Master debaters

Scantily funded Los Rios team is a national power. Will college show it the money?

Adria Tinnin, 22, is a member of Sacramento City College’s under-funded debate team.

Adria Tinnin, 22, is a member of Sacramento City College’s under-funded debate team.

SN&R Photo By Sena Christian

When Adria Tinnin came across excerpts of Kola Boof’s Dairy of a Lost Girl, about the Sudanese woman’s unwilling affair with Osama bin Laden, she knew she had found the perfect piece of literature for her presentation. It was controversial and engaging, requiring Tinnin to work hard to understand the character and portray this woman’s story. When the Sacramento City College student performed her interpretation of the piece at an October speech-and-debate competition in Santa Rosa, she advanced to the finals.

Although Tinnin, 22, may excel in literature interpretation, the self-professed big talker prefers a good old fashioned parliamentary-style debate.

“I like to debate the best,” she said while nibbling on lunch at Espresso Metro after class last week.

Earlier this month, Tinnin again performed the Boof piece and later showed off her debating skills at the Los Rios Community College District speech and debate team’s semi-annual Speech Night. Members presented prose, poetry readings, interpretive nonfiction and, of course, a speech and debate to the packed auditorium on the SCC campus. More than a dozen trophies lined the front of the stage, marking the achievements of this multi-ethnic, intercollegiate academic forensics program, with its current team ranked third in the nation among community colleges. Los Rios also competes against four-year colleges and universities, consistently ranking in the top five regionally, top 10 statewide and top 25 nationally among more than 120 teams.

But behind the trophies lie the context of the program’s success. Despite bringing national acclaim to the Los Rios Community College district, the program hasn’t received a funding increase in more than a decade and members rely about as much on their fund-raising abilities as they do the budget, Tinnin said.

Limited resources force assistant coaches to work for free, and coaches must pick and choose which students get coveted spots in the eight-passenger van that takes them to tournaments around Northern California, where they typically confine their travel. Every year, between 30 and 50 students from SCC, American River College, Cosumnes River College and Folsom Lake College represent the team, which can only afford to send one out of every four students who qualify to compete to a tournament.

“You won’t see the football team deciding which game they’re actually going to show up to play. Those are choices we have to make,” said Jared Anderson, the Speech and Debate Team’s assistant coach, during Speech Night, as he encouraged people to buy food from the snack table.

On a few occasions, competing schools have even paid for the Los Rios squad’s tournament registration fees, said member Aaron Benavidez, and to compete at a recent event at the University of the Pacific, members stayed at a teammate’s parent’s house in Stockton, cutting corners on hotel costs.

Funding varies from campus-to-campus, with some receiving money from activities fees, student fees, campus organizations, department money or alumni. More money at the four-year college level allows programs to pay graduate students to help with research and, at all levels, lets squads travel to more competitions.

The Los Rios program, however, has proven it can still compete, even against high-rollers. Last month at the Diablo Valley College Tournament, individual competitors placed first in the “community college division” out of 12 schools, second in the “debate division” out of 19 schools from both two- and four-year colleges, and third in “overall sweepstakes” among 23 colleges and universities. In Northern California, the policy debate team ranks second for all colleges and universities, behind UC Berkeley.

“We will debate Berkeley. We will debate Stanford. We will debate Harvard,” Anderson said at Speech Night. “It doesn’t matter that we’re from Sacramento City College.”

But by not attending as many tournaments as the team would like, the program does not simply miss out on a chance to accumulate more trophies—students miss out on the primary means by which to develop their skills.

“The best way to learn is to actually go to tournaments and compete,” Anderson said last week, adding that the team has two policy debaters who are “exceptionally good” and could compete regularly at the national level, if only the program had the money to travel out of state.

“We don’t nearly get the practice we want,” said member Tina Law. At Speech Night, Law, 18, performed a poem she wrote called “Pancakes,” about war in the Middle East and political consciousness among youth, or the lack thereof. Law participated for three years on the speech and debate team as a student at C.K. McClatchy High School, but standing in the SCC auditorium in early December was the first time she ever performed her original poetry live.

Although Law has only been on the team for one semester, she’s already formed friendships and gained a deeper understanding of foreign policy, and plans to participate again next semester.

“It’s giving me an intellectual challenge I might not otherwise get in my classes,” she said.

Michael Poindexter, vice president of student services at SCC, attended Speech Night, calling the event “fantastic” and said he was blown away by the level of sophistication of the students’ presentations and debates. He said the college is attempting to identify funding sources within the institution to add to the team’s budget, realizing the program’s current allocation is inadequate.

“We’re definitely going to make sure our students are getting to where they need to go. We want our students engaged and competing throughout the state and the country. And we’re going to work our butts off to get them there,” Poindexter said.

As for Tinnin, her participation on the team has boosted her public-speaking confidence, required her to keep up-to-date on current affairs, and taught her how to articulate viewpoints and exchange ideas supported by facts—skills she said she’ll take with her on a path to becoming a broadcast journalist.

Tinnin, who grew up in Sacramento and graduated from John F. Kennedy High School, didn’t always plan on attending college. Following high school, she took some time off and joined the California Conservation Corps, doing manual labor for six months. Once while pulling weeds and clearing brush near the Sierra College parking lot, she saw students walking to and from class and had an epiphany.

“I realized I was on the wrong side of the parking lot. I need to go to college,” she said. And she did, finding her niche first in a public-speaking class and then in forensics.

During the rest of Speech Night, Benavidez demonstrated extemporaneous speaking, challenging the audience to consider the back story of how their clothes are made and who’s exploited in the process. He offered examples of the long-term social, political and environmental impacts of America’s purchasing power. Elika Bernard gave an informative speech about the scientific benefit and ethical question of dissecting “see-through” frogs. Matt Nguyen tore it up with his rendition of Black Muslim poet Amir Sulaiman’s piece “Danger,” a searing declaration of resistance and social justice.

The night ended with a parliamentary debate, in which participants put to the test their breadth of knowledge of current events and ability to develop concise arguments on the fly. The topic for discussion: homelessness in Sacramento. Tinnin opened the debate as prime minister for the government team, but before launching into her speech, she thanked the audience for being there.

“This means a lot to our team,” she said. “And to our future.”