WESTFORD — The School Committee has voted to recommend proposed ballot language that would replace references to Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
The question is set to appear on the local election ballot. The Select Board voted unanimously in a May 15 meeting to place the nonbinding resolution on the May 2 ballot.
“Shall the Westford Select Board declare the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, superseding local references to Columbus Day, and recommend that it be observed by the people of Westford, with appropriate exercises in the schools and otherwise, to acknowledge the history of genocide and discrimination against Indigenous peoples, and to recognize and celebrate the thriving cultures and continued resistance and resilience of Indigenous peoples and their tribal nations?”
The question previously failed at an Oct. 18, 2020 Special Town Meeting. Voters rejected the proposal 111 to 108 to rename the holiday and referred the question back to the DEI Committee.
The question was later slated to appear on a Nov. 8, 2022 Special Town Election ballot, but was delayed to May 2, 2023 due to legal concerns.
DEI Committee advocates for initiative
Vice Chair of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee Joe Diamond and member Scott Harkness came forward to the School Committee on Feb. 27 with the committee’s proposed language.
The DEI Committee wanted to field suggestions from the School Committee.
“We believe it’s part of our role to create awareness and come to [the School Committee] … we need to dig deeper in history,” Diamond told members of the School Committee.
A survey was conducted last year, where approximately 64% of the 782 respondents opposed renaming the holiday.
Members of the School Committee noted that “it’s not a question of competition, it’s a question of balance.”
Westford Public Schools’ official calendar officially recognizes Columbus Day through 2024. If the resolution passes, future references on the district calendar could be replaced with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
If the initiative fails, however, the committee could opt to recognize both holidays.
“The conversation we had originally was ‘should we have both listed,’” Superintendent of Schools Christopher Chew said during a March 13 meeting. “Because we knew this was an ongoing thing, I think the committee decided to just wait and see what happens on May 2.”
He continued, “if the voters decide to approve the ballot question, then that would be one thing that we’d do with the calendar, if they choose not to there would be nothing stopping us from having both days listed or just have one day listed depending on that decision.”
Committee member hopes to preserve “complete story”
The School Committee voted 4-1 during a March 13 meeting to support the ballot question. Committee member Mingquan Zheng voted against supporting the question.
“This is a little more complicated than it seems,” Zheng said. “We have to recognize history but on the other hand the way the ballot question is worded doesn’t tell the complete story.”
He continued, “I think the ballot question itself is one-sided. The story of Columbus should be told in full, like his contributions during the Age of Exploration but also the harm done to the native people in Central America to be specific.”
Zheng noted that he does not believe the question tells a fair or complete story.
“I don’t think we should undermine or underestimate contributions,” Zheng said. “I just don’t think it’s fair to blame what’s happened in the United States of America on someone who died 200 years before.”
He continued, “I think Columbus is being singled out.”
Zheng hopes the committee will follow the will of the voters, regardless of the outcome on May 2.
“The town will have a vote and we let the voters decide,” he said. “My position is we’re elected leaders of the town, we respect the vote.”