October 23, 2016

Two Princeton High School Seniors Are Out to Further Racial Literacy


MAKING IT EASIER TO TALK ABOUT RACE: Princeton High School seniors Priya Vulchi, left, and Winona Guo, right, have spent the past two years creating a teacher-tool textbook to help encourage dialogue in the classroom about race and ethnicity. The second edition, recently released, is 224 pages and a third is in the works.

Between them, Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo have grown up in seven different countries. Priya, who is Indian American; and Winona, whose first language is Chinese, know first-hand about feeling like an outsider because of race and ethnicity.

The two met and became friends as Princeton High School sophomores. “We had a lot of memories of encountering silence and apathy,” Winona said. “It got us thinking about race and why it is a taboo topic.”

It was the 2014 case of Eric Garner, a black man who died after being put in a chokehold by a white police officer arresting him, that sparked them to take action. “In discussions we had in class about this, we sensed this silence about race among students and teachers,” said Priya. “We were shocked. We realized that people found it uncomfortable to talk about race.”

In October of their sophomore year, the girls founded CHOOSE. Their aim was to gather personal stories in order to empower dialogue about race and ethnicity. “We realized that everyone had these powerful stories we felt should be shared, so we created a platform,” Priya said. “A lot of people had told us they felt like their story and their culture were a burden.”

They were asked to speak at a faculty meeting. “We talked about the general need to address race, and shared some stories with them,” said Priya. “The next day, a lot of teachers came up to us and said they wanted to help, but didn’t know how because they always worried about offending students or saying something wrong.”

Winona and Priya put together a team of students, mostly from their school, to become a part of CHOOSE and start interviewing people in Princeton about their personal stories. Those stories, complete with photos, went into a 50-page handbook which was tested with fifth grade teachers in the town’s public schools. “It was successful, so we saw that it worked,” said Winona. “That led to the second edition, which is bigger and more complex.” Priya and Winona are grateful to the help they got from their advisory board, especially to Ayesha Qureshi, Papakojo Kuranchie, Abby Emison, and Hamza Nishtar.

The second Classroom Index is for teachers of kindergarten through twelfth grade. With more than 150 stories in different formats for eight core class subjects, it was partially funded by the Princeton University Department of African American Studies and the Princeton Education Foundation.

The book has a foreword by Princeton University Professor Ruha Benjamin and Princeton Public Schools Superintendent Steve Cochrane. It is filled with stories, illustrations, cartoons, graphics, and recommended reading for different age groups. Teachers can choose stories from “the tags list” at the front, which divides short interviews into categories: aesthetic, economic, educational, identity and familial, interpersonal, international, political and legal, and residential. Another page offers longer interviews.

One person talks of her interracial marriage, another shares his father’s experiences migrating from Kashmir to Pakistan (the interview was conducted in Urdu). One other interview focuses on discrimination encountered while growing up Jewish in Philadelphia; another is about having an African-American father and Japanese-American mother.

Priya and Winona laid the book out themselves, using the program InDesign. The $20 publication has been sold to about 200 people from all over the country, some of whom they have met at conferences they have attended. They spent most of last summer finishing the book, and early this month held an introductory event at Princeton Public Library. A second gathering is scheduled for December 14 at Labyrinth Books.

The index is “a big collection of voices that teachers can use to initiate dialogue,” said Winona. “We’re getting a lot of good feedback and we’re thinking about the third edition. Our dream is for the book to be in the hands of educators nationwide.”

The third edition will focus not just on racism, but on gender as well. The girls are considering delaying college and taking a gap year to be able to focus on the project, but will keep it going even if they do opt to go straight to college.

“This is a passion project for us,” said Priya. “We feel responsible for these stories.”