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HNU Common Reading Event

Author Talk with Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi

Holy Names University held a virtual author talk with Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi for their book, Tell Me Who You Are on Thursday, October 20. 

Before attending Harvard and Princeton University (respectively), Guo and Vulchi traveled to all 50 states, collecting hundreds of powerful stories about race, culture, and intersectionality. Guo and Vulchi are co-founders of the organization CHOOSE, which provides tools to educate communities on the ideas of race and identity. They also published a racial literacy textbook for educators called “The Classroom Index” that is funded by Princeton University and is currently being used by educators in more than 30 states.

Guo and Vulchi found that topics discussed in classrooms were more relevant to trending topics on social media rather than to issues directly impacting our lives, such as anti-blackness, police brutality, and racism. Guo and Vulchi said that they never had serious conversations about race in school until 10th grade, even though students start developing signs of prejudice and stereotyping at a younger age. “There are many students like us who are moving through the world not equipped to think, talk, or challenge our highly racialized world,” expressed Guo. “If they do, they are repeatedly gaslighted by a violent system.” 

Guo and Vulchi recognized that the best starting point would be to highlight the importance of racial literacy. Vulchi recalled a statement about racial literacy made by her mentor Dr. Benjamin, “racial literacy is a historical and sociological toolkit to understand how we got here, how it could have been, and how it can be.” This idea of racial literacy includes more than just race, but rather its interconnectedness with the many overlapping parts of our identity from gender and sexuality to class and religion. As a society, we are trained in technological, reading, and mathematical literacy, but racial and intersectional literacy are not viewed as important aspects of the educational experience. 

As sophomores, Guo and Vulchi decided to take matters into their own hands and created a toolkit for students. “We cofounded our non-profit CHOOSE and started out with one goal: to listen and learn. Though this seems simple it was remarkable to us how little listening and learning we had actually done,” Vulchi stated. After school, Guo and Vulchi would go around their hometown and ask members of their community “how has race impacted your life?” Within one year, they received over two hundred personal stories revolving around race. Guo and Vulchi then added statistics and sociological research to place each story in a larger systematic context. “Stories were necessary for compassion in our hearts, but systematic context was necessary for more complete understandings, and we felt that conversations about race so often did not bridge the two,” said Guo. “In high school, we developed this model of stories and statistics to close the gap between racial literacy.” 

Guo and Vulchi knew that they could expand their ideas and work outside of their hometown to get a better representation of the country. After graduating high school, Guo and Vulchi started their adventure, and by the end of the year they traveled to all 50 states. “We interviewed people talking about their feelings and experiences about being black, latinx, low income, gay, pacific islander, trans, indigenous, female, and a whole lot of other intersectional identities,” said Vulchi. “The stories left us feeling a whole host of emotions, but more than anything, all of these stories left us urgently wanting to make sure that they got heard.” One important lesson they learned was that nobody can fully understand the racial realities of people different from themselves. “In order to bridge the gap in understanding one another we came up with the idea of Tell Me Who You Are that way you could self-activate before you self-advocate for others,” Guo revealed. In Tell Me Who You Are, Guo and Vulchi paired each story they collected to a larger historical and sociological context, each containing a major lesson they learned about race and intersectionality. 

The ten chapters range from “The Past Is the Present” to “Our Best Friends Are Still Strangers.” In every chapter there are about ten stories related to the chapter’s theme, showing how our lives are shaped by all four dimensions of race: internalized, interpersonal, institutional, and systematic.   

“With the help of our educators, our peers, our mentors, and our communities we challenged this culture of silence and began to develop the tools of racial literacy. We suddenly had a new language to navigate our traumas, our privileges, find a sense of positionality in the world, and gain an idea about our own agency and power as young people,” declared Vulchi. “We share our story with you because we hope that you can see that the choices you make and continue to make really matter and can alter the lives of everyone around you.”