Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Toinette Gunn of Chicago Debates Is Helping To Change Our World

Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine
Published in
12 min readAug 3, 2022


The necessity of taking risks! I’ve never been much of a risk-taker, mainly due to the fear of making a mistake or being denied. But through experience I’ve learned that it’s during those times of taking risks and failing that we learn the most. Sometimes there are huge gains as a result of taking risks. In either case, growth happens. I wish I had been encouraged to take more risks. Recently, I took a risk to apply for an honor/recognition even though I felt there were others more qualified than I am. I nearly talked myself out of applying, but there was a voice that reminded me: All they can do is say no. So, I applied — and I received the award!

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Toinette Gunn.

Dr. Toinette Gunn currently serves as the executive director of Chicago Debates. She firmly believes in the power that education holds in breaking negative intergenerational cycles and feels honored to have served at-risk youth and their families in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years. The majority of that time has been spent working in organizations that provide at-risk youth with quality educational opportunities, access to college, supportive services to persist through college, leadership and career readiness skill development, and mentoring.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Yes, my passion to help those less fortunate developed when I was a little girl. I organized my first charitable fundraising campaign at eight years old to help feed the starving children in Africa. As a little girl, I didn’t understand all of the intricacies of economics or social class, but I did realize that there were problems in the world and people who needed help, starting with my own low-income family. I could also see that the world didn’t seem fair because some people had so much and others so little. Specifically, I grappled with how others who had so much didn’t do more to help those who had so little. All this to say, at a very young age I felt compelled to help and to make a difference.

The realities of the world and my desire to help pushed me to pursue an education and career that focused on service and community impact. Skipping past the stereotypical first-generation college student challenges I faced — many of which followed me into my jobs as a first-generation career professional — I found nonprofit programmatic work and loved it. At 27 years old, I was promoted to my first executive director position. I wasn’t hired through a search firm, I didn’t have the most experience, and I probably would never have gotten the job under today’s standards, but someone gave me the opportunity because they believed I could lead and do the job well.

In all aspects of my life, my passion for education, breaking negative intergenerational cycles of poverty for underrepresented and underresourced youth has been prominent. I strongly believe in education and its power to transform lives. Today, I enjoy serving as executive director of Chicago Debates, where I am helping to bridge the educational opportunity gap for students in Chicago Public Schools. I continue to be compelled to do more and to help those most in need.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I joined Chicago Debates in the summer of 2018. Even though I brought nearly 20 years of relevant experience to the organization, the fact that I was not a former debater led some team members to question whether I could lead the organization because they felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. I can recall pushing the team to think about how we could begin to use technology more and suggesting that we look at ways to do some of our work virtually. Well, that made me even more unpopular and solidified some peoples’ thoughts that I, as a non-debater, just didn’t get it. I literally got stares like I was from outer space! What’s interesting is that when Covid hit in 2020, we were soon forced to operate in a virtual world, and what could not be entertained or was not even seen as possible just a couple of years earlier was quickly embraced and implemented. Covid pushed us to innovate! We figured it out and continued to deliver debate to students even during a global pandemic.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, it’s not a funny story, but it is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned as a leader — it’s the importance of ensuring that your people understand that you value them and that there truly are opportunities for advancement for them. I recall a time when I believed that one of my team members was soon going to be ready for a higher position. I didn’t share those thoughts with that person, and they ended up leaving the organization for another opportunity. In hindsight, my vision for their career growth should have been an ongoing conversation with them. It may or may not have kept them from leaving, but at least they would have known that we valued them and that there were opportunities for advancement for them in the future. Individuals have to be able to see a future for themselves that includes opportunities to grow.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Chicago Debates addresses Chicago Public School students’ lack of access to key educational opportunities by providing them with an after-school program that cultivates academic, social-emotional, career, and leadership skills that will ultimately strengthen their future economic stability, break cycles of poverty, and promote civic engagement. We bring the transformative activity of debate to students who otherwise would not have access to its benefits.

Competitive debate is a form of cooperative learning. It creates an interactive and rigorous learning environment where students navigate social challenges in constructive and collaborative ways. Specifically, debate teaches content knowledge, reading, research, critical thinking, and analytical skills, and it also prepares students with 21st-century skills for college, career, and leadership success by developing social/emotional capacity and noncognitive skills such as self-confidence and perseverance. Overall, debate supports students in reaching their fullest potential. The skills students glean from participating in debate not only have a positive impact on their academic performance but also serve to prepare them to lead in whatever fields they choose. This preparation propels them to a more equitable future, boosts their educational attainment and, in turn, helps them to be more competitive in a global economy.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Academic debate has been proven to transform the lives of students and give them access to opportunities they may not otherwise have had. Chicago Debates works to provide Chicago Public School students with opportunities that bridge the educational opportunity gap that many of them face. Our work and impact was recently featured on WGN9’s Daytime Chicago segment highlighting Fatima Mendoza, one of our graduating seniors.

Fatima is a Class of 2022 graduate and is making history as the first student from Hancock College Prep to ever be accepted to Harvard University — and on a full scholarship! Fatima shared the role that debate played in helping her to apply and be accepted to her dream school, saying, “During my time as a debater, I had the opportunity to compete with students from a plethora of Chicago Public Schools. Prior to this experience, I did not have many encounters with students from schools outside of my neighborhood, nor did I practice public speaking. I found that as I advanced in city-wide tournaments, I became infinitely more confident. I was able to embrace an argumentative style of writing and speaking that I would have never realized I excelled at had I not been given the opportunity. Boldly showcasing these skills ultimately gave me the reassurance that I am just as qualified as students from highly-resourced high schools and neighborhoods. I knew I wanted to challenge the norm upon applying to college, and it was this newfound reassurance that gave me the confidence to apply to Harvard.”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Many urban Black and Latino youth lack access to key educational opportunities that are available to their suburban and middle/upper-income peers. This inequity, amongst others, ultimately limits their academic, leadership, and future career and economic potential. Unfortunately, because of the systemic inequities that continue to exist in our world, Black and Latino people have historically had fewer opportunities to significantly increase our economic status, build wealth, and/or become successful business leaders. Because fewer of us have had these opportunities, it translates to our young people seeing fewer of us in positions of leadership. Without access to successful business leaders and exposure to opportunities that help develop the skills needed for career success, Black and Latino youth face more challenges in their professional and leadership journeys.

