It was a blunt question.
“What are you going to do to make sure there are more winners who look like me?” Zaila Avantgarde asked Michael Durnil, executive director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, at the 2022 South By Southwest Conference in Texas.
The year before, 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 that catapulted Zaila to national fame, but also prompted reflection on the long history of discrimination and struggle faced by other black students who participated in spell bees.
Before Zaila, only one black student had won the competition — Jody-Anne Maxwell, a 12-year-old from Jamaica, who won in 1998.
But some Spelling Bee organizers said they believe Zaila’s victory and the tremendous amount of press attention she received has sparked renewed interest among Black spellers in becoming elite competitors.
Last year, when Zaila won the local round of the competition, 11 schools participated in the bee 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 which were predominantly minority schools that had not previously participated, said Vonda Flentroy-Rice, chair of the Spelling Bee.
Matthew Yi, 7, took first place, but three black girls took second and third place, two of whom took second place, Ms Flentroy-Rice said.
“Usually, children from minorities don’t find a place,” she said.
Zaila’s win “probably did it where the New Orleans kid, the Louisiana kid says, if she can win, maybe I have a chance, too,” Ms. Flentroy-Rice said.
She added: “You could see yourself in her shoes.”
The National Spelling Bee never excluded black children from the competition, but they were often kept away from bees at the local level because of racial segregation, according to researchers. After desegregation, schools whose students were mostly Black or Latino remained underfunded, making it difficult for teachers to develop programs that help spellers become elite competitors.
Speaking to Zaila, Mr Durnil acknowledged that the national bee, which does not record demographics, still does not reflect the country’s diversity overall, particularly at the elite level.
That’s largely because, he said, many students in poorer communities don’t have access to the resources that give spellers a competitive advantage.
“I have to find a way to blow this up,” he said to Zaila.
Elite spellers often hire trainers, who can charge up to $200 an hour, to help them train for the 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 trainer.
The family was able to pay for Zaila’s education with the help of child tax credits, which were part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, said Alma Heard, Zaila’s mother. Those benefits expired in February 2022 after Congress refused to renew the benefit.
In an interview, Mr Durnil said he believes the national bee can create a “path” where competitors don’t feel the need to hire a trainer to excel.
Zaila has spoken openly to national organizers about what has kept children like her from excelling in the competition, Mr Durnil said: described her as a “tireless advocate”.
“What she really made us aware of is the barriers to getting into the elite,” he said. “The financial hurdles.”
Mr Durnil said Scripps is working to create “easy-to-access, free resources for spellers” to use to practice the bee.
He said he couldn’t say exactly what those resources would look like because the organization is still working on it.
But Ms Flentroy-Rice said the burden of including more black and Hispanic children in the bee shouldn’t fall on Scripps.
Local support, like schools willing to keep bees and sponsors to help pay for entrance fees and other expenses, is critical to Speller’s success, she said.
“It’s really up to the community to get involved,” she said, noting that her organization of 56 women who pay dues and fundraise has been committed to keeping the bee going for more than 30 years.
Robert Garner, who works in Houston real estate, started the African-American National Spelling Bee in 2010, a competition that drew 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’s trying to find new ways to get black kids involved in spelling contests, including bees at historically black colleges where university students would compete against each other for prizes and money.
“I want to make education a sport,” said Mr. Garner. He said he envisioned local competitions taking place on a big stage, with celebrity sponsors that could attract more students.
“If I were to bring Drake down, he would make all the children come down and spell,” Mr Garner said.
Zaila’s victory has the potential to spark interest in black students just as Balu Natarajan’s victory inspired Indian-American children in 1985, said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s.” . New way to success.”
What followed Balu’s victory was not just dominant performances by Indian-American students, but more recently a new generation of coaches — competitors who have aged from the bee and become coaches or created online resources for aspiring spellers, she said.
As a result, the industry has “grown tremendously,” Professor Shankar said, a promising development leading to more competition in the field and consequently cheaper coaching.
“I’m really happy that Zaila won last year. That’s the direction the bee should go,” Professor Shankar said. “But I don’t want the fact that she won to signal that we’re socially equal at the moment.”
She added: “We’re not.”