harvard University and founder and CEO of the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project in Atlanta was one fraught with struggle, disruptive behavior as a high school student, disdain for education, and an attempt at suicide that ironically saved his life.

“As a child, I experienced domestic abuse, violence and drugs, and it all manifested in disruptive and destructive tendencies,” said Fleming. “I did not connect with education back then. The only reason I stayed in high school was to play basketball. When I went to college on a basketball scholarship, I could not have been happier.”

Fleming’s joy was short-lived. He sustained a career-ending knee injury and dropped out of college to take a job working 10 hours a day on a factory assembly line.  He tumbled into depression and despair. One evening, Fleming went home and tried to kill himself with an overdose of pills. After waking up in the hospital, he made a promise to God and himself to change his life.

Fleming kept that promise and not only transformed his own life, but changed the lives of dozens and dozens of young people, which attracted the attention of the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University.

Fleming first re-enrolled in college and made the debate team after being struck by what he saw in the movie, “The Great Debaters.” Fleming’s self-awareness began changing through the discipline, rigor, and passion required to debate. He believed it could help other children with struggles similar to those he experienced as a child, and began coaching five underserved children in a rundown garage on Saturday mornings. The number quickly grew to more than 50 children and he watched with sheer delight as their cumulative GPA rose from 1.2 to 3.5.

Fleming was recruited to join the Harvard debate faculty and the institution later approved his proposal to establish the Harvard Debate Council Diversity Project – an unprecedented pipeline program for Harvard and other prestigious colleges.

Center for Educational Opportunity Founder Dr. Kathaleena Edward Monds cites the innovation of debate as exposing students to different ways to utilize skills beyond reading writing and arithmetic – critical-thinking skills development through debate.

“The Harvard Diversity Project takes youth from communities least expected to achieve and empowers them with confidence and self-determination,” she said.

In 2017, a team Fleming coached competed against teams composed of 1,500 youth from around the world at the annual Harvard Debate Council Summer Institute. Fleming’s students, the first all-black team to ever compete at Harvard, won in 2017. They returned to the competition in 2018 and also won.

Drawn by how the project’s mission of extending greater educational equity to underserved communities dovetails with the Center for Educational Opportunity’s mission, focus on education innovation, and aim to remove barriers like financial support. Dr. Monds led the Center’s decision to pay the tuition for a student in the project to participate in Harvard’s summer residency.

“Dr. Monds and CEO played a direct role in my student having the opportunity to travel to Harvard this past summer and participate in the university’s debate residency,” said Fleming. “That exposure helped to change a life. That same student is now enrolled as a freshman at Harvard and is a member of the class of 2023.”

Brandon P. Fleming is the author of Miseducated: A Memoir. To learn more, visit MiseducatedBook.com.