Home >> Cover Story >> Blazing the Trail of Racial Literacy: Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo (Part II)
Blazing the Trail of Racial Literacy: Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo (Part II)
Suchitra Shenoy Packer
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Suchitra Shenoy Packer

Founder & Editor-in-Chief at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Suchitra has previously worked as a journalist, a PR officer, and a professor. She is currently a stay-at-home-working-mom to two multiracial kids, the inspiration behind theParentVoice,.
Suchitra Shenoy Packer
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In Part ITrailblazers of Racial Literacy, Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo, the co-founders and co-presidents of Choose talk candidly about their childhood experiences growing up as hyphenated-Americans, experiences that led to the foundation of their organization, Choose. We got to read from their parents about their own immigrant experiences and their thoughts about their trailblazing daughters. 

In Part II, Blazing the Trail of Racial Literacy, we talk about their books, The Classroom Index and The Race Index, and what all of this means for their future. 

In case you missed it, click Part 1  to read more. 

SSP: When did you first become aware of race in your own lives? What was that experience like? How did you emerge from that experience?

Winona quote

Winona – From a very young age, I remember becoming very aware of race. I remember these kids, these boys in kindergarten called me “China Girl” and a girl made fun of my language barrier when I was younger. I didn’t view it as racism at the time but I felt different. I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t know how to handle the situation. I think learning more about race and racism toward people of color in the United States with Priya and through Choose has been incredibly empowering to learn how to handle situations like that and reflect on experiences like that.

Priya Vulchi Quote

Priya – I think I have always been aware of it whether it was just the language differences between friends or the embarrassment of not wanting them to come over because of the food my mom was cooking or something like that. I was always aware of it but I always thought it was normal to be sort of shameful of it and hide it and be as “American” as possible. When I emerged out of it and transitioned it into pride was when I started talking to people, asking difficult questions, starting Choose so really like my sophomore year of high school.

In terms of what we learned from it, I think, traveling and being away from home and parents, we cherish those parts of our identity and we try to celebrate it as much as possible and take part in it as much as possible.

SSP: Did you ever discuss race, discrimination, prejudice, and topics of this nature in your household while growing up?

Priya: Personally, I think it is really wonderful how we have seen our parents grow in racial literacy just as we have.

When we were younger, much of our parents’ experiences with racism, their immigrant experiences in general, the discrimination, the prejudice was pretty normalized until we actively started to learn about these things ourselves.

Winona: Until a few decades ago, racial literacy in our media, our classroom, on TV, was non-existent or very rare so for our parents, even with being in the United States for so long, there were limited opportunities to learn. It was the same for the two of us which is why we had to actively seek out that education about race, ethnicity, culture, and intersectionality. Once we started learning, our parents did as well.

Priya: Now I come home and my parents will be having these conversations about it, going out to discussion groups, participating in lectures and presentations going on and it has been a huge pleasure.

Winona: Growing up, there was a distinction between talking about race and racism and culture and ethnicity. In my family, we talked often about Chinese culture and practiced different traditions and languages and that kind of thing but in terms of race and racism, prejudice, discrimination and how to deal with that in all different spaces, was a conversation lacking everywhere among family, friends, everywhere.



SSP: Let’s move on to talking about the books. Why these books? Why now? 

Priya – That is a good question and we always ask ourselves, why not now? A huge part of our work is interviewing strangers randomly on the street and doing that shows how racism exists in people’s everyday lives because no matter who we tap, someone always has a perspective or opinion to share. Racism and race penetrate the lives of people every day and we have testimonies to prove that.

Winona – So why this textbook, racism is, as Priya said, is something that we are not talking about in our classes, in places where these conversations need to happen. We are currently raising a generation, our generation, that is not equipped to handle our racial realities and what we want to do is ensure that this generation is equipped with racial literacy so we have hope for the future of justice.

Racism and race penetrates the lives of people every day and we have testimonies to prove that. Click To Tweet

We are currently raising a generation that is not equipped to handle our racial realities Click To Tweet

Priya: Right. And in terms of why now, the same reason why literacy and any subject is crucial for the education of a child. We need kids to be good at math and science, in addition, to being socially conscious and having a mindset for social justice.

We need kids to be good at math and science and be socially conscious. Click To Tweet

SSP: How will The Race Index be different from The Classroom Index?

Priya: We are on a trip traveling across America to all 50 states collecting stories for The Race Index. We raised funds for this trip all of our senior year of high school and we are really dedicating the next year of our lives for this. 

Winona: To add on to what Priya just said, 70-80% of the stories inside The Classroom Index are from the Greater New York City especially Princeton, New Jersey area. In the next book, the stories are going to be evenly distributed across all 50 states and territories of the United States.

Book tour

SSP: You are the medium through which different voices are getting represented and expressed. How do you feel about this responsibility?

