Princeton People: Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi created “The Classroom Index,” a teachers’ guide to talking about race, while they were still students at Princeton High School. While still in school they also started Princeton CHOOSE, an organization dedicated to promoting racial literacy.

Guo and Vulchi have received awards for their work, as well as the national spotlight. In May they were featured in Teen Vogue, and  “The Classroom Index,” which launched in September of 2016,  is already used in 30 states.

Guo and Vulchi both will take a gap year to travel around the country collecting material for the third edition of the textbook before they head off to college.

Alaska and the West Coast are on their itinerary before they come back home for a few weeks, then head out again. “We’re trying to get out of the Princeton bubble,” Vulchi said.

They plan to travel from July to December, and will share their journey on social media along the way. The hope is that each trip yields a new story that can be used for the updated textbook. Their strategy for obtaining the stories for the book couldn’t be more straightforward; walk up to strangers and ask them about their lives.

“We want to stick to interviewing random strangers because it exemplifies the truth that racism is an everyday thing for people of color,” Vulchi said. “If you do talk with strangers wherever you are, most people do have experiences and voices that they want to share.”

It’s a strategy they say has worked ever since the two approached one of their very first interview subjects, a Latino woman in the Princeton Starbucks. The woman opened up to them, telling them about times she’d been insulted her because of her race and how multiple people told her she wouldn’t be going to college.

“Just like that, in the blink of an eye, she started telling us about her story. It really validated this idea that so many people in Princeton not only have stories, but are eager to share them,” Guo said.

Not everyone has been as enthusiastic about sharing, they said. Some people get defensive when approached, asking Guo and Vulchi if they are accusing others of racism. Others have been happy to point the duo to nearby towns that have race issues while denying that any problems exist in Princeton.

Such assertions got much harder to deny over the course of  the production of”The Classroom Index,” partly because of fellow classmate Jamaica Ponder’s efforts to highlight incidents of racism within the Princeton High School community. Vulchi sees cases like this as the result of too many conversations about race that should have been conducted in the classroom and weren’t. The hope, Vulchi said, is for “The Classroom Index” to create communities where more people are assertive about discussing race.

“The crucial point is that the Index has been necessary for awhile. Part of the design of the book is so students won’t have to feel like they need to suppress issues of racism and that one person such as Jamaica (won’t have) to bear the burden of revealing the truth,” Vulchi said.

The African-American Studies department at Princeton University helped fund the printing of 500 copies of the second edition. Ruha Benjamin, an assistant professor in the department, called the Index “a social innovation more necessary than the iPhone.”

Guo and Vulchi are looking forward to working on the new edition without the pressure of class work. Both of them used to get up at 4 a.m. to work on the textbook before school, and then they would meet again after the final bell to work some more. Eighteen-hour days were common.

“We’re hopeful that full-time jobs will change into lifelong careers,” Vulchi said, while noting that most of the year will also be devoted to building the infrastructure required to keep Princeton CHOOSE running. The money required for the Index’s third edition has come through their own fundraising efforts.

First drafts of the third edition are slated to be sent off to the publisher sometime in the spring. Plans call for the first printing of the book to occur in late summer or early fall, just in time for the 2018 school year.

Guo and Vulchi have already researched how the textbook might work in classes. Both of them met with teachers in the Princeton Public Schools throughout the previous two years to collect feedback. They’ve also been visiting students of all different age groups to talk about the stories in “The Classroom Index.”

“One time, Winona and I were visiting an elementary school classroom,” Vulchi said. “Before we went in, the principal pulled us over and said, ‘you know, these kids probably don’t even know what race is. You’ve got to go and explain it to them.’”

“When we went into the classroom and asked if anybody knew what race or racism is, all the hands went up,” she said.

It was proof that just about any student could respond to the material in “The Classroom Index,” they said. While merely learning about race in a meaningful way would be an improvement for Guo and Vulchi, that’s not what their ultimate goal. CHOOSE and the Index are both meant to inspire action.

“We’ve heard from teachers that the stories and emotions that we have brought into their classrooms…have really inspired them to not only learn about the issue, but care about them,” Vulchi said.

They are already working on yet another a new initiative, slated to launch sometime in the next year. The program will offer suggestions for taking ownership of racial healing and will serve as a platform for people to share their stories.