For Jerjuan Howard, Giving Back Was Never Up for Debate   | WMU Alumni Skip to main content

For Jerjuan Howard, Giving Back Was Never Up for Debate  

When it comes to giving back to his community, first-generation college student and alumnus Jerjuan Howard (B.A. ‘20, Criminal Justice) isn’t sitting on the fence.  

Umoja Debate TeamShortly after graduating from Western Michigan University, Jerjuan founded the Umoja Debate Team in his hometown of Detroit. “In terms of conflict resolution skills, articulation of my thoughts, self-expression, all those different characteristics, I just want to give (that) to Detroit youth,” he said in an interview with Channel 4 in Detroit.  

At age 17, Jerjuan joined the Army National Guard and eventually became a leader of 150 soldiers at a military base in Georgia. Later, his leadership skills grew even further as president of the Black Student Union (BSU) at WMU. His involvement with the BSU also shaped the content in “A Message to Black College Students,” the book he wrote during the pandemic.  

“I wrote this book because I wanted Black college students to understand how big of a role they play in our communities and collective progression,” he said. “I wanted to charge them with a responsibility to use whatever skill set they had for the advancement of the collective Black community because we desperately need it.”  

Being president of the BSU gave him a great sense of pride and purpose, too. Jerjuan said he took the role very personally.  

“It’s the best teaching experience I’ve had thus far,” he added. “I’ve tried to replicate what I did at the BSU with my nonprofit by creating a sense of solidarity, recognizing the value of teamwork, and being a mentor and an advocate for others.” 

As far as mentors who had a big impact on Jerjuan’s success during his time here, he credited Dr. Walter Malone (B.B.A. ‘05; M.A. ‘09, Educational Leadership; and Ph.D., ‘21, Counseling Psychology), former director of WMU’s Alpha Program and previous assistant director of the Upward Bound Program. “Walter helped equip me and a group of about 20 freshmen for everything, teaching us about financial aid, resume building and public speaking,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d be where I am today without him.”  

Dr. Candy McCorkle (Ph.D. ‘12, Counselor Education and Supervision), WMU’s VP for Diversity and Inclusion, and Kevin Knutson (M.A. ‘01, International and Comparative Politics), retired director of academic advising, were also pivotal in his educational journey.   

In addition to taking full advantage of the knowledge and guidance available from faculty and staff, Jerjuan encourages current Broncos to lean on each other.   

“Talk to people and collaborate as much as possible,” he said, “and don’t underestimate your peers. It’s just as important—if not more important—to network horizontally as it is vertically.”  

Planting Seeds for Future Leaders  

Joining the debate team when he was a sophomore at Detroit Renaissance High School taught Jerjuan how to find his voice and think critically. Today, the Umoja Debate Team is enabling him to pay that life-changing experience forward.  

“Debate has been the foundation for a lot of things that I’m doing now and throughout my life up to this point in regards to leadership,” Jerjuan told BridgeDetroit this past May. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow, I really can speak and articulate myself in a manner in which I can be persuasive.’ I don’t think there’s any other activity for our youth that does that. It works wonders when taken seriously and taught the right way.”  

Umoja Debate Team II

Umoja means “unity” in Swahili. In 2022, Umoja Debate Team, which teaches youth critical thinking, self-reflection and conflict resolution through the art of debate, held a summer camp for 15 children and teens at the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library. 

“I look at it as planting the seeds for the next generation of attorneys and leaders,” Jerjuan said, “but it’s also about learning how to just be better thinkers and communicators. Perhaps now, more than ever, it’s critical that we find healthier ways to disagree with one another.”  

This year, he has plans to expand the Umoja Debate Team’s summer camp from six to eight weeks, allowing up to 50 youth to participate. In the 2022-23 school year, four metro Detroit schools participated in the program overall, and in 2023-24, 12 schools are slated to take part. “I’d love to see Umoja become a debate league one day by expanding to other cities and school districts like Kalamazoo Public Schools,” he said.  

Along with focusing on debate, his nonprofit also reinforces the power of being “the change you wish to see” in your community through the newly developed Umoja Village. Located in the neighborhood where he grew up, the village features a community garden, art, a free little library, and a 20-foot stage for debate events and community meetings.  

For more on Umoja Debate Team or Umoja Village, including ways to support the nonprofit, visit umojadebateteam.orgUmoja Village    

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