Fostering Inclusivity at Kutztown University
New information about Christopher Columbus has revealed that he was not the benign explorer who discovered America and befriended the Native Americans, as many in the U.S. were taught in elementary school. Instead, he was a man looking for riches and simply saw Native Americans as an obstacle to his goal. As a result, he played a lead role in the mass slaughter and enslavement of Native Americans. Those who were left alive were forced to assimilate by converting to Christianity. As these controversies rise into the public conscience, a number of people are expressing concern over celebrating Columbus, especially on college campuses, where Indigenous students might feel ignored, isolated, and erased on that day.
The Vote Everywhere Team at Kutztown University includes themselves in that number. After a year-long campaign, the Vote Everywhere Ambassadors, including current Team
Leader Shanna Yarush, and AGF alumni Rachael Cohen Hamilton and Nykolai Blichar, together with students from the Diversity Committee, have successfully advocated for a vote that will remove Columbus Day from the official KU academic calendar.
The year-long initiative began in Spring semester of 2017 when Blichar made a change.org petition to remove Columbus Day from the calendar and replace the holiday with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Though the petition was well-received, it failed to obtain the 200 signatures that Blichar had hoped for. The failure, however, only motivated the VE team and the Diversity Committee to form a coalition in order to sit down and discuss their concerns about the holiday, and plan out their next move.
The coalition decided to meet with the Calendar Committee, headed by Ted Witryk, to advocate for a change in the calendar.
“Our original goal was to take Columbus Day off the calendar and replace it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” said Cohen Hamilton, as that was the goal of Blichar’s petition. But when it came time to sit down with the Calendar Committee to plead their case, Cohen Hamilton added,“It became clear that we weren’t going to reach a compromise on the issue.”
Indigenous Peoples’ Day was first observed in Berkeley, California, in 1992, which also marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas in 1492. The day typically falls on Columbus Day, and honors Native American peoples and their cultures, and calls attention to the atrocities committed by Columbus that have traditionally been watered down for American consumption. Though advocates for the holiday understand that one day alone cannot fully address Native American history, they argue that it can create a conversation about American history that many people have not had before. Since the first celebration, Indigenous Peoples’ Day has been adopted by states such as Minnesota, Alaska, and Vermont, as well as several colleges around the country.
“Changing the calendar will show our students that we are an accepting and diverse campus. We’re ready to move forward with the times.”
The coalition, still aspiring to be on that list, were not deterred. The group back-tracked and regrouped. After much discussion, they made the choice to set their sights on a new, smaller goal: just the removal of Columbus Day, thinking it was “the most important thing to begin with,” said Cohen Hamilton about the decision.
Yarush agreed, stating, “In this day and age, calling something, ‘Columbus Day’ after a man who committed mass genocide against Native Americans is inappropriate.”
After appealing to the Calendar Committee again, both groups agreed on a compromise: Columbus Day would be removed from the academic calendar, but the day would be replaced with fall break instead of Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The change will go into effect for the Fall 2018/Spring 2019 academic year.
The coalition, however, is refusing to give up, even after a year-long campaign that started with a failed petition and ended in a compromise. They believe that successfully advocating for the removal of Columbus Day is the first step in reaching their original goal, and are already brainstorming ideas for the future. Yarush hopes to work with literature and anthropology professors, as well as Indigenous groups throughout Pennsylvania, to join their effort.
When asked about the impact this will have on campus, Cohen Hamilton said, “Changing the calendar will show our students that we are an accepting and diverse campus. We’re ready to move forward with the times.” For now, Cohen Hamilton believes, this change in the calendar will show that Kutztown is committed to the truth of American history.
And just as this year-long endeavor has proved Kutztown’s dedication to the truth, it has also shown that the VE team and Diversity Committee are devoted to continuing Andrew Goodman’s legacy of inclusivity and standing up for what you believe in.
About the Author
Hayley van Hoek is the Communications and Development Intern at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. She graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in Literature and a concentration in Creative Writing.