Promoting Powerful Voices through the SPEAK Program

uvmmedicine blogger Liam Donnelly '18
uvmmedicine blogger Liam Donnelly ’18

For the past three years, I have volunteered for SPEAK Inc., a Vermont non-profit organization dedicated to promoting powerful voices for traditionally underrepresented individuals, such as incarcerated women and juveniles. Founded by UVM alumna and Schweitzer Fellow for Life, Jessica Bullock, it began as student group at Vermont Law School in the fall of 2014 and continued as an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship project in 2015-2016. Since SPEAK’s inception, the student-run organization has grown into a non- profit organization that teaches debate and public speaking skills around the world, including locations in Italy, Tel Aviv, China, and at correctional facilities in Vermont, such as the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) and Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.

As a volunteer, one of the first sessions that I helped teach was a week-long debate training seminar led by Jessica for the We Debate organization in Italy, a debate network in Lombardi, Italy. Held at the historical Santa Caterina del Sasso hermitage in Lake Maggiore, we taught debate skills to Italian educators, debate instructors, and high school students. This experience helped me to gain perspective on the Italian school systems, and the debate networks that exist across Italy. Despite our language and cultural differences, the SPEAK students and I were able to connect in many ways through the platform of debate. For instance, we agreed that an individual’s privacy was important, and used different examples from our respective country’s history as anecdotes. The week-long session ended in debates on various student-generated topics, such as individual privacy rights, police brutality, and the Mediterranean diet. During this trip, SPEAK also taught at an international Italian high school in Busto Arsizio where we worked with students on debate argumentation structure. It was fun working with international students and teachers who had very diverse views and ideas, and I learned a great deal about Italian culture, language, and politics. Privacy and government power were issues of particular interest to students in the program.

I have also worked with SPEAK’s program at the Woodside Juvenile Center, which rehabilitates juveniles from across the state of Vermont. At Woodside, SPEAK teaches an eight-week debate and public speaking course culminating with a debate on a topic of the students’ choosing, the same curriculum that SPEAK provides to law students at Vermont Law School and to the high school students in Italy. Working with younger students has been rewarding for me because, while it can be challenging to connect with the students initially, when you find an area that interests them, like whether the governments should be able to tap your cell phones, it is amazing how engaged and hard working the students are. I found it especially fun that some of the students showed a strong interest in science and medicine.

SPEAK’s permanent debate program held at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF), Vermont’s sole female correctional facility, was another opportunity for me to get involved. I’ve discussed debate topics, such as, “This House believes that correctional facilities should provide maintenance opioid therapy for transitioning inmates.” The inmates provided many interesting perspectives that I had not previously considered; for instance, sometimes inmates transitioning out of correctional facilities overdose soon after release due to their decreased tolerance. Some suggest that maintenance therapy should be distributed closer to an inmate’s release, not simply following her incarceration, to prevent this tragedy. I never would have learned about this problem if I had not worked with the inmates. It was also rewarding to help inmates learn more about the pharmacology of some of the maintenance therapies, like Suboxone. The final debate ended with the inmates deciding that maintenance therapy should not be provided. Great, well-thought-out, arguments were presented from both sides.

Overall, volunteering with SPEAK has been a fun and rewarding experience that has allowed me to meet individuals from many different countries, cultures, and backgrounds. What has been most rewarding is the ability to help others learn public speaking skills that they can use in almost any situation. Further, it has been fun to be able to use my medical training and teach individuals more about topics like pharmacology, or neurology. I am especially looking forward to helping SPEAK prepare another session at the Woodside Juvenile Center, and continue the organization’s work promoting powerful voices.

To learn more about SPEAK Inc., please visit our website at, or contact SPEAK Founder and Executive Director, Jessica Bullock, at

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