Dynamic debate duo bests undefeated Ivy League team

Debate champions Aliyah Shaheed and Genelle Murray are photographed in front of the Malcolm X mural on the Cesar Chavez Student Center

From left: Debate champions Aliyah Shaheed and Genelle Murray are communications studies majors and will graduate in May. "It was a David and Goliath moment," Forensics Director Teddy Albiniak said of their win against the Harvard team.  

Seniors Aliyah Shaheed and Genelle Murray made SF State history earlier this month when they went head-to-head with the nation's top-ranked, undefeated debate team from Harvard -- and won.

Shaheed and Murray were among members of three SF State teams that joined speech and debate competitors from approximately 35 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Baylor, Emory and Georgetown, at the Cal Swing national invitational tournament, one of the biggest in the country. The tournament was held Jan. 3-5 and Jan. 7-9 at the University of California, Berkeley.

"This is a historic win because it's very rare for San Francisco State to beat the top team at a four-year university that has such tremendous money and training," said Teddy Albiniak, SF State's forensics director. Though the Harvard team took first overall in the tournament, "one of their few losses in the past two years was to these two incredibly strong black women from San Francisco State," he said. "That's pretty cool."

Shaheed and Murray's winning strategy is simple: Speak your truth. "That is our whole entire goal -- to make sure that you have the agency and the advocacy to really speak up for yourself and to live and speak in your truth," Murray said.

Teams throughout the country debate the same topic, called a resolution, for the entire year, according to Shaheed. This year's resolution is: "The United States should significantly reduce its military presence in one or more of the following: the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, the Greater Horn of Africa, Northeast Asia."

"Our approach is that before you can discuss international issues, you need to discuss issues happening domestically," Shaheed said. "We focus on anti-blackness. We discuss our experiences as black women here. We discuss police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. Those are all very key aspects to our debate."

Murray agreed. "It's really important that the black focus is not just a part of something we talk about in debate," she said. "It's more important that we also talk about how it really affects us in our everyday lives. We bring our real-life experiences into the debate space as part of our evidence."   

Shaheed and Murray learned that they would face the top-ranked team about 20 minutes before their debate began, but remained unfazed. "Honestly, it's all in your head," Shaheed said. "When we were going up against them, what I found is that their tactics, the way they spoke, everything about them was no different than any other team that we had won against this season."

Albiniak said the speech and debate team was busy throughout the winter break, winning first place overall at UC Berkeley's "The Talk-Off" tournament and performing well in two other tournaments. Students at most schools have scholarships, which allow them to focus solely on debate, and coaches who do their research for them, according to Albiniak.

"Both Aliyah and Genelle work and have school studies on top of all the research they put into debate," he said. "They are both really incredible students, and they debate because they love thinking. They do it for fun and they do it for politics. This is what makes SF State so exceptional and sets it apart from schools across the country."

Murray and Shaheed will continue to compete until they graduate in May. "We definitely wish that we had the funds that the Ivy League and private schools do, but we make do," Murray said. "What's special about San Francisco State is that we are a big social justice school."