June 12, 2019

Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi On the Road, Accelerating the Spread of Racial Literacy

RACIAL LITERACY CRUSADERS: Priya Vulchi, left, and Winona Guo, Princeton High School graduates now at Princeton University and Harvard University, respectively, held a standing-room-only book launch last week at Labyrinth Books for “Tell Me Who You Are,” their new collection of stories and interviews from across the country. (Photo by Brenna Kennedy-Moore)

By Donald Gilpin

Last Wednesday night’s book launch at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street was not your typical literary event.

This should not be surprising since the authors, Princeton High School (PHS) graduates Winona Guo, now at Harvard University, and Priya Vulchi, now at Princeton University, are not your typical college students, and, as they point out, their new book, Tell Me Who You Are, is much more than a book.

They wrote on social media last week, “As teens we spent one year traveling to all 50 states interviewing strangers about race for this racial literacy movement. This isn’t just a book, it’s an essential guide to bridging our racially divided world. So, are you with us?”

Guo and Vulchi intentionally chose their hometown to begin their extensive summer book launch before they travel to book stores, schools, libraries, conferences, and other venues throughout the country.

“I am unable to articulate the gratitude and love in our hearts for the people in our community,” said Guo, reflecting on the response of the standing-room-only crowd. “It made us feel very grounded in the larger racial literacy movement that so many individuals have been a part of.” Their book was sold out at Labyrinth earlier this week, with more copies on order.

Guo and Vulchi started their journey when they were tenth-graders at PHS and realized that nowhere in their education had they heard substantive conversations about race. They founded an organization named CHOOSE, with a goal of gathering personal stories to empower dialogue about race.

Their progress quickly accelerated, along with their success. They spoke at a faculty meeting, gradually overcoming what Vulchi described as “a lot of doubt about our project.”

They put together a team of students to interview more people. They created a 50-page handbook, The Classroom Index, which was tested with fifth-grade teachers and their students. That led to a second edition, with more than 150 stories and pictures, that has sold widely and has been used in many schools.

After graduation from PHS in 2017, Guo and Vulchi deferred college admission for a year and traveled to all 50 states asking more than 500 people: “How has race, culture, or intersectionality impacted your life?”

In Tell Me Who You Are, Guo and Vulchi present the many diverse voices they heard, examine what those experiences reveal, and discuss how to break down racial barriers and inequities.

In a November 2017 TED Talk, about halfway through their research journey, they discussed their project and their goals.

“We want everywhere across the United States for our youngest and future generations to grow up equipped with the tools to understand, navigate, and improve a world structured by racial division,” Guo said.

Vulchi described “two big gaps in our understanding of racial literacy”: the heart gap, or the inability to be compassionate beyond lip service; and the mind gap, the inability to understand the larger systemic ways in which racism operates.

Their plan to bridge the gap involved “putting a face to the facts and statistics, connecting to real humans,” Guo added.

During the course of their travels they interviewed hundreds of strangers, many of whom they are still in touch with and are looking forward to seeing again in the coming weeks of their book tour.

The two young women’s 250-day journey wasn’t easy. In a second TED Talk, conducted after their travels, they reflected: “We heard stories that changed us forever. They cried. We cried. We all cried. Later we missed our parents and we cried more.”

They continued, “In Montana we were too scared to interview downtown after our host told us about the white supremacists everywhere. In Kansas we interviewed a man who had been shot after being told ‘go back to your country.’ In Virginia we interviewed a mother who showed videos of her daughter laughing just a few weeks before she was killed in the Charlottesville protests.”

“The youngest person we interviewed was a toddler in Michigan whose role model is Beyonce. The oldest person we interviewed was a Japanese internment camp survivor in Washington whose role model is also Beyonce.”

The official publication date for Tell Me Who You Are was June 4, and “even one week out, it’s clear through social media that people are excited, energized,” said Vulchi.

“We have been amazed by different people’s responses,” added Guo, noting an acupuncturist who has placed the book on a coffee table in her reception area, a parent who is reading bedtime stories from the book to her children, and a teacher already using the book as a guide in her classroom.

“We’re super excited to share the message that it’s relevant to all — a conversation we all should be having,” said Guo.

“Young people resonate with the message,” said Vulchi. “That means the world to us.”

The next book and the next chapter in their lives as they set out across the country again on their book tour, then back for their sophomore year in college in the fall, have yet to be written, but as Guo states, “This is a lifelong quest for the two of us.”