In October 2019, a South Salt Lake City initiative called Promise SSL invited Jevahjire France, a high school student at the time, to speak at the grand opening of the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, a new community technology lab dedicated to serving the city’s youth.
France, a former member of Cottonwood High School’s robotics team, knew all too well the challenges that many students face in order to access the latest technology. France expressed appreciation for the tech center’s establishment and praised the community center hosting the lab for its continued service to the community.
The city’s residents hold the center in high regard for its longstanding, historical presence – dating back more than 100 years – and its role in hosting many of South Salt Lake’s activities and events. However, France’s experience during the grand opening was bittersweet due to the name of the community center, named after Christopher Columbus.
In August 2020, France wrote a letter to South Salt Lake City council members asking them to consider a name change.
“In all honesty,” France wrote in the letter, “the name of [the community center] was one that I could never find myself in as a youth.”
“As a young immigrant just like many in South Salt Lake, I have always wondered if the members of the council of this city ever question how a young immigrant or refugee feels knowing that he is frequenting a library named after an oppressor not too different from the one(s) they or their parents were fleeing from back home?”
France, now a student at Salt Lake Community College, moved from Haiti to the United States in 2016 when he was 13 years old. As a high school student taking part in the robotics team, France formed a connection with Promise SSL, a city initiative that provides community and after-school programs with an academic focus to 14 neighborhoods throughout the city.
The Best Buy Teen Tech Center, a Promise SSL project, serves a diverse population, France said, noting he believes the name of the community center should reflect that as well.
“Many of those groups who use the nonprofit programs are helping out kids who are refugees and immigrants, and I’m no different than those kids,” France said. “[Columbus] was an oppressor like the oppressors that caused those kids to be in the U.S. now.”
Following France’s letter, the city council tasked the Youth City Council, a group comprised of local high school students, to set forth a name-change proposal.
Edward Lopez, an advisor to the YCC, said that while France’s letter initiated the current process, other members of the community had previously supported changing the center’s name.
The finished proposal arrived in April 2021 and outlined the reasons for and against a name change. Ultimately, the Youth City Council advocated a name change, and 17 organizations in and around South Salt Lake expressed support.
The English Skills Learning Center, a nonprofit that uses the community center to provide English classes to non-native speakers, was among the 17 organizations.
“When we choose the names of buildings, parks and other community spaces, we are making a public statement about the historical figures we honor and value, and in the process, we may be further silencing already marginalized voices,” wrote Katie Donoviel, executive director of ESLC, in a letter to Mayor Cherie Wood and the city council.
Other groups that wrote letters of support for a name change include the Utah Refugee Connection, United Way of Salt Lake and Catholic Community Services.
“South Salt Lake is one of the most diverse cities in the whole state,” Lopez said. “We have refugees and immigrants here from dozens and dozens of countries.”
According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau, South Salt Lake City holds perhaps the largest percentage of foreign-born residents with a figure of 24.6 percent.
“The city talks about being an inviting and inclusive space,” Lopez continued, noting the city’s first guiding value. “So, we want to show the community that we invite to live here, that we do believe that. We believe that the center can be more representative.”
The city council held its first and, thus far, only action item regarding the name of the Columbus Community Center on July 28. The item’s place on the day’s agenda drew many residents, which ended up filling the meeting room.
“We look at the great things that people did in their past, and that is why we honor them — because they did great things that changed the world,” said resident Austen Gee to the council. “That is why we honor Columbus.”
Fred Conlon, another resident, agreed with Gee to keep the center’s name.
“There are those who say that Columbus doesn’t live up to our modern values and morals — that is true,” Conlon said to the council. “But it is also true that without Columbus our modern values might not very well exist, so I am in favor of keeping the name of the Columbus center.”
A total of eight residents spoke to the council, all of whom spoke on the topic of the Columbus Community Center and expressed opposition to a name change. The council members thanked the audience and said they would push the decision forward to an unspecified date in order to get feedback from a “wide representation” of the community.
Lopez pointed out that a lot of members of the community do not feel comfortable appearing at council meetings, particularly underrepresented communities.
“[A council meeting] is an intimidating platform and not accessible to everyone,” Lopez said.
Council member Sharla Bynum noted during the meeting they were looking to implement an app in order to survey residents, predicting a roll-out in a “month or two.” As of Oct. 14, the council had not yet introduced a survey app.
Mayor Cherie Wood declined to comment prior to a decision on the center’s name change.
Lopez and France encourage residents to reach out to their respective council representatives. At the end of the name-change proposal, the YCC provided templates for letters in support and letters in opposition so that residents may more easily draft a letter.
“Your voice, especially as a youth, matters,” Lopez said, “because you are the ones coming up and who will be the decision makers […] The youth are the ones who will be leading our community in the future.”