A Brooklyn neighborhood best known for its high student dropout rate has a new reason to celebrate after a local high school debate team brought home a coveted championship win early last week.
Aliyah Mayers, a sophomore on Achievement First Brooklyn High School’s debate squad, exceeded expectations when she snagged first place at a national meet held at Columbia University on Jan. 21, the New York Daily News reported. It hasn’t always been rainbows and sunshine for the 60-member debate team, however, as its majority-Black and Latino speakers often got the cold shoulder at events.
That negative energy didn’t deter Mayers, who won the competition with a speech titled “Why Black Lives Matter,” written by BLM activist Alicia Garza. The 15-year-old said she won because she spoke from the heart and felt her speech resonated with the audience.
“I have a powerful message that needs to be heard,” she told the New York Daily News. “My message is that Black lives matter. Whether or not you’re Black or white, we’re all impacted by the dangers of white supremacy. It’s time to overcome it.”
Teacher and team coach K.M. DiColandrea, or DiCo for short, started Achievement First’s debate team seven years ago and it’s been on a roll ever since. Every student who enrolls in DiCo’s elective debate classes are part of the team, which travels to compete in several competitions around the country each year. The students deliver spellbinding speeches on everything from net neutrality to foreign policy, according to the newspaper.
Oftentimes, they’re the only Black and Latino students at the competition, however, and are sometimes faced with racism.
“Even when we’re in places that are actively hostile, the students still have the confidence to speak with all the power and composure they’re capable of,” DiCo said.
The teacher recalled a time when one of his Latina debaters was mistaken for a waitress at a meet in Long Island in 2016. Likewise, Mayers said she was met with silence and glares from the audience as she delivered her “Why Black Lives Matter” speech.
Despite those painful experiences, the Achievement First debate team persevered, taking home first place.
“Aliyah really exemplifies why we started Black Lives Matter in the first place — so that Aliyah could know that her life matters, and that her circumstances aren’t a result of Black deficiency, but instead, of white racism,” said Garza, who was delighted to hear the teen was delivering her speech to audiences across the country.
“Black people have always been magic — and Aliyah is no exception.”