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‘I’m Going to Say It From the Heart.’ America’s Reckoning on Race Has Come to High School Speech and Debate

14 minute read

On the night of June 7, the second Sunday after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Bintou Baysmore stood among hundreds of demonstrators on the plaza outside the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, N.Y. The 17-year-old hadn’t planned to speak at the rally. But when one of the organizers offered the microphone, she took it.

In the middle of a weekday about a year earlier, she told the crowd, she’d been walking with a friend in Crown Heights, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Brooklyn, when a police van pulled to the curb and a white female officer ordered the girls to get in. They explained that they were out for lunch, which was permitted by their school, but the officer insisted. The police took the girls back to school, but Baysmore was shaken by the incident. Speaking to TIME, Baysmore recalls, “I kept thinking, ‘What if this is it for me?’”

It was an impromptu speech, but Baysmore was far from a novice speaker. She’s president of the speech and debate team at Achievement First Brooklyn High School and specializes in an event called Original Oratory, in which students write and deliver their own speeches. To the Barclays Center crowd, Baysmore’s story was familiar, its messenger a reflection of themselves, but—until recently, at least—hers wasn’t the kind of address often heard in competition.

Now, however, Baysmore and her teammates are in the vanguard of a change within the activity. It’s a change in the faces appearing on the stage, as well as in the view of which topics should be discussed and on whose terms. Once-predictable high school oratory is starting to reflect a wider shift in how Americans talk about race, gender and the distribution of power in the United States—even if not everyone wants to hear what these young speakers have to say.

For the team’s first tournament this school year, which will be held virtually in January by Emory University (high school debate tournaments are typically hosted by colleges), Baysmore is getting ready to try out her most daring speech yet. The teenager plans to talk about how Black women are often left out of the conversation when it comes to mental health. “I am an African American female. Look at me,” she says in one version of the speech she’s rehearsing. “When you see me up here… what do you think? Strong. Independent. Gold Digger. Poor. Crazy?”

Read more: America’s Long Overdue Awakening to Systemic Racism

This is not the typical stuff of oratory meets, where even speeches about the most hot-button topics are studiously mild. “A lot of speeches I hear, they’re good, but they don’t seem real,” Baysmore says. “If I’m going to say something, I’m going to say it from the heart. If I’m the only Black female in that room, what I say matters.”

That could be the unifying idea for the Achievement First speech team. The Crown Heights charter high school is 90% Black, and nearly 80% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch, which often makes its mostly female teammates outliers among winners in their speech categories. Their first-person accounts have an immediacy that’s unusual in speeches at national meets, where competitors minted at summer debate camps tend to approach their topics with analytical detachment.

“A few years ago, there were speeches winning at nationals about how we shouldn’t procrastinate, or about cats,” says K.M. DiColandrea, who was a debater at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School and coached the Achievement First Brooklyn team from 2011 to 2019. “That’s starting to change. You got kids in debate recounting cases of racism. You got kids in interpretive speech reading poetry about Black Lives Matter. You got kids in oratory writing about their undocumented parents. Our kids are not afraid to speak their truth about what’s going on.”

One way or another, the country’s reckoning with systemic racism would have reached the speech and debate world. In June, the board of directors of the National Speech & Debate Association (NSDA), which has been organizing national competitions since 1931, issued a statement on the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. The board urged its community to “model and foster the importance of listening to those perspectives that are marginalized by racism.”

Raani Olanlege, Esmeralda Reyes, and Sasha Bogan at the National Tournament of Champions in Omaha, Neb., in May 2019.K.M. DiColandrea

That’s what Achievement First students have been pushing for for years. And they’ve had some success. The speech team, which DiColandrea added to the program in 2014, had its breakthrough just four years later, in 2018, when then-team member Aliyah Mayers placed first at Columbia University’s tournament in the Declamation event—for which students interpret published speeches—with her delivery of Alicia Garza’s “Why Black Lives Matter.” The next year, Raani Olanlege won in Original Oratory at Harvard, with a speech on racism in education. And in the spring of 2019, Sasha Bogan was a semifinalist at the NSDA Nationals with an original speech about living with cerebral palsy.