Priya – We feel a huge responsibility. I think that’s why even with 8-hours of a school day, we would always find time before we went to sleep or even if we didn’t sleep, making sure that our website, our book, everything we were doing was of the highest possible quality as we could do as full-time students. We wanted these people who were trusting us with these deeply intimate stories to feel good about where they were being shared. For us, it is very important that we are exactly that, the medium, the channel through which these different voices are represented and expressed. 

We wanted these people who were trusting us with these deeply intimate stories to feel good about where they were being shared.

Winona: I agree with Priya. Responsibility seems like a lot of pressure at times but you can see through our thoughts and our book, the method that we have chosen to be the medium. We have a large professional advisory board, and student teams, and this organization. This work, this mission is not about the two of us but about all the different voices we are sharing and all the stories from around the country that we are hoping to highlight.

SSP: What challenges have you faced in the work you do?

Priya We first saw being young and female as this huge obstacle because people kept saying ‘wait till you get to the real world’, ‘wait till you grow up’, ‘you can’t make a difference at this young of an age’. It was hard to imagine ourselves in positions of leadership but I think we’ve transformed being young and female into strengths because we are able to gain more trust from the people we interview randomly. When we go and tap strangers on the shoulder, when people see two young girls, they are more likely to open up and share their stories so we have tried to use those previously thought weaknesses to our advantages.

When we tap strangers on the shoulder and they see two young girls, they are more likely to open up Click To Tweet.

Being young and female were huge obstacles but we transformed those into strengths. Click To Tweet

Winona: Another challenge for us, personally, has been our Asian-American identity. When we just started out Choose in our sophomore year, it was largely in response to the Black struggle in the United States and the events that were happening in the summer of 2014. As Asian-American, we have always found that our voices are underrepresented and not valued or at least considered not important in this movement.

Only in this past year have we started to reclaim that voice and started to think very specifically about the experiences and history of Asian Americans in this country.

As Asian-American, we have found that our voices are underrepresented and not valued. Click To Tweet

In the beginning, we were told by so many people, you know, you are Asian American, it doesn’t make sense for you to be doing this work. 

Winona Guo Quote Everyone needs to be engaged

SSP: What do you hope to achieve from the contents of your books? (as in, what is the big picture expectation)?

Priya: We hope our books change the hearts and minds of Americans. We hope the stories spark empathy. The stories are grounded in research which we hope connects with our readers because we feel that a huge problem is people don’t see the face behind a problem. By sharing a story and paring the story with research and statistics, we can validate a lot of stats we see in the news or refute and also humanize anyone you may reject based on their differences.

Watch Priya Vulchi read a story from The Classroom Index


Winona:
We hope to empower a generation that will be able to effectively talk about and act on racial injustice in our world. The book does not have all the solutions that are necessary to achieve change but we hope through the book to inspire our generation that will go a step further after being inspired by the stories to reach all those solutions.

Watch Winona Guo read a story from The Classroom Index

SSP: In the present time, you are completely devoted to this work of social justice and racial literacy. Where do you see yourselves 10 or 20 years from now?

Priya: As social entrepreneurs we are surprised each day, each month, each year, to see the progress of where we are. If you asked us a year ago, we would never have said we are taking a gap year, or that we are taking a whole year traveling to all 50 states. As of now, this is our full-time job but we do envision Choose as truly life-long work for us. We hope to go to college and use our education there to help us grow into better leaders for Choose.

So, at the end of the day, everything in our minds now, in terms of looking into the future circles back to serving Choose in some way so we truly hope that Choose is lifelong work for us.

The people are endless so the stories are endless so the work is endless and we can keep collecting stories for decades.

Winona: Yes, we believe that because of how timeless our mission is. Our mission being relevant and important over decades will ensure that our work is important. In terms of our model with personal stories and research, we were told once by Monique Coleman that the people are endless so the stories are endless so the work is endless and we can keep collecting stories for decades. As race relations in the United States shapes around us, our work and the model around us may change but in terms of our academic and life experiences taking us on different paths, I think, because we are so passionate about doing Choose long-term, we feel that anything we do, anything we study in College or beyond can still bring us back to Choose and benefit Choose in some way and we can further our activism through different media.

SSP: What message would you like to pass on to young adults such as yourselves?

Priya: You have to put in the work to actively have difficult conversations that will lead to a better understanding of your own self-identity and owning it. Also, don’t’ be afraid to ask for help.

For all the youth out there, believe that there are people out there that value you, care about you, and are willing to help. Reach out.

Winona: In our experiences, we were told we were too young, too this, too that, to do anything but then we actively reached out to different trusted adults in our community and found support so I think for all the youth out there, believe that there are people out there that value you, care about you, are willing to help you. Reach out. You will find what you are looking for. If not, reach out to us on our website.

Priya: Also, any weakness that you think you may have pertaining to your self-identity can be turned into a strength and is probably already a strength waiting to be looked at in a new perspective.

Any perceived weakness can be turned into a strength when looked at from a new perspective. Click To Tweet

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Suchitra has previously worked as a journalist, a PR officer, and a professor. She is currently a stay-at-home-working-mom to two multiracial kids, the inspiration behind theParentVoice,.

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