Leticia Nketiah wants everyone to embrace their elephants, and giving that advice earned her a fifth-place spot on a national stage.
Nketiah, a rising senior and member of Jefferson City High School's speech and debate team, competed Friday as one of six finalists in the category of original oratory at the National Speech and Debate Association's tournament in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Nketiah earned a $500 scholarship as a finalist in the Joe and Pam Wycoff Original Oratory category, sponsored by the Patrick Henry Memorial Foundation Auxiliary.
Finalists' speeches were live-streamed, and Nketiah spoke about and called for an increased acceptance of diversity in the United States.
She recalled not being able to find a crowd for herself, feeling alone and struggling with the word "different," being a child of Ghanian parents, who came to the U.S. to become citizens before she was born.
"Are we supposed to be riding around on elephants?" she said of grappling with her African identity in America.
The U.S. is grappling with much larger questions about diversity, too — proverbial elephants in all kinds of private rooms and public spaces.
"Our growing diversity is testing the way we value it," and American society is failing, Nketiah said. "We only seem to be trading dialogue for division.
"Questions that promote differences are an essential part to understanding and communicating; it's just how we ask those questions," she said.
She said one problem is American society no longer embraces complex knowledge. Instead of evaluating each other with more than overly-simplistic characterizations, people retreat into denial and beliefs in simplicity.
Even though simplicity is easier and it's how people tend to analyze information, Nketiah said "our world can never be just simple," because "when we cannot appreciate complexity, our world descends into a place where no one is truly understood."
She also said diversity is not just about race — but also the fellow student with a teacher's assistant no one talks to or the short student in gym class who never gets picked for a team.
"We should not be promoting barriers. We should be tearing them down, and the solution starts with us," she said, adding "Diversity can be difficult, but it is not impossible.
"We need to start by saying, 'hello.' Whether you've been a victim to devaluing your own diversity or not, we need to start conversations with 'hello.'
"Go out, and don't be afraid of becoming that elephant," she said.
Other finalists in her category spoke about the lethal problems their generation faces — and often vocally stand up to fight against — including social disconnection and deep personal unhappiness that's masked and spread by social media; an obsession with bad news and rejections of public displays of joy; gun violence, especially mass shootings; the bold public presence of unashamed white supremacists; and mounting violence against black, brown and LGBT bodies.
Speakers were diverse, too. Other finalists in Nketiah's category included a Sikh young man, a young woman wearing a hijab — the headscarf some Muslim women wear — and a young woman whose family came from Vietnam.
JCHS received a school of honor award in speech, "which means that we are among the top 40 in the nation," speech and debate coach Jordan Hart said. Hart accepted the award on stage with coaches from other schools.
JCHS's team also had several other members finish in the top 20, 50 and 60 of other competition categories, including Will Henrickson, Mitchell Huston, Michael Manda, Rakesh Natarajan and Michael Waggoner.