The students of Achievement First, all black or Latinx, travel across the country to participate in debate competitions multiple times a year. The class — led by teacher and coach K.M. DiColandrea — is an elective, but students that register typically stay in the class for all four years of high school.
One of DiColandrea's students, 15-year-old Aliyah Mayers, recently won a national competition at Columbia University after she recited a speech entitled “Why Black Lives Matter.”
"I have a powerful message that needs to be heard,” Mayers said. "My message is that black lives matter. Whether or not you are black or white, we are all impacted by the dangers of white supremacy. It’s time to overcome it.”
The speech Mayers won for was originally given by Black Lives Matter co-founder, Alicia Garza. Garza herself is impressed by Mayer's skill and passion.
“Aliyah really exemplifies why we started Black Lives Matter in the first place — so that Aliyah could know that her life matters,” Garza said. “And that her circumstances aren’t a result of black deficiency, but instead, of white racism."
Although Garza is a fan, Mayer has yet to win over everyone. When she recited "Why Black Lives Matter" earlier in the season in Philadelphia, Mayer was not met with warm applause, but by blanks stares.
And she was not the only team member made to feel unwelcome on the mostly-white debate scene. At a debate competition in Long Island, a Latinx debater grew upset when another team's coach mistook her for a waitress.
DiColandrea understands how being the only people of color at events can be hard for the students, but the coach also thinks that learning to face racism is valuable.
“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,” DiColandrea remarked.
Garza agrees, and hopes that Mayers continues on her path of success. "Black people have always been magic," Garza said. "And Aliyah is no exception.”