Two students from Baltimore City College make history at debate tournament

Maria Morales, May 29, 2024

BALTIMORE — Meet the dynamic debating duo from Baltimore City College High School.

Nevaeh Rita Sencion and Saidah Ervin made history – and they’ve got the trophies to prove it. The students are the school’s policy debate team, and over the Memorial Day weekend, they became national champions. They won the National Catholic Forensics League’s Grand National Tournament in Chicago.

They are the first team of African American women to win the policy debate tournament at this competition.

“They announced second place first and we heard the other team, and we were both just like in shock,” Ervin said. “Like we knew we had it in us, but like being able to hear in front of a room that big and hearing all the cheers for us is a really, really big feeling.”

The duo went up against some of the best speech and debate teams in the country. Five debates each day for two days. Two hours each debate.

Rita says it was exhausting and scary, and they pushed each other to keep going.

“I felt we started to believe in ourselves a little more and believe that we could make it to the end,” she said.

They defeated the top-ranked high school policy debate team in the country – by one vote.

Their topic?

“United States federal government should substantially increase fiscal redistribution by providing a federal jobs guarantee, increasing social security, and/or providing a basic income. I think that’s the exact way it’s said in the policy,” Ervin said.

A hefty subject that the students worked on for months. Preparing various speeches, some including poetry.

The significance of their win is not lost on them.

“We have the very unique responsibility – and almost indebtedness – to other Black debaters, other Black programs, the legacy of Black debate that’s come before us that has opened the doors for us to be able to continue to advocate for ourselves, for our communities,” Rita said. “We talk not just about the policies but about being students in inner city Baltimore and being Black women in this activity.”

The students say that’s one of the reasons they got into debate. They’ve been on debate teams since middle school.

“I grew up a really opinionated kid with a lot to say all the time,” Rita said, “so I needed an outlet to really channel that to where would be productive for me and that became debate for me.”

“I like arguing,” Ervin said. “I wanna be a lawyer. And I really like research. Research is one of my favorite things to do. Daniels always says that debate is a competitive research activity.”

“Daniels” is Patrick Daniels, director of speech and debate at City College. He’s led BCC’s Speech and Debate Society for over 20 years. Awards line the walls in his class. He, too, knows what the recognition means for his students and Baltimore schools.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment,” Daniels said. “Not only for the city of Baltimore but for the debate community to offer change and have a vision for the future beyond the traditional vision of debate being an all-white, all-male activity.”

He says getting to the top hasn’t been easy for these two. Their freshman year, 2020, the group practiced on zoom. Then his wife, an infectious disease doctor, opened their home for a quarantine summer debate camp.

Now there’s a new freshman class that’s looking up to Rita and Ervin.

Rita and Ervin graduate next week. They will be continuing their debate careers in college, both on full scholarships.

Rita says it was because of their participation on the debate team that opened the opportunities for them to attend college. She will be attending Wake Forest University on a debate scholarship. Saidah is headed to the University of Kentucky as a leadership scholar.

They’ll be back, though, as coaches and judges for BCC’s Speech and Debate Society.