CENTRALIA – “I’m going to tell you a story about my mother, Barbara Pixton.”
After thanking the judges and crowd, Levi Pixton begins his speech at the Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship, explaining the setting is in 1969. His mother, then 15, is pregnant with her first child. Without the support of her family, she graduates high school one year early. After getting a job at a local factory, Barbara switches careers to join the Navy. She makes it through boot camp, unable to swim, with a 4-year-old son at home.
But she didn’t stop there because, Pixton says, “with resilience comes desire.”
During her service, which lasts 23 years, Barbara receives the NAACP Meritorious Service Medal and reaches the rank of chief. Eventually she retires. But most importantly during this time, Pixton notes, she meets the love of her life, Boyd. The two have six children — one of whom is recounting this very story before a group of strangers.
Pixton gave this speech and was selected, with fellow student TeAirra Lawson, to represent Olympic College at the third Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship, a public-speaking competition held at Centralia College. The event brought students from community colleges across the state to deliver 15-minute inspirational speeches before a panel of judges on July 23.
After initially being selected as an alternate in the competition, Pixton was invited to compete after a last-minute change. His speech took home the top prize and earned him the honor of Statewide Inspirational Speech Champion. Lawson also placed in the top five.
“I’m kind of, I guess in shock at that point,” Pixton recalled of the moment after his name was announced as the winner. “It doesn’t hit me right away, it didn’t really hit me until I got home.”
A state championship for public speaking
To get into the Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship, professors recommend students from Washington’s community colleges to audition with a three-minute recording. After a panel of judges scores those videos, the top five speakers are invited to travel to Centralia to compete in person. The students spoke before a panel of judges that included Cowlitz County Sheriff Brad Thurman, Central Washington University instructor Luke Williams and Thurston County Superior Court Judge Indu Thomas.
This year’s event, organized by Centralia College’s Communication Studies Department lead Jeff McQuarrie, saw around 20 submissions and a few last-minute speaker changes before the final five were set. McQuarrie started the event in 2020 after conversations with students about the lack of organized academic competition.
“We were talking about how you can win a state championship in basketball and baseball and volleyball and soccer,” McQuarrie said. “How come you can’t win a state championship for things that are more academic, like public speaking?”
From there, McQuarrie started each competition by reaching out to communication professors across the state asking for student recommendations. This year students from around 13 schools submitted speeches, he said. In addition to Pixton and Lawson, Lyndi Klacik of Centralia College, Ying Yiu “Yoyo” Lau of Whatcom Community College and Josaphat Boesinga of Bellevue College (who placed second) attended the in-person competition.
Laura Bourmatnov, professor of communication studies at Olympic College, recommended both Pixton and Lawson. She saw them both shine in her public speaking class and suggested they apply to compete. On July 23, she drove down to Centralia to surprise them both at the TransAlta Commons building on Centralia College’s campus.
“Both Levi and TeAirra are masters of being able to connect to their listeners. And, you know, touch their hearts and pull them in with personal stories,” Bourmatnov said.
The event, which includes a local farm trip the night before the competition begins, pays homage to the Centralia area with hay bales, flannel shirts and bandanas, McQuarrie says.
“It alleviates all of the pressure,” Pixton said of the western theme, which made him feel less of the intensity around competing. It wasn’t until soundcheck that Pixton was reminded that there would even be a winner.
‘I had finally found my voice’
Lawson didn’t plan on taking Bourmatnov’s public speaking course at OC. A friend was in the class and didn’t want to be alone. “So I was like ‘OK, I’ll take it with you,’” she said.
Her speech — which she practiced in the car, before bed and “whenever I could” — was titled “A Time to Speak Up.” Because Lawson was the highest-scoring submission to the contest, she chose when she spoke at the competition. She went first.
Lawson shared a personal story about her own growth and development. Initially she did not feel comfortable speaking up about the racism at her school, she said. But through a committee she founded, Equity for All, Lawson spoke about student meetings, assemblies and Black History Month initiatives she helped organize.
“I made an impact and I had finally found my voice that had been missing for so many years,” she said during her speech.
Uplifting the competition
Contestants were judged on their credibility and emotional appeal, clarity of logic, speaking techniques, call to action and overall inspirational value. McQuarrie purposely recruits judges who are non-experts in the field of communication and public speaking to emphasize the importance of developing skills beyond the classroom.
Inspirational speeches are often confused with motivational speeches, according to McQuarrie. Motivational speakers, as he often describes it, pull someone off a couch and cause them to act on something. In an inspirational speech, “instead of them pulling you off the couch, you leap off the couch on your own accord,” McQuarrie said.
The focus on inspirational speech was chosen, McQuarrie says, after his 11 years of hearing student speeches on controversial and heavy topics while teaching at Centralia College. The first competition being held in 2020 also inspired that choice. “I thought it wouldn’t be great to have, for a change, to have a competition where the speeches were more uplifting,” he said.
Pixton’s winning speech continued that afternoon with the story of Barbara going back to school, in hopes of becoming a teacher and principal. After more than 100 denied applications, she gets a position. “It seems like enough, doesn’t it?” Pixton says. “It seems like you could hang up your boots.” But despite exceeding everyone’s expectations, Pixton says, that’s not how resilience works.
In 2008, Pixton’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Pixton remembers the constant ferry rides into Seattle for his treatment. Barbara cares for him, trip after trip, brushing his teeth and feeding him meals. She tucks him into bed and puts candy in his room in hopes staff members will give him that little extra ounce of care.
Barbara’s resilience could have stopped at any point, Pixton notes. Her efforts to overcome every adverse situation and obstacle were always impressive to him.
“But there is none greater, or more impactful, than showing resilience and love,” Pixton says. Love is, at the end of it all, “what we need the strength of resilience most for,” he says.
Pixton will be transferring to Washington State University in the fall to pursue a career in broadcast production. Lawson will be heading to Western Washington to continue her pursuit of multidisciplinary studies and content creating and streaming. But both left a strong imprint on the Statewide Inspirational Speech Championship after this year’s result.
“OC could be the one to beat from now on,” Bourmatnov said.