It was a direct question.
“What are you going to do to make sure there are more winners who look like me?” Zaila Vanguard asked Michael Durnil, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, at the South By Southwest 2022 conference in Texas.
The previous year, Zaila, then a 14-year-old eighth-grade student from Harvey, Louisiana, became the first black American to win the bee since her debut in 1925. It was a thrilling victory that catapulted Zaila to the national fame but also prompted reflection on the long history of discrimination and struggle faced by other black students who participated in spelling bees.
Before Zaila, only one black student had won the competition – Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old Jamaican, who won in 1998.
But some spellers said they believe Zaila’s victory and the huge press attention she received sparked renewed interest from black spellers to become elite competitors. .
Last year, when Zaila won the local round of the competition, 11 schools participated in the bee, which is sponsored by the New Orleans (LA) chapter of The Links, a volunteer-run service organization. black professionals.
This year, 19 schools sent students to the New Orleans bee, including several schools with majority minority populations who had not previously participated, said Vonda Flentroy-Rice, president of the spelling bee. .
Matthew Yi, 7, came in first but three black girls placed second and third, with two tied for second place, Ms Flentroy-Rice said.
“Generally, minority children are not placed,” she said.
Zaila’s victory “probably happened where the kid from New Orleans, the kid from Louisiana says if she can win, maybe I have a chance to do it too,” Ms Flentroy said. -Rice.
She added, “They could see each other in her place.”
The National Spelling Bee has never excluded black children from the contest, but they have often been kept out of bees locally due to racial segregation, researchers say. After desegregation, schools whose students were largely black or Latino remained underfunded, making it difficult for teachers to develop programs to help spellers become elite competitors.
In his conversation with Zaila, Durnil acknowledged that overall the national bee, which does not keep demographic data, still does not reflect the country’s diversity, especially at the elite level.
That’s largely, he said, because many students in poorer communities don’t have access to the kinds of resources that give spellers a competitive edge.
“I have to find a way to detonate this,” he told Zaila.
Elite spellers often hire trainers — who can charge up to $200 an hour — to help them train for competition.
Zaila, whose mother is a passport specialist for the State Department and whose father homeschools Zaila and her three younger brothers, also worked with a coach.
The family was able to pay for Zaila’s education through child tax credits that 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 them.
In an interview, Durnil said he believes the National Bee can create a “pathway” where competitors don’t feel the need to hire a coach to excel.
Zaila has been candid with national organizers about what has stopped kids like her from excelling in the competition, Mr Durnil said, describing her as a “tireless lawyer”.
“What she really made us realize were the barriers to getting to elite levels,” he said. “Financial Barriers.
Mr Durnil said Scripps was working on creating “free and easily accessible resources for spellings” that they can use to practice for the bee.
He said he couldn’t be specific about what those resources would look 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 on Scripps.
Local support, such as schools willing to hold bees and sponsors to pay entrance fees and other expenses, is essential to the success of spellers, she said.
“It’s really up to the community to step in,” she said, noting that her organization of 56 women who pay dues and organize fundraising events are committed to keeping the bee running. for over 30 years.
Robert Garner, who works in real estate in Houston, started the African-American National Spelling Bee in 2010, a contest that attracted hundreds of children.
But the bee ended in 2019 because there wasn’t enough community support or funding to keep it going, he said.
Now, Mr. Garner said he is trying to find new ways to get black kids interested in spelling bees, including hosting bees at historically black colleges, where university students would compete for prizes and money.
“I want to make education a sport,” Garner said. He said he was considering local competitions taking place on a big stage, with celebrity sponsors who could attract more students.
“If I knocked Drake down, he’d bring all the kids over and spell it,” Mr Garner said.
Zaila’s victory has the potential to reinvigorate interest among black students in the same way that Balu Natarajan’s victory in 1985 inspired Native American children, said Shalini Shankar, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s”. New path to success.
What followed Balu’s victory was not just the dominating performances of American Indian students, but, more recently, a new generation of coaches – competitors who have aged and become coaches or created online resources for future spellings, she said.
As a result, the industry has grown “tremendously”, said Professor Shankar, a promising development that is leading to more competition in the field and, therefore, cheaper coaching.
“I’m super excited that Zaila won last year. That’s the direction the bee should be going,” Prof Shankar said. “But I don’t want the fact that she won to signal that we are at a time of social equality.”
She added: “We are not.”