“A lot of speeches I hear, they’re good, but they don’t seem real.”
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It wasn’t easy for any of them. Black Lives Matter signs are now a fixture of suburban lawns, but in 2018, Mayers was warned by teammates not to utter the words at competitions. “Why Black Lives Matter,” a rebuke of white supremacy and its enforcement through police violence, seemed to say everything she was feeling at the time—but sometimes, right in the middle of the speech, she wished she’d taken her teammates’ advice. “I saw the eye rolls, the people turning away, and I just wanted to stop and sit down,” she recalls. “I thought maybe I was giving the speech wrong. Maybe it was my fault.”

Olanlege explains it another way. “In many rounds, I am the only black female there, the only person of color there, period,” she says.

There is no official count of students and coaches of color in the speech and debate world, but, “What we do know is that it doesn’t feel like enough,” says J. Scott Wunn, executive director of the NSDA.

Even before its statement on racism, the NSDA had been making efforts to promote diversity. For the past six years, it has held a “coach caucus” at the national competition to encourage discussions about race and implicit bias. Strides have also been made over the past several years to increase the diversity of judges at the national competition, Wunn says, and the NSDA is working with organizations like the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues to promote debate education in urban public schools, while also introducing new formats that are more accessible to unseasoned students and coaches.

But when it comes to the words spoken in competition, much of what’s changed comes from young people themselves. Wunn says he first noticed a shift toward “heavy-hitting” speeches at the 2015 nationals in Dallas, where Kenon Brinkley from Andover High School, in Kansas, placed first in Original Oratory with a speech about racism and victim shaming. Then, in February 2018, the student protests that followed the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., brought home to the NSDA just how the political landscape was changing. Kids who weren’t old enough to vote were addressing the public and politicians directly through the media. “The lessons we’ve learned in the last few years, about the power of their voice, no matter their age—that just slapped us upside the head,” Wunn says. “Of course it’s a central requirement of the organization to foster that.”

Getting it right is an existential matter for the NSDA. After all, speech and debate are designed to teach young people how to address topics of public importance with reason and civility. But what good is public debate if it excludes a good part of the public?

The final round in Original Oratory is a major event at nationals. It’s the finale, just before the awards ceremony. Everyone who attends the finals, around 2,000 people in a typical year, turns out to hear bravura performances honed over months at regional meets.

For the past several years, Original Oratory winners have been students of color from prep schools or suburban high schools. In some ways, the speeches are as different from one another as their speakers are. One starts with a Bollywood-style song and dance; another illustrates a point with reference to rapper Cardi B. But they have tended to draw on similar themes in their arguments, focusing on how American political discourse, especially when it turns to race and identity, is degraded by oversimplification—false narratives, false equivalences, reductive thinking.

A key component of these speeches is first-hand testimony to the pain of being the target of racism. In 2017, J.J. Kapur, who is Sikh, recalled mistaking an image of a turbaned Osama Bin Laden, superimposed over the falling Twin Towers, for his father. The next year, Halima Badri summoned the hurt she felt when a classmate commenting on her hijab said, “It really brings out your inner terrorist.” In 2019, Haris Hosseini, who is Muslim, described being called “one of the good ones,” and wondered, “Were the 50 Muslims slaughtered in a New Zealand mosque three months ago good ones or bad ones?”

Read more: Echoing Decades of Fighting Over U.S. History Classrooms, President Trump Announces a Push for ‘Patriotic Education’

These speeches are technically brilliant, and they counter the bad faith of current political debate with logic and humanity. They have something else in common, too: they each offer solutions—not easy ones, but solutions that trust the audience to take up their challenges “together,” as Kapur says at the end of his. It’s easy to see why these speeches win.

Bintou Baysmore in St. Mark's Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. on Dec. 10, 2020.Makeda Sandford for TIME

The Achievement First speeches are different. Take Sasha Bogan’s semifinal round speech at the nationals. She sets out to unsettle her audience by interrogating the choice not to give up a subway seat to a disabled person. Olanlege, who is Nigerian and Sudanese, used a similar strategy in her winning speech at Harvard, directly challenging her audience over the uninformed questions she gets about Africa. These oratories draw clear lines between speaker and audience, and their solutions do not always invite easy agreement. When Mayers focuses on police violence against Black people, and when Olanlege calls out white teachers for avoiding discussions about race, each is saying to her audience, which is mostly white, “You are the problem.”

