Mya Whitaker was getting ready to begin her second semester at SF State in January 2010 when she heard the news that one of her closest friends had been killed outside of a party in Hayward. As the months went by, several more of her friends were killed. The cycle continued until January the following year when she mourned the seventh death of a friend.
Heartbroken, financially unstable and nearly failing out of school, Whitaker didn’t think she had the strength or the grades to complete the academic year.
And then she got a text message.
Her former high school debate coach, Michael Scheer, asked her how she was doing and what her grades looked like.
“I didn’t even know he still had my number,” said Whitaker, a sociology major. “I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t know any program where the teacher cares enough to message me and ask me how I’m doing.’ He cared enough to not let me fail and pushed me to get involved with debate again.”
Whitaker had joined the debate team during her senior year at Skyline High School in Oakland after Scheer told her she talked too much. Although she was accustomed to using her fists to get her point across to others, the debate team taught her to communicate verbally.
“There’s a power factor that comes with being a debater,” said Whitaker. “People have to listen to you and respect what you’re saying.”
Those who have debated against Whitaker have acknowledged the poise and feisty attitude she brings to the stage. Jessica Winsey, a former student at Street Academy High School in Oakland, debated against Whitaker on five separate occasions. Although Winsey won the first four debates, Whitaker and her partner won the fifth debate by a split decision and became the first city champions of Oakland.
“Every time I would go against (Whitaker) it would be a fun experience,” said Winsey. “She brings a sense of realness to the debate since she incorporates a lot of personal experience. She’s just herself. She makes her arguments simple, clear and to the point.”
Although she had spent less than a year on the team, she traveled to Chicago to debate in the prestigious Chase Urban Debate National Championship.
“People underestimate me,” she said. “I am this girl with colorful hair and tattoos, and then the moment people learn that I debate and that I’m intelligent, they realize they can’t just talk to me any way they want.”
Since Whitaker had success with the Bay Area Urban Debate League during high school, the nonprofit was happy to have her back as an alumni intern. It was incorporated into her contract that in order to be rehired at BAUDL, she had to join the debate team at SF State as a way to advance her skills.
“Debate was always something that made me happy, especially after all the tragedies kept happening,” she said. “I eventually fell in love with it all over again.”
Whitaker returned to debating in the spring of 2011. Although she had less experience than some other debaters, coaches put her through a high level of competition from the very beginning.
“As a debater, Mya has always had a lot of passion and courage,” said Stephanie Eisenberg, a volunteer for BAUDL and one of the coaches for the SF State debate team. “Not only is she smart, but she’s got a lot of things to say.”
On top of going to school and debating for the SF State team, Whitaker works as both a mentor and coach for the debate teams at Skyline and Castlemont high schools in Oakland, respectively.
“If I had to rate (Whitaker) as a coach on a scale from one to 10, I’d give her a 10,” said Michelle Thomas, a sophomore on the debate team at Castlemont High School. “She really knows how to debate and tells us the strategies she uses.”
Whitaker said that if it hadn’t been for BAUDL, she would have dropped out of college by now. In January, she was promoted to program assistant, which requires her to recruit students to debate for the league.
“I wouldn’t be able to do my job if it wasn’t for Mya,” said Perry Green, the program director for BAUDL. “Since she was promoted, our program has been much more robust. She’s got her feet on the ground and interacts with students in a way that I just can’t.”
Although she spends several days a week helping students debate, Whitaker has also been an influence on them outside of the classroom.
“Mya is someone who I wholeheartedly respect,” said Gregory Belvin, a senior and captain for the Skyline High School debate team. “If she were to criticize me, it would hold a lot more weight than anything a teacher or debate coach could say. She’s been a guiding voice for me and a good example for minorities.”
Whitaker said that transitioning from a fighter who could barely communicate to a well-spoken debater has made her realize that she is better than her economic situation.
“Debating is an outlet for me and a lot of people,” she said. “Having all this built up anger and then finally being able to express yourself verbally feels really good.”