Winona Guo & Priya Vulchi Believe That Kids Need Better Education On Race, So They Wrote A Racial Literacy Textbook

Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi were sophomores at Princeton High School when they realized something: Their school had a race problem, and no one seemed to know how to address it. "We would walk into Princeton High School and realize that not only were the friend groups racially divided, but also the clubs, the extracurriculars," Guo tells Bustle. "So all of the sudden, we started noticing that race infused itself into every part of our lives. And we started talking to people about their stories."

"Race had a place in our lives from childhood," Guo adds. "But we had never had the words to even have a conversation about it."

The two teenagers began driving around their hometown, Princeton, New Jersey, and asking strangers to share their experiences with racism. They collected all the stories on a website, but they wanted to do something more.

"We were suffering from conversations in the classroom where we were being pressured to speak on behalf of our entire race [and] basically nobody was investing in racial literacy," Vulchi tells Bustle. "We saw potential to leverage all these stories we collected and use them for the benefit of social justice and specifically racial literacy. So we started brainstorming The Classroom Index."

In the following months, Guo and Vulchi wrote The Classroom Index, a 224-page racial literacy textbook, sponsored by Princeton University, that draws on the stories they collected and supplements them with statistics and research about systemic racism.

"[The textbook] is kind of connecting the interpersonal or internalized events and showing the larger systematic implications of those events," Vulchi says. "We like to say we’re connecting the heart and mind gap — bridging the gap between our hearts and minds. Because the story really helps spark empathy, and then the stats ground the interview."

The book was picked up by schools in 30 different states — an achievement that Guo and Vulchi also perceived as a huge problem. "[It's] awesome but also problematic because 60 percent of those stories are from our hometown. Students across the nation are opening our book and looking at stories that probably don’t reflect or represent the neighborhood or states that they live in," Vulchi says.

The two started thinking bigger. After graduating from high school in 2017, the teens embarked on a months-long journey through all 50 states and collected over 500 more stories. Now, they're writing the second version of The Classroom Index and living in New York, where they work as the youngest ever TED Residents (their TEDWoman talk will be released online on May 7). Additionally, Guo and Vulchi founded the organization CHOOSE to promote racial literacy in schools nationwide.

In fall 2018, the two will be heading off to college — Vulchi is heading to Princeton, and Guo will be going to Harvard — and they plan to release the second, more comprehensive version of The Classroom Index. Here's what these phenomenal young women had to say about racial literacy in the United States and what comes next for them and their organization:

Vulchi Says They Were Met With Resistance When They First Started The Project

"When we first started, I think part of it was that when we first tried to replicate that conversation we first had in the classroom outside of the classroom; we were met with a wall of denial. There’s a huge culture of silence in our town," Vulchi says. "Seeking stories from other people — even strangers — was a process of validating our own experiences. We wanted to prove to people who were telling us that racism didn’t exist here, go to the next town over. … We wanted to show all these testimonies that we collected to prove that racism still plays a deep role in people’s lives."

Mentorship Played A Huge Role In Their Successes

"[The] mentors that we’ve had over the past years [have] been instrumental," Guo says. "At first, we started out by self-educating. We would read books in our bedrooms and go talk to random strangers and look for stories ourselves. ... It’s crazy the people we met who were then willing to invest so much time into mentoring us."

They Used The Skills They Already Had To Make The Textbook Happen

"I think what’s beautiful is that in the process of creating this book, it’s more than just having a passion for social justice," Vulchi says. "In terms of our skills personally, just being a part of the school yearbook or school newspaper and knowing some journalism skills, some design skills, all of that came together."

The Two Had To Learn How To Ask For Help

"At first it was a challenge to ask for help," Guo says. "We felt really shy and really timid about asking for help. And the other question we had was who to ask for help. I think we realized through the mentors that people from all different backgrounds and professions have actually played a really important role. You can be anyone — you could be a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, a social worker, a mathematician and still play a role in social justice and leverage your skills for change."

Researching The Second Book Has Enlightened Them To How Much There's Still Left To Learn

"I don’t think I have particularly a favorite state or a state that sticks out to me, but just the people in every place we go. I’ve been blown away by at least one story, probably dozens of more," Vulchi says. "This journey has really showed us that coming out of high school, writing this textbook on racial literacy — we had this idea that we were racially literate, that we knew what we were talking about. But it was made clear that racial literacy is not this false binary. It’s not like you’re literate and you’re done or you’re not. It’s a continued personal journey. And it kind of shows us how much learning still needs to be done."

Vulchi And Guo Believe That Partnership And Teamwork Has Been The Single Most Important Part Of Their Success

"It was a matter of just finding strength in a partnership, which I think is undervalued in the competitive environment we’re in or raised in in high school," Vulchi tells Bustle. "We wouldn’t have been able to do it if we hadn’t found strength and motivation and inspiration in each other."