The confrontational style has its risks. To some judges, confrontation is mutually exclusive with the reasoned argumentation the event is supposed to reward.

In 2017, Esther Reyes, then a senior at Achievement First, made it to the semifinal round at Emory University’s tournament with a speech called “The Other Race,” which describes the effects of implicit bias. Reyes said in her speech that racist assumptions about Mexicans led to her father’s deportation.

Ian Turnipseed, a public-speaking coach in Gulf Breeze, Fla., was a judge in that round. He says statements like Reyes’ can come off as over-generalizations, or worse, sloganeering—assuming that the audience agrees with the speaker and failing to provide persuasive evidence. “She did not have a burden of proof that she needed to present,” Turnipseed says. “I find that to be sloppy.”

Not just sloppy, but possibly offensive, Turnipseed adds. You never know the politics of the people in the room. Many would agree that what happened to Reyes’ father is not a good thing, Turnipseed says, but to take the attitude that “anybody who disagrees with me is racist, is wrong, is stupid, is bigoted,” he says, “is not holding yourself to the standard of the topic you are creating.”

Reyes, who is now a student at Yale, says she is not surprised by these comments. “Original oratory is supposed to be on a topic the speaker cares deeply about, and I remember being one of the few who gave a very personal one. I knew there would be judges who wouldn’t like what I had to say.”

It’s kind of an unspoken rule in oratory, that you have to share your hardest memory
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The speech that beat Reyes’ to advance to the final round was titled “Competitive Victimhood.” The speaker, Emma Warnecke, was a senior at Saint Mary’s Hall, a private college preparatory school in San Antonio, Texas. Taking a self-reflexive turn, she argued that high school oratory had become a race to one-up competitors with ever more harrowing personal stories.

“It’s kind of an unspoken rule in oratory, that you have to share your hardest memory, the most difficult time you have been through, whether it’s racism or sexual assault, or any other type of hardship,” Warnecke told me in the spring of 2019.

Warnecke says she has since rethought part of her position. “It is unbelievably frustrating to walk into a final round at a tournament and see five white judges staring at you as you pour your heart out about issues affecting your particular community,” she says. That speech was a long time ago, she adds. “As a 17-year-old, I could never have imagined what my fellow students were going through.”

Still, Warnecke says she stands by the idea that speeches have become too reliant on personal trauma, with potential harm to teen speakers. The view is not uncommon in speech and debate circles, where there’s worry that coaches could pressure students into exposing vulnerabilities to impress judges.

“She had a point,” Turnipseed says, recalling Warnecke’s speech. “We use other people’s pain to win.”

But for the students at Achievement First, winning isn’t the main reason to speak up. DiColandrea says that while telling these stories is difficult, the cost of silence is even higher.

“The one thing I learned is that not having a space to talk about traumatic things just makes it worse,” the coach says. After the Twin Towers fell just a couple blocks from his high school, no one seemed to want to talk about it. It was speech and debate that gave him an outlet. “Our students have stories to tell,” he says. “This isn’t about them finding their voice. This is about amplifying their voice.”

Bogan was just tired of being ignored. “People don’t take me seriously, or they don’t want to talk to me,” she said last year, of her experience with cerebral palsy. Speech allowed her to work through that frustration. “It’s like this fire in me, that I’ve been holding back for so long. I can finally say it, and they have no choice but to listen.”

As for Baysmore, she says her public protest would never have happened if not for speech and debate. “I used to be afraid of speaking up,” she says. “Now it empowers me. I’m not standing there, thinking, ‘What if they start judging me because I’m Black?’ I’m thinking, ‘They’re lucky to be in the room with me.’”

For the time being, she’s focused on getting herself and her team ready for the tournament at Emory. At a recent Zoom practice session, she offered comments on the wording of their speeches, the intonations, the gestures. She knows what it means for her teammates to speak their own words, and how it will feel to finally be heard.

“It takes away the pressure, it takes away that pain a little bit,” she says. “Everything that you’ve been hiding inside is now out in the open, and you have to face it. And once you face it, you can overcome it.”

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