Debate Team Members Find Passions and Success

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By Jonathan Morales, SFSU News

For the first 21 years of her life, Sabrina Sakdikul didn’t know how to pronounce her last name. At school, she came up with jokes to explain away the difficult English pronunciation rather than accept her name for what it was.

Today, as a member of the San Francisco State University Forensics Team, she draws on those experiences in a poetic speech about the marginalization of non-European sounding names. With four of her teammates, she will bring her work to a national competition. From that large platform she will bring to light the issues she cares about.

“Although people might not think my piece is socially significant, I think it is,” said Sakdikul, a senior at SF State. “I think it needs to be said, and when I’m up there, it’s my 10 minutes for me to tell everyone why what I’m saying is important.”

Sakdikul, along with sophomore Adreanna Tirone and junior Ashley Johnson, qualified for the American Forensics Association’s (AFA) National Individual Event Tournament, which will take place April 3-6 in Portland, Oregon.

Senior Samantha Binley and junior Alex Carey will compete in the Cross Examination Debate Association (CEDA) nationals to be held March 20-24 in Wichita, Kansas.

The AFA tournament is for individual events such as persuasive speeches or poetic and prose performances on topics of the speaker’s choice. The CEDA event will feature two-person teams of debaters battling rhetorically over whether one or all of the following should be legalized in the U.S.: marijuana, prostitution, online gambling, the sale of human organs or physician-assisted suicide.

“It’s intense,” Tirone said of the national-level competitions. “There are so many people who are just so good, and everybody is what we call ‘on point’ with their performances, so you get to see some pretty amazing performers and some pretty interesting topics.”

Ashley Johnson, left, will compete at the AFA National Individual Event Tournament, and Samantha Binley will compete in the Cross Examination Debate Association nationals March 20-24.
Ashley Johnson, left, will compete at the AFA National Individual Event Tournament, and Samantha Binley will compete in the Cross Examination Debate Association nationals March 20-24.

SF State’s team has, not surprisingly, developed a reputation for pushing the boundaries of which topics are appropriate for, or even worth bringing to, a speech or debate tournament. Sakdikul recently performed a piece about bodily functions and society’s controlling desire to keep women’s bodies “pristine.” Carey has written arguments about “cyborg feminism,” queer theory and gender binaries. Previous forensics team members have developed speeches on such topics as the femininity of indigenous women and incorporated slam poetry as a political debate technique.

“One of the things SF State celebrates is innovation, and that’s very true for the forensics team,” said Alexis Litzky, a lecturer of communication studies and director of the forensics team. “Our students push against argument boundaries, and that helps them be successful.” Despite having fewer resources than many of the teams they compete against, she added, SF State students frequently make it to the elite rounds of national events.

Johnson said her love of speech and debate grew out of her participation in theatre as a high school student. At the AFA event, she’ll perform a poetic interpretation on the topic of debt bondage in America as well as a prose interpretation based on the biography of Claudette Colvin, a teenage civil rights pioneer whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, preceded the more well-known Rosa Parks’ by nine months.

“I read [her biography] and thought, I have to do this,” Johnson said. “This is such an interesting person that not a lot of people know about. She’s not well known in history books either.”

Like her fellow teammates, Johnson won’t be coming to the national event for the first time. “You get to meet a lot of people from different schools,” she said. “You develop a camaraderie, even though we’re all competing.”

Binley said that camaraderie is what has kept her passionate about forensics, but she also credits the leadership of Litzky, who “helps everyone not just in debate but with life lessons.” Binley is hoping to start graduate school soon and plans to stick with the activity she says has broadened her thinking.

“I never really knew what feminism was, or queer theory,” she said. “It’s been the most awesome experience ever because it has opened my eyes to different ideas that I would have never thought about before.”

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