Ayaan Natala’s opponent spoke at the ultra-fast clip of experienced debaters. Natala hesitated at the podium.
He looked dapper in a suit, “like he was heading to work in corporate America.” Natala wore sweatpants.
He consulted a laptop as he spoke. She had scribbled notes on a piece of paper.
For some time after her first tournament three years ago, Natala, now a junior on Central High School’s resurgent debate team, questioned if she ever would fit in. She has found her stride.
Veteran coaches and judges say they believe she was the first black student to make it to the championship round of January’s Minnesota State High School League debate tournament in its 112-year history. She stepped in for another student after taking a precalculus final that morning.
“That was a lot of pressure,” Natala recalled. “It scared me, and it liberated me at the same time.”
Until recent years, few minority and low-income students ventured into high school debate. Then came a push to pull more of them in, here and nationally. The nonprofit Minnesota Urban Debate League has shaken up a listless inner-city debate scene.
The year before Natala joined the Central team, it featured six white debaters. Today, it’s a diverse bunch of more than two dozen. Natala and some of her teammates have embraced a style of debate that melds impassioned verse and personal experiences with more traditional policy points.
‘A LOT OF HEART TO HANG IN THERE’
Natala first showed up at debate practice as a freshman. A hallway poster had tipped her off about a chance to win a DVD of “The Great Debaters,” the movie about a college team of black debaters in the 1930s South.
Within minutes, she was completely lost. The team members were talking United States policy in the Middle East, and they were talking fast.
“I was very intimidated,” Natala recalled.
Still, she kept coming to practice. Natala stuck with debate even after leaving that first tournament at St. Paul’s Highland Park High School in tears.
Many times, said her mom, Suzanne, Natala thought about quitting: “It took a lot of character, a lot of drive, a lot of heart to hang in there.”
Natala said one hurdle was looking around and seeing few black faces among top debaters, coaches and judges.
“It’s very discouraging when you have no representation to show you can excel in an activity,” she said.
Until recently, diverse urban school districts were shuttering or scaling back their debate programs. More affluent suburban and private school teams continued to dominate competitions.
“The debate community doesn’t attract a lot of students of color to its ranks,” said Bob Ihrig, longtime manager of the Minnesota state tournament.
In 2009, the National Forensic League kicked off its Diversity Challenge initiative to support debaters of color in low-income rural and inner city areas. In the Twin Cities, the Urban Debate League, a nonprofit based at Augsburg College, has lined up coaches for St. Paul and Minneapolis middle and high schools.
It has chipped in for debate camp fees and travel to tournaments. Meanwhile, Augsburg offered free tuition to qualified students involved with the league for at least three years.
The League’s Amy Cram Helwich touts a perfect on-time graduation record for its debaters. More of them are finding their way to state and national competitions. Juan Garcia, a Latino student from Highland Park, won the state tournament in 2008.
Natala has shed much of her earlier self-doubt. She is on Central’s Student Council, the National Honor Society’s executive board and the NAACP youth leadership team in St. Paul.
On the debate team, she’s known for her laser-like focus, even after tweaking an argument until the wee hours before a competition. She and two fellow black debaters, Dua Saleh and Tiana Bellamy, dubbed themselves the Powerpuff Girls, after the kindergarten-age cartoon superheroes.
At a recent practice in Central’s home economics room, students tackled a volley of questions: Should the U.S. government close the Guantanamo Bay detention center? Engage more with Venezuela? Are crab cakes better than pie?
Natala scribbled ideas in her neat handwriting while chatting with teammate Imanol Avendano about another sundry list of topics: her upcoming ACT exam, the pope election, testifying on gun control legislation at the state Capitol.
“So much to say, so little time,” she said with a sigh.
A turning point for her was meeting a young coach from Baltimore at an Augsburg debate camp last summer. He encouraged her to take a more personal tack.
Peter Nikolai, Central’s coach, calls it “a clash of civilizations”: traditional policy debate, with its hard-and-fast focus on research, versus Natala’s performance-based approach. He says performance debate has helped engage more students like Natala, stretched too thin for time-consuming research and sometimes hard-pressed to see its relevance to their lives.
“I felt many of the research arguments would only give the perspective of the politicians and not the citizens,” said Natala. “I don’t think there’s just one way of knowing the world.”
Judges have had mixed reactions. At December’s national competition at Blake School, Natala and Bellamy’s poetry-spiked argument didn’t take them far. Still, Natala made the Top 10 policy speakers list — “an extraordinary achievement,” said Central assistant debate coach Mike Baxter-Kauf.
Then, the state debate tournament put Natala’s newfound confidence to the test.
She got a call from Nikolai. Avendano’s partner for the competition was dropping out for personal reasons. Avendano wanted Natala to step in.
Minutes before the contest started, the new debate partners tried to sync up their styles.
Avendano decided to drop his argument, which had claimed 40 hours of research into federal mass transit policy. With a last-minute new partner, he figured the tournament was a lost cause. In his final high school contest, he would have fun and run with Natala’s argument.
Her argument centered on the disruption Interstate 94 construction wrought on the Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s. The Powerpuff Girls had jointly penned a poem to kick it off — a rebuke to the debate community for resisting less traditional takes on the policy form. Natala had interviewed several Rondo neighbors about their memories of the I-94 project.
The pair lost the first two rounds. But “after that, they were just on a roll,” Nikolai said.
Before the final round, against a policy team from Blake, Natala heard she might well be the first black debater to make it that far. The Minnesota High School League does not track the race of tournament participants, so Natala’s distinction is impossible to confirm, said board member Chris McDonald.
Natala was still shaken when she started her argument, marking the rhythm of her verse by slicing the air with her hands. At the culmination of her poem, she lost her composure for a beat. She finished the poem with tears rolling down her cheeks.
She and Avendano lost to Blake, but they walked away feeling they’d scored a victory.
This summer, Natala heads to debate camps at Augsburg and at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Then, she tackles college applications. Everyone on the team expects they’ll be hearing more of her.
“Debate turns people into advocates,” Avendano said. “Our style of debate is a breeding ground for activism.”
Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at twitter.com/MilaPiPress.
To volunteer for the Urban Debate League or support its efforts financially, go towww.augsburg.edu/urbandebateleague.