Overall, our youth need more access and opportunities to cultivate the skills necessary to be successful in life. As an example, supplemental programs and activities like debate build academic, social, emotional, career, leadership, and life skills, as well as providing hands-on experiences that will correlate with workforce skills. In addition, students need access and exposure to leaders and business professionals to diversify their experiences and expand their views of the world. Such access stimulates their ability to dream, feeds their drive and ambition, and fuels their creativity and goals. Without a doubt, it is game-changing and life-altering!

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is not defined by a title but by one’s actions. Leaders inspire, encourage, motivate, and empower. In my current role, I’ve had to inspire, encourage, and confidently lead my team through unprecedented change — and I’ve been successful in changing the narrative from negative to positive, to one of opportunity and innovation focused on impacting students. We quickly pivoted to delivering all debate activities virtually, despite the team initially feeling it was nearly impossible…and we managed to be successful despite the devastating effects of COVID.

I know that my success is inextricably tied to my team because, as a leader, I cannot reach my fullest potential without a talented, skilled, and high-performing team. It’s critical that the team — the greatest asset to the organization — is invested, connected, engaged, valued, recognized, supported, encouraged, heard, and motivated to successfully achieve the mission. Leaders also recognize that it is equally necessary to empower the team to stretch and grow, to prepare them to encounter and overcome challenges they didn’t think they were capable of facing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I don’t know that I have five things, but there are three things, for sure, that I wish someone had told me about when I first started my career:

The importance of building relationships and networking. There is an old saying that it’s not about what you know but who you know. I think it’s a combination of those things, actually, but who you know can be extremely beneficial and impactful in a number of ways. At the start of my career, I didn’t completely understand the value of networking. Fast-forward to today: Now, appreciating my network and cultivating those relationships is not only important, but it’s one of my top priorities. My network has helped me make other valuable connections, elevate my candidacy for the last three roles I’ve held, secure resources for my organization and charitable causes, expand my knowledge and skills, and grow professionally.

The need for self-advocacy and negotiating. Sometimes it’s difficult to ask for what you need…and for what you’re worth. Negotiating is a skill that centers around one’s needs, worth, and value. It’s important to be confident about your worth and the value that you bring to the table to ensure the relationship is mutually beneficial. There have been times in my life and career when I didn’t advocate for myself or negotiate for my best interest. Over the years, though, I’ve learned the benefits of self-advocacy, from receiving small things like additional time to complete a task to big things like a salary increase.

The necessity of taking risks! I’ve never been much of a risk-taker, mainly due to the fear of making a mistake or being denied. But through experience I’ve learned that it’s during those times of taking risks and failing that we learn the most. Sometimes there are huge gains as a result of taking risks. In either case, growth happens. I wish I had been encouraged to take more risks. Recently, I took a risk to apply for an honor/recognition even though I felt there were others more qualified than I am. I nearly talked myself out of applying, but there was a voice that reminded me: All they can do is say no. So, I applied — and I received the award!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Since we know that education ties directly to future life success, earning potential, and a longer life span, everyone, no matter their ZIP code or socioeconomic status, should have access to FREE QUALITY EDUCATION to the highest level they choose to pursue. Education is the most transformational experience and opportunity that I’ve had access to in my life. I’m not unique, and neither is my story — thus, my quest to ensure that others have access to that opportunity, specifically those who have been the most oppressed, marginalized, and intentionally excluded.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Live. Laugh. Love. It’s almost funny, because this saying has become pretty cliché and the butt of jokes, especially since the debut of the Progressive Insurance commercials. But I have several of these sayings throughout my home. The three words are catchy, but it’s more about how interconnected they are and how concisely they capture what I’ve learned about life.

Life is short, so you should make every effort to live it to the fullest, make it count, and do some good. Make an impact, and leave a legacy.

Laugh often because life can be difficult and filled with challenges, so you have to find time to laugh and enjoy yourself. After all, laughter is good for the soul and has a soothing effect.

Love is powerful. I think we all want to love and be loved. But it’s important to love yourself so you can give and receive love. It’s love that drives our desire to help others and to make the world a better place.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

I’ve made it a personal goal this year to meet with US Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Justice Brown Jackson is a former debater who credits the activity for her success in life. As a trailblazer, she’s an inspiration and role model for the young people we serve. Her appointment to the SCOTUS is a symbol of the progress that we’ve made in this country — but even more for the hope that it instills for our youth today, our future leaders.

Justice Brown Jackson is quoted as saying, “Debate was an experience that I can say without hesitation was the one activity that best prepared me for future success in law and in life. I learned how to reason and how to write, and I gained the self-confidence that can sometimes be quite difficult for women and minorities to develop at an early age. I have no doubt that of all the various things that I’ve done, it was my high school experience as a competitive speaker that taught me how to lean in despite the obstacles, to stand firm in the face of challenges, to work hard, to be resilient, to strive for excellence, and to believe that anything is possible.”

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!



Yitzi Weiner
Authority Magazine

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator