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GSS Student Congress Petitions for University to Change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day


When asked why changing the name of a university holiday was so important to her, Liz Manus, MSW ’20, made it simple. 

“Representation matters.”

That’s why Manus – along with Hannah Babiss, MSW ’21, and Tessa Engel, MSW ’20, leaders of the Lincoln Center Student Congress – is petitioning for Fordham University to make a change. They, along with many others, agree it’s time to give Indigenous Peoples the recognition and space they deserve.

“It’s so much more than a name change,” Manus said. “It’s the values and principles that we all stand on, and how that aligns with what we’re actually doing.”

How it Started

Engel said talks among the GSS student congress about making a change have taken place since last year. She tells a story about a day visiting Fordham Library: stepping out of the subway and into Columbus Circle, coming face-to-face with Christopher Columbus’ statue, and wondering . . . “why?”

According to, the United States declared Columbus Day a national holiday in 1934. In 1977, Indigenous Peoples first proposed the name change during a United Nations conference on discrimination against them, and in 1989, South Dakota became the first state to officially recognize the holiday.

CNN states that while technically Columbus Day is still a federal holiday, states and local governments can choose not to observe it, or change the name completely. As of this year, Smithsonian Magazine reports that 14 states recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day. New York State is not one of them.

“I think people are resistant to change and what they don’t know,” Manus said. “Everyone is so used to celebrating Columbus Day.”

The Social Work Responsibility

The effort aligns with why Babiss, Engel, and Manus enrolled in Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service. It’s clear that as social workers, they feel a responsibility to this underrepresented population – fighting for the social justice which defines GSS’ mission.

“It’s in our values to help marginalized voices to be heard,” Babiss said.

But it’s not just GSS students advocating. Babiss, Engel, and Manus have joined forces with students in Fordham’s undergraduate program, as well as the Graduate School of Education to create a petition for the cause. The petition has almost 400 of the 500-signature goal and also features a letter written by Babiss, Engel, and Manus, which was submitted to Fordham University President Father McShane. 

“We want to get this out to mention the petition, raise awareness, and get school talking about it,” Engel said. “There are probably many students who have never heard of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and how it’s so important that we raise awareness about it.”

New York and Columbus

New York, especially New York City, is a place steeped in Italian-American history. Italian-American culture has played a pivotal role in shaping the City’s identity, and New Yorkers reluctant to change the holiday’s name seem to do so out of fear of losing that heritage and legacy. However, student congress doesn’t think anything has to be lost. 

“If people want to recognize and celebrate Columbus Day and celebrate both [Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples’ Day], that’s fine and encouraged,” Babiss said. “But it’s important to have that name change so those voices are heard.”

“It doesn’t have to be a this-or-that,” Manus said.

So, what about a dual naming? Would that work?

“It’s a step,” Manus said. “But the full name change sets the standard for other schools of social work to work off of as well.”

Recognizing Indigenous Peoples

Student congress noted that this change would bring the Fordham community to terms with our nation’s past, and also recognize the great work of Indigenous Peoples around the world today. 

“I feel like in the course of all education, it’s important that the full truth of history be represented and that history never be shown from a one-sided perspective,” Babiss said.

Engel, who spent time in Guatemala before attending graduate school, has seen first-hand the contributions Indigenous Peoples make to society. 

“Indigenous Peoples exist around the world at this moment and we must recognize the essential work that they continue to do,” she said. “[In Guatemala] I worked with human rights defenders who were Indigenous men and women fighting against capitalism, transnational corporations… it’s so crucial we represent not only our historical transgressions and past but also what Indigenous Peoples are doing around the world right at this very moment.”

And not only has this been a great lesson in activism for the budding social workers, but Manus also said she’s learned so much about a fascinating culture – something everyone would benefit from.

“I feel some sort of responsibility to educate myself and provide that opportunity to help other people learn about another population not spoken about,” she said. “It’s a great population to learn about. Talk about being connected to the earth and having respect for one another – we all need those principles; we all can find similarities and values in that.”

If you want to contribute to student congress’ efforts, sign the petition here. 


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