In U.S. society, where civic debate often falls prey to disrespect and polarization, Catholic University alumnus Brendan Stern, M.A. 2010, Ph.D. 2018, is promoting healthy democratic discussion among a group that’s historically been an untapped resource — the Deaf community.
An associate professor in the government program at Gallaudet University’s School of Civic Leadership, Business, and Social Change, Stern established the first deaf debate team in the United States at Gallaudet in 2020.
“At the individual level, debate fosters critical thinking and public speaking skills,” Stern said. “Gallaudet students deserve an opportunity to walk in the town square and debate topics across differences freely.”
The 2023–24 term marks the team’s second year of intercollegiate debate.
Gallaudet University, recognized as a global leader in promoting the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, was founded in 1864. Stern received a bachelor’s in government at Gallaudet in 2006, and went on to earn a master’s in American politics from American University in 2008.
A California native, Stern attended the California School for the Deaf and graduated from University High School in Orange County.
Although University High hosted the regional deaf and hard-of-hearing program, Stern found himself the only deaf student in his Advanced Placement courses. And even though Gallaudet’s debate team is his brainchild, he never had the opportunity to be on a debate team. He did, however, excel on one winning team — the high school’s basketball team.
A desire for academic excellence coupled with his love of basketball prompted a move East, where Stern attended Gallaudet and played hoops for four years on the school team. One of his friendly rivals was Catholic University.
“I have fond memories of playing CUA when Coach Lonergan (B.A. 1988) was around and coming off a national championship,” Stern recalled.
After graduation, Stern coached at Gallaudet, moving up from an assistant coach to head coach of the women’s, and then the men’s, team. Despite the team setting a new school record for victories in his last year, Stern turned his attention to pursuing an academic career at Gallaudet.
When Stern decided to seek another master’s degree and a doctorate in American politics, Catholic University seemed like a natural choice, although he admits that “while the religious nature of CUA gave me pause at first, it wasn’t my deaf or Jewish identity that was challenged at CUA, but rather my progressive views.”
Stern described himself at the time he arrived at Catholic University as “a hippie who believed that we had all the answers.”
He was quickly dispelled of this notion, saying that his time at Catholic University was “transformative” thanks in large part to professors like David Walsh, professor of politics, and Claes G. Ryn, professor and founding director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship.
“Their courses in political philosophy and political theory introduced me to ‘new’ ideas grounded in history, logic, and tradition,” he said.
Stern said he’s grateful to them “for challenging and critiquing my arguments based on their quality, or lack thereof, and for treating me as any other student. I am deeply indebted to them.”
Today, Stern is executive director of the Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA), a nonpartisan group at Gallaudet for which he laid the groundwork. In addition to the debate team, CDDA promotes other activities focused on healthy debate and civic involvement through American Sign Language.
One program, called “Agboola Dinner,” brings a diverse group together for discussion. The aim is to build connections across ideological, racial, ethnic, and linguistic differences. Entering its third year, Stern said the project “is working to include students and faculty from colleges and universities” in Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. “We would love to collaborate with CUA,” added Stern.
Gallaudet received the 2022 Students Learn Students Vote Coalition Award for Contributing to an Equitable Democracy. In accepting the award on Gallaudet’s behalf, Stern noted that “the common problem facing us today is not that deaf Americans do not hear and speak, but that Americans do not have enough opportunities to listen and engage across differences in a divided country.”
Stern is committed to enlarging those opportunities. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area with “the loves of my life,” his wife Dana, and their two children, Mahalia and Elon.