It was a compelling question.
“What are you going to do to make sure there are more winners who look like me?” Zaila Avant-garde asked Michael Durnil, CEO of Scripps National Spelling Bee, at the 2022 South By Southwest Conference in Texas.
The previous year, Zaila, then a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Harvey, La., Became the first black American to win the bee since it began in 1925. It was an exciting victory. catapulting Zaila to national fame, but it also provoked reflection on the long history of discrimination and struggle that other black students who competed in spelling have faced.
Before Zaila, only one black student had won the competition: Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old girl from Jamaica, who won in 1998.
But some spelling organizers said they believe Zaila’s victory and the huge media attention he received has sparked renewed interest in black spellings to become elite competitors.
Last year, when Zaila won the local round of the contest, 11 schools participated in the Bee, which is sponsored by the New Orleans (LA) chapter of The Links, a volunteer service organization run by black women professionals.
This year, 19 schools sent students to the New Orleans Bee, several of them with predominantly minority populations who had not participated before, said spelling president Vonda Flentroy-Rice.
Matthew Yi, 7, came first, but three black girls finished second and third, with two of them tying for second place, Ms. Flentroy-Rice.
“Minority kids don’t usually place,” he said.
Zaila’s victory “probably got to where the New Orleans kid, the Louisiana kid says that if he can win, maybe I also get a chance to do it,” Ms. Flentroy-Rice.
He added: “They could see themselves in their skin.”
The National Spelling Bee never excluded black children from the competition, but they were often kept out of the bees locally due to racial segregation, according to researchers. After desegregation, schools whose students were mostly black or Latino remained unfunded, making it difficult for teachers to develop programs to help spellings become elite competitors.
In his conversation with Zaila, Mr. Durnil acknowledged that, in general, the national bee, which does not retain demographic data, does not yet reflect the diversity of the country, especially at the elite level.
This is largely because, he said, many students in the poorest communities do not have access to the types of resources that give spellings a competitive edge.
“I have to find a way to exploit it,” he told Zaila.
Elite spellings often hire coaches, who can charge up to $ 200 an hour, to help them train for the competition.
Zaila, whose mother is a State Department passport specialist and whose father teaches at Zaila and her three younger siblings, also worked with a coach.
The family was able to pay for Zaila’s education with the help of tax credits for children who were part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, said Alma Heard, Zaila’s mother. These benefits expired in February 2022 after Congress refused to extend the benefit.
In an interview, Mr. Durnil said he believes the national bee can create a “path” where competitors do not feel the need to hire a coach to excel.
Zaila has been outspoken with national organizers over what has prevented children like her from excelling in competition, said Durnil, who described her as a “tireless lawyer”.
“What really made us aware are the barriers to reaching elite levels,” he said. “Financial Barriers”.
Mr. Durnil said Scripps is working to create “free, easy-to-access spelling resources” that they can use to practice for the bee.
He said he could not specify what these resources would be like because the organization is still working on them.
But Ms. Flentroy-Rice said the responsibility for involving more black and Latino children in the bee should not fall to Scripps.
Local support, such as schools willing to have bees and sponsors to pay for tickets and other expenses, is critical to the success of spellings, he said.
“It’s really up to the community to step up,” she said, noting that her organization of 56 women who pay dues and hold fundraising events has been committed to keeping the bee going for more than 30 years.
Robert Garner, who works in Houston real estate, started the 2010 African-American National Spelling Bee, a competition that drew hundreds of children.
But the bee ended 2019 because there was not enough support or funding from the community to keep it going, he said.
Now, Mr. Garner said he is trying to think of new ways to get black kids interested in spelling bees, including having bees in historically black colleges, where college students would compete with each other for prizes and money.
“I want to make education a sport,” he said. Garner. He said he expects local competitions to take place on a large stage, with famous sponsors that could attract more students.
“If I dropped Drake, he’d get all the kids to go down and spell,” Mr. Garner said.
Zaila’s victory has the potential to stimulate the interest of black students in the same way that Balu Natarajan’s victory in 1985 inspired American children, said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and author. of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s”. A new path to success. “
What followed Balu’s victory was not only the dominant performances of American Indian students, but, more recently, a new generation of coaches: competitors who have aged and become coaches or have created coaching materials. online resources for emerging spellings, he said.
As a result, the industry has “expanded enormously,” said Professor Shankar, a promising development that leads to more competition in the field and, as a result, cheaper training.
“I am just excited to see Zaila win last year. That’s the way the bee should go, “said Professor Shankar.” But I don’t want the fact that she won to indicate that we’re social equality right now.
She added, “We’re not.”