How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy | Facing History & Ourselves
Winona Guo And Priya Vulchi At TED Talk

How Two Teenagers Created a Textbook for Racial Literacy

Activist and author Winona Guo discusses the importance of personal narratives in fostering racial literacy and promoting democracy.
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When Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi realized every facet of their lives had been shaped by racial division, they were struck by the lack of meaningful discussions they’d had on racism at school. When they took to the TEDWomen 2017 stage to present “What it takes to be racially literate”, Guo and Vulchi spoke on the limited education they received on the topic, noting that “just the facts alone, disconnected from real humans, can lead to dangerously incomplete understanding of those facts. It fails to recognize that for many people who don't understand racism the problem is not a lack of knowledge to talk about the pain of white supremacy and oppression, it's that they don't recognize that that pain exists at all.”

“Without investing in an education that values both the stories and statistics, the people and the numbers, the interpersonal and the systemic, there will always be a piece missing.“

Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo present “What it takes to be racially literate” at TEDWomen 2017


In pursuit of their vision of a shared American culture that is racially literate and identifies and embraces the different values and norms within its communities, Guo and Vulchi deferred their college admission to travel the country for a year collecting hundreds of personal stories about race, culture, and intersectionality. Their interviews culminated in the writing of Tell Me Who You Are, an inspiring book that examines the seeds of racism and offers strategies to overcome it.

Tell Me Who You Are, Priya Vulchi and Winona Guo’s second publication on racial literacy.

Guo and Vulchi’s racial literacy mission began several years before Tell Me Who You Are, when the then high school sophomores co-founded CHOOSE, a student-run organization that seeks to inspire harmony through exposure, education, and empowerment. In collaboration with Princeton University, their first publication was The Classroom Index, a K-12 textbook devoted to enabling educators to spark meaningful and effective conversations about race.

In 2017, Guo’s path crossed with Liz Vogel, former Executive Director for Facing History's Los Angeles office, when Vogel had the opportunity to serve as Guo’s mentor through Three Dot Dash (3DD), a global teen leadership program. That same year, we asked Guo to tell us about her and Vulchi's experience creating The Classroom Index in the interview below. Guo and Vulchi continue to advocate for racial literacy curriculum in schools through speaking engagements across the country and their CHOOSE resources for students and educators.

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.

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 to 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.

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