It was a blunt question.
“What are you going to do to make sure there are more winners who look like me?” Zaila Avant-garde asked Michael Durnil, the 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 a thrilling victory that catapulted Zaila to national fame but also prompted reflection on the long history of discrimination and struggle that other Black students who competed in spelling bees have faced.
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 that Zaila’s victory and the enormous press attention that she received has sparked renewed interest from Black spellers in becoming elite competitors.
Last year, when Zaila won the local round of the competition, 11 schools participated in the bee, which is sponsored by the New Orleans (LA) Chapter of The Links, a volunteer service organization run by Black female professionals.
This year, 19 schools sent students to the New Orleans bee, several of them schools with predominantly minority populations that had not participated before, said Vonda Flentroy-Rice, chairwoman for the spelling bee.
Matthew Yi, 7, came in first but three Black girls placed second and third, with two of them tying for second place, Ms. Flentroy-Rice said.
“Typically, minority children do not place,” she said.
Zaila’s win “probably made it where the New Orleans kid, the Louisiana kid say if she can win, maybe I have a chance to do it also,” Ms. Flentroy-Rice said.
She added: “They could see themselves in her shoes.”
The National Spelling Bee never excluded Black children from the competition but they were often kept out of bees at the local level because of racial segregation, according to researchers. After desegregation, schools whose students were largely Black or Latino remained underfunded, making it difficult for teachers to develop programs to help spellers become elite competitors.
In his conversation with Zaila, Mr. Durnil acknowledged that overall, the national bee, which does not keep demographic data, still does not reflect the country’s diversity, particularly at the elite level.
That is largely, he said, because many students in poorer communities don’t have access to the kinds of resources that give spellers an edge in the competition.
“I’ve got to figure a way to blow that up,” he told Zaila.
Elite spellers often hire coaches — 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 home-schools Zaila and her three younger brothers, also worked with a coach.
The family was able to pay for Zaila’s training with the help of child tax credits that were part of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic, said Alma Heard, Zaila’s mother. Those benefits lapsed in February, 2022 after Congress refused to extend the benefit.
In an interview, Mr. Durnil said that he believes the national bee can create a “pathway” where competitors don’t feel the need to hire a coach to excel.
Zaila has been frank with the national organizers about what has kept children like her from excelling in the competition, Mr. Durnil said, describing her as a “tireless advocate.”
“What she really made us aware of are the barriers to getting to the elite levels,” he said. “The financial barriers.”
Mr. Durnil said Scripps is working on creating “easily accessible, free resources for spellers” that they can use to practice for the Bee.
He said he could not be specific about what those resources would look like because the organization is still working on them.
But Ms. Flentroy-Rice said the onus of getting more Black and Latino children involved in the bee should not fall on Scripps.
Local support, such as schools willing to hold bees and sponsors to pay entrance fees and other expenses, is critical to the success of spellers, she said.
“It really is up to the community to step up,” she said, noting that her organization of 56 women who pay due and hold fund-raising events has committed to keeping the bee going for more than 30 years.
Robert Garner, who works in real estate in Houston, started the African-American National Spelling Bee in 2010, a competition that drew hundreds of children.
But the bee ended in 2019 because there was not enough community support or funding to keep it going, he said.
Now, Mr. Garner said he is trying to think of new ways to get Black children interested in spelling competitions, including having bees at historically Black colleges, where university students would compete against each other for prizes and money.
“I want to make education a sport,” Mr. Garner said. He said he envisions local competitions taking place on a big stage, with celebrity sponsors who could draw more students.
“If I brought Drake down he would get all the kids to come down and spell,” Mr. Garner said.
Zaila’s victory has the potential to invigorate interest from Black students the same way that Balu Natarajan’s win in 1985 inspired Indian American children, said Shalini Shankar, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and the author of “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal About Generation Z’s New Path to Success.”
What followed Balu’s victory was not only dominant performances by Indian American students, but, more recently, a new generation of coaches — competitors who aged out of the bee and have become trainers or created online resource materials for up and coming spellers, she said.
As a result, the industry has “expanded tremendously,” Professor Shankar said, a promising development that is leading to more competition in the field and, as a result, cheaper coaching.
“I’m super excited that Zaila won last year. That’s the direction the bee should be going in,” Professor Shankar said. “But I don’t want the fact that she won to signal that we are at a moment social equality.”
She added: “We’re not.”