Sikh student wins Harvard speech tournament

Alexandra Wade, West Des Moines Community Schools

(Photo: Special to the Register)

Valley High School junior JJ Kapur was 2 years old when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks happened. His family was watching the news when he thought he saw a picture of his father on the screen and pointed it out to his family.

It was actually a picture of Osama bin Laden.

Kapur does not remember this incident, but it was a turning point for his father, who realized how he and his family might be perceived.

“My father was afraid that Americans would see his beard and turban and think ‘terrorist,’ ” Kapur said.

The story became the cornerstone of the speech, “Let’s Dance,” he made at the Harvard National Forensics Tournament in February. The Sikh student earned first place in the original oratory category, defeating more than 240 orators from across the nation. The speech focuses on the danger of reducing complex people to a single story, for example, thinking of all men with beards and turbans as terrorists.

Kapur drew inspiration for his speech from a popular TED Talk by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“We think about things from this single story frame point,” Kapur explained. “We don’t think about them in a complex way. We oversimplify them.” As he says in his speech: “It’s so important that we recognize each other not as cartoon caricatures but as complex and loving human beings. If we want to build relationships with each other, we must deconstruct the danger of the single story.”

Kapur’s interest in the topic was fueled by an experience when a group of strangers mocked him at a restaurant, telling him to “Go home, Osama.”

“I remember thinking, ‘I’m an American,’ ” Kapur said. “ ‘I’ve lived here my whole life. This is my home.’ ”

The realization inspired him to start speaking about his experiences as a Sikh American. A Lincoln-Douglas debater in seventh through ninth grades, he is now the only original orator on Valley High School’s speech and debate team. He also helps coach ninth-grade team.

“As a Sikh minority, I want to use speech and debate to amplify the voice of Sikhs in my community,” Kapur said. “I want to use the platform I have for advocacy.”

His desire to share his community’s story led him to found the Iowa Sikh Turbanators, a community service group. At the group’s first event, members worked with others to pack 44,000 meals at Meals from the Heartland. Kapur has participated in an interfaith panel on hate crimes, contributed a digital story to Drake University religion professor Timothy Knepper’s comparison project, and continues to share his story through speech and debate.

“I love the way words can be used,” he said. “You build a relationship with the audience. Each word you use can change their perspective.”

His oratory has earned first-place finishes at the Barkley Forum for High Schools and the Minneapple Speech Tournament.

Kapur gave his speech at the West Des Moines school board meeting on Feb. 13. He started with a Bollywood dance — something district debate coach Dave McGinnis encouraged him to consider as a way to honor his heritage and grab the audience’s attention. When he talked about mistaking Osama bin Laden for his father, there was complete silence.

It may be an uncomfortable moment for listeners, but Kapur is challenging people to “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” He sees that awkwardness as a place to start building relationships and broadening people’s perspectives.

“It’s not just about winning trophies and getting first place. When you’re speaking, you’re impacting (the audience). You’re hoping to change people’s minds to make our world a better place.”

Source: desmoinesregister.com – Alexandra Wade, West Des Moines Community Schools