Special Guests: Priya Vulchi & Winona Guo of Princeton Choose
Eighteen-year-old Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi are the co-founders and co-presidents of the textbook Princeton Choose: The Classroom Index. They designed and created this textbook with the help of Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies. Unlike other textbooks, The Classroom Index pairs the stories of marginalized people both local to Princeton High School (where both Priya and Winona were students) and nationwide with current cultural and historic events in an effort to make the discussion of racial literacy that much more engaging to students and teachers. They won the 2016 Princeton University Princeton Prize in Race Relations, the 2016 Joint Effort’s Witherspoon-Jackson Community Youth To Watch, and the 2016 Not In Our Town’s Unity Award, among others. They are currently touring all 50 states collecting stories about race, culture, and intersectionality for their new book, The Race Index. The following is a reflection piece about their recent visit to Mississippi.
In Arkansas, an elderly woman we were interviewing leaned in, eyes wide, and whispered, “You know what they say… we’re not so bad… thank God for Mississippi!” In Alabama, a couple exchanged looks and said between nervous laughter, “Yeah, thank God for Mississippi!” In Georgia, we heard the same thing. Louisiana—Same. Exact. Thing. Pretty much every day before January 18, 2018, we were thanking God that we weren’t in Mississippi.
And then we were.
Our days in Mississippi were spent driving through shades of grey, of rain, gloom, and a slight chill. We’ve always been told that a dark, heavy cloud looms over the state—remnants of its racist past, its highly obese and impoverished present—so it seemed fitting that there would literally be one. As we drove, Dr. Hunter Taylor, our host and Recruiting Coordinator for the Mississippi Teacher Corp, said, “A lot of people unfairly omit many of the good things going on down here, because it’s still so easy to for outsiders to look back at the state’s history and say, ‘Mississippi is racist.’”
That label was palpable.
Let’s rewind: We’re high school grads from Princeton, NJ. From K-12, we were expected to be literate in math, history, science, and English, but never racially literate; we were never expected to be skillful in the fundamental ability to understand one another. So, as we walked through the result of the oldest desegregation case of the country, Cleveland High School (which just consolidated its Black and White students this year), we found it fascinating how race was a word that could absolutely not be sidestepped.
What were we doing there? Our senior year of high school we published a textbook with hundreds of personal stories, paired with systematic research, for long term curriculum changes with Princeton University’s Department of African American Studies. Because we felt a responsibility to broaden the geographical scope of our stories and more accurately represent the diversity of our nation, The Race Index was born: our next book.
From last July 2017 to this January 2018, we’ve been traveling to all 50 states, collecting stories about race, culture, intersectionality, telling people of color everywhere that their story matters. And that culture that we wanted to build was reflected in the people we interviewed, from an artist in Anchorage whose Yupik family had been exterminated, to a boy in Seattle whose father had been wrongly incarcerated for 7 years because he fit the image of a Black man, to a proud transgender half-Native and half-Mexican student in Santa Fe, to, in Honolulu, Micronesians and Polynesians and native Hawaiians alike who didn’t consider Hawaii as the fiftieth state.
And somehow, while in our thirty-sixth state, we ended up in front of Cleveland High’s fiercely compassionate principal Dr. Randy Grierson at 10:15 a.m.—our recorder rolling, the two of us groggy after a 103-mile drive through pure rural-ness to get there (and we didn’t even do the driving: shoutout to Joy Tatum and Dr. Taylor and Dr. Annah Kuriakose for arranging it all!). “I don’t believe in sleep,” Dr. Grierson said. “History’s watching this school. This is the first year this school’s been active since integration, and I’m not going to let it fail.”
I’m not going to let it fail.
Even though there are mountains between these students and their goals, even though a teacher we interviewed said that it “sometimes feels like you’re rearranging deck chairs on a sinking ship,” even though this state has the largest Black-White achievement gap, even though the cyclical, intergenerational poverty seems shatterproof—even though a million things… there are people in Mississippi who refuse to fail a generation of humans still healing from the consequences of racism. They’re not going to fail.
We met people who have not only given part of their heart to support the students of the Mississippi Delta, but have given all their heart. These people don’t clock in and clock out. The handful of educators we met through the Mississippi Teacher Corps came from schools with tax money, functioning bells, and updated textbooks (like us)—they’re former almost-Olympians, artists, coaches, and medical students, and they’ve all come together. They’ve weaponized their privileges to lift others up and push back against the towering weight of systematic oppression, that dark, heavy cloud. They show us how we can all re-route our work toward justice no matter what background or profession we have, no matter who we are.
Or where we are. As the sky cleared up just slightly on our last day, we left Mississippi incredulous of our earlier hesitation and greatly moved. (We’re already planning a trip back.) We know, from our travels, that the cloud of racial inequity hangs over every part of our nation—and even if we all can’t be part of the Mississippi Teacher Corp right now, we can all still do something meaningful. We can only collectively beat the system if each of us invests at least part of our hearts into understanding, caring for, and valuing all of us. It’s truly up to us—after all, don’t forget, “history’s watching.”
To learn more about Priya and Winona's organization, feel free to visit their website: princetonchoose.org.