How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy

Posted by Stacey Perlman on May 25, 2017

Over the last month, we've been examining the different facets of democracy with our "What Makes Democracy Work?" campaign. Today, we look at two rising young stars who are showing that civically engaged young people are key to a healthy democracy. Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi started the student-run organization, CHOOSE, to overcome racism and inspire harmony through exposure, education, and empowerment. This led them to collaborate with Princeton University on, The Classroom Index, a textbook devoted to racial literacy. Liz Vogel, Executive Director for Facing History's Los Angeles office, had the opportunity to serve as Guo's mentor through Three Dot Dash (3DD), a global teen leadership program. We asked Guo to tell us about her and Vulchi's experience creating a textbook for racial literacy. 

democracy choose priya vulchi winona guo

Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo

How do you define racial literacy? What does it mean to you? 

We had originally focused on collecting personal stories to spark conversation about race. Then we read a tweet from Dr. Ruha Benjamin, a professor from Princeton University's Department of American Studies and author of our textbook's foreword: "Racial literacy is not about acquiring the words to have a ‘conversation on race’—which too often stay at the level of anecdote and sentiment. Racial literacy is developing an historical and sociological toolkit to understand how we got here and how it could've been/can be otherwise." Dr. Benjamin helped us realize that that conversation needed to go deeper—into the truths of our history and our present, into systemic changes. It’s what inspired us to create The Classroom Index.

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Why is racial literacy important? 

A collective future of racial justice is absolutely impossible without equipping our students today with the tools to understand and tackle the reality of race in the United States. We seek to transform K-12 social justice education nationwide because we believe that only then can our future generations talk honestly and act effectively toward real change.

How have your own experiences with race informed this experience? 

Our personal stories involve years of misunderstanding, insecurity, alienation, and even hatred of our Asian-American identities: we've always been taught that white is right. And we're not alone. The hundreds of stories we've heard over the past few years have reflected similar experiences from people who often feel unheard and who face injustices truly ignored by their local communities. We're also tired of being seen as the "silent, model minority," and we want to give the young, female, Asian-American voice a seat at the table.

What's the most encouraging response you've received from someone using The Classroom Index so far? 

We've gotten responses from students who say the book—and particularly, the stories inside it—have transformed their feelings of confidence, purpose, and vision for their personal futures. Some have told us it's "changed their lives" and that they've never come across stories that impacted them so profoundly. We feel such a responsibility to the brave people who have shared their own personal stories with us, and we're so honored for this opportunity to give their voices a platform to be heard and to impact nationwide. We've also gotten encouraging responses from educators, administrators, trainers, designers, but in the end, our goal is create a tool of not necessarily success, but value—something that can really transform students' lives across the country. It’s those responses from students that truly stick with us and motivate us to keep going.

What did you learn about yourself with this project? What did you learn about race and peoples' interactions and perspectives on this topic?

The most important is that through our work, through the stories we've collected and research we've put together, we've been exposed to so much truth about the unbelievable injustice and inequity of race in this country. We wouldn't have learned about it otherwise, because there's an unbelievably extraordinary gap between the truth of our history and reality and what we're taught about it in our schools. We feel a burning need to share not only this truth with students like us around the country, but also the action steps moving forward. We founded CHOOSE because we believe that who we are and what we do can not only join the incredible community of past and present activists and activism, but also elevate it, sharing unheard voices and addressing unmet needs with innovative and effective solutions. We're ready for the fight and we won't stop doing the work until we finally get some real change in this country and finally build communities of justice, reconciliation, and peace. 

What do you think makes democracy work? How might literacy, of many forms, be connected to a democratic society?
 
Giving every ordinary person the fair opportunity to voice their perspective and influence change and empowering them with an understanding of their purpose and critical role. Those two parts of what makes democracy work—the external opportunities and equity, and the internal sense of purpose—both require literacy, for those with and without influence in our society. Education is power and leads to change. If we want real democracy and healing of the racial divides in our community, we must invest in racial literacy.
 

Want to explore other elements of what makes a healthy democracy? Visit our "What Makes Democracy Work?" page to discover lessons and hear from historians, legal and political scholars, and voices from literature and history. And make sure to join the conversation using the hashtag, #DemocracyAndUs!

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Photo Caption: Winona Guo and Facing History's Liz Vogel

Topics: Democracy

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Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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