Last month, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 issued a charge to University leadership to “specify a set of actions that could be taken” to “identify, understand, and combat systemic racism within and beyond the University.” He asked University leaders to investigate “[w]hat should Princeton University do to more effectively stand against racism and for equality and justice?” In closing his call to action, President Eisgruber tasked the entire Princeton community — students, faculty, staff, and alumni — to confront the “realities and legacy of racism.” Already, the University has made progress toward confronting its own legacy of racism by removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from the public policy school and the residential college.
We are the Chair and Vice-Chair of a 17-year-old alumni organization whose mission is to combat systemic racism beyond the University. The Princeton Prize in Race Relations was founded by Henry Von Kohorn ’66 in 2003. Having served on Princeton’s Alumni Schools Committee for years, Henry saw that the University’s outreach to high school-aged students in underserved communities of color was lacking, and he envisioned a Princeton-sponsored award for outstanding high school student leaders working in the area of racial equity. What started as a modest program operating locally in two cities has grown to become a national effort.
Now, the Prize operates in 29 regions across the country; each region is led by a committee of Princeton alumni. Every year, each region awards one Prize, and multiple Certificates of Accomplishment, to high school students in that region who have challenged their schools or communities to advance racial equity. The Prize is not a traditional academic award; no grades or test scores are considered and the application is not an essay contest. Applications are judged solely on the extent to which the student made a positive change in advancing racial equity in their school or community. In the spring, the winners from each region convene on Princeton’s campus (or, in this year’s case, on Zoom) for the annual Princeton Prize Symposium on Race that combines networking among the winners, training sessions on community organizing, and an opportunity for the winners to share their work with the broader Princeton community.
Four recent Prize winners exemplify the extraordinary young leaders that Princeton University recognizes with the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
When Priya Vulchi ’22 and Winona Guo were high school students in New Jersey, they founded a nonprofit called CHOOSE to spark conversations about race in their local school. While still in high school, they compiled those conversations into a textbook called “The Classroom Index.” After they were awarded the Prize, Priya and Winona went on to expand their project to all 50 states, publishing “Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity” through Penguin Random House press to tell the stories of how racism affects each of us from every corner of the country.
Zyahna Taija-Juan Bryant was a junior at Charlottesville High School in Virginia when white supremacists descended on her hometown for a rally. Zyahna — who had founded the Black Student Union at her high school — was the catalyst for a debate around the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, and was highly influential in the City Council’s voting to remove the statues. Since she was awarded the Prize, Zyahna was appointed by Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam to the Virginia African American Advisory Board, and has been featured in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and on CNN.
Nupol Kiazolu was awarded the Princeton Prize for founding the Black Lives Matter chapter at her high school in Brooklyn, through which she organized school-wide “Know Your Rights Campaigns” to educate high school students about their rights when interacting with law enforcement and a New York City-wide march that brought together victims of police brutality to advocate for change. In the years since she was awarded the Prize, Nupol assumed the top leadership role in Greater New York’s Black Lives Matter organization and founded the Vote 2000 campaign to register young people of color to vote.
The main work of the Prize is, of course, lifting up and recognizing the winners and thereby encouraging other young people to become involved. But the Prize was designed with an ancillary benefit: to encourage Princeton alumni to engage in dialogue with each other about race and racism. Some of the most powerful and deep conversations we have had as Princeton alumni have come out of our volunteer work on the Prize. Whether passionately debating during applicant review in local committee meetings, or at national Board meetings (where we have always set aside a portion of each meeting for a discussion on a topic in race), or between sessions at the annual Symposium, the Prize facilitates meaningful conversations among alumni from diverse classes and backgrounds. Given the unique mission-focused nature of the Prize, the Prize is the only alumni activity that many of our volunteers participate in (although many other volunteers are active in other facets of alumni work).
We are passionate about this issue and the need for scholarship around issues of race. Three years ago, the Prize established a Princeton Prize in Race Relations Senior Thesis Prize and the Princeton Prize in Race Relations Research Fund — both endowed by the Class of 1966. The Thesis Prize is to be awarded to a member of the senior class, irrespective of his or her academic concentration, “whose senior thesis adds significantly to our understanding of issues of race and race relations in the United States, broadly defined.” Last year’s award was presented to Vayne Ong ’20. The Research Fund was established to pay a stipend to students doing critical summer work in an area that would further their understanding of issues of race/race relations.
It is a sad reality that the mission of the Prize has become only more urgent in the 17 years since its founding. While racial animus, ever present in our American experience, has seeped even more into the national discourse, we are nonetheless inspired and rejuvenated in hope by each years’ Prize winners. We are also invigorated by the ongoing opportunities for Princeton alumni to gather together to further explore our own racial identities and to push each other to expand our anti-racist actions. Current students, we invite you to participate in our on-campus Symposium. Alumni, we hope you will consider joining a local region or contributing to our national efforts. The entire Princeton community, we hope you join us in welcoming President Eisgruber’s message to the University leadership and in working with us to advance this urgent mission.
Arati Johnston ’84 and Steve Marcus ’10 serve as Chair and Vice-Chair, respectively, of the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.