Forest Park District 91 schools will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day for the first time in history come fall 2019. 

The name change, which marks a tremendous shift in cultural consciousness, is taking place in schools, cities and states across the country. More than 55 cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, including Berkeley, Denver and Cincinnati. States that have made the change include Alaska, Minnesota, Vermont, South Dakota and Nevada. 

D91 Superintendent Dr. Louis Cavallo said the decision to celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day is one that involved the entire community. Every year, D91 puts together a draft calendar that is then sent to various community groups, including the Citizens Advisory Council, Forest Park Public Library and Village Council, among others. 

The discussion started in 2018, when the Citizens Advisory Council suggested the schools change the holiday name.

“The Citizens Advisory Council did not want us perpetuating a false narrative,” Cavallo said. 

The council suggested the name change could be an opportunity to teach kids more about indigenous people and offer a more accurate history of the founding of the United States. 

Columbus Day became a federal holiday in 1937, and since then activists have spoken out against the holiday, saying that Columbus did not “discover” the United States, but rather colonized and initiated a mass genocide of the Native American people who originally inhabited the land. 

While Columbus Day will still be recognized as a national holiday on Oct. 14, the name will appear as Indigenous Peoples Day on the D91 calendar, and the schools will provide learning opportunities related to indigenous peoples around the date. 

While programming is not yet complete, the district plans to reach out to Native American organizations to help educate D91 students about the history of Native Americans in the United States. 

“We are thinking about what kinds of age appropriate lessons we can teach throughout the week,” said Cavallo, explaining that lessons will differ based on age group, due to the graphic nature of some of the nation’s history. 

Cavallo sees the name change as a minor part of the work D91 is doing to increase cultural awareness and sensitivity. Since 2017, D91 leadership has been working with the National Equity Project to learn about the biases held by individuals working in schools and how those biases contribute to systems of inequality that treat students differently.

The training, which Cavallo called “incredibly intense,” included a four-day residency program, where leadership spent full days reflecting on their own biases, how those biases influence their judgments, how they lead and make decisions and understanding the meaning of equity. 

“It’s hard work that requires vulnerability and a lot of trust,” Cavallo said of the trainings, adding, “No one wants to hear that they’re racist.”

According to Cavallo, the data speaks for itself: “White principals have hired in a certain way and black principals have hired in a certain way. But we can’t get defensive about bias; we’re not doing it on purpose.”

Cavallo believes that if equitable change is to occur within the schools, it must first start with leadership. 

“It has to be an internal thing first; we have to understand how these biases work,” he said, adding that teaching kids starts with teaching adults about how they view and treat individuals differently due to bias. 

Next year, the National Equity Project will come to D91 schools to hold shorter versions of the 4-day workshop. Cavallo plans to include all staff within D91 in the training, from bus drivers to teachers. 

He foresees ongoing work with the National Equity Project, saying: “[Learning about bias] is not something you do in a few workshops and you’re done. It takes years and consistent focus and an ongoing commitment to continue the work.”

He hopes that the work D91 is doing will reverberate out to the community as a whole. The Diversity Commission recently reached out to Cavallo requesting that an individual who has undergone the equity training join the Citizens Advisory Board to learn about D91’s work and replicate it in the community.  

While the equity work is currently focused on D91 administration and staff, Cavallo sees the change to Indigenous Peoples Day as one way to start educating students on equity and the Native American experience. 

D91 administration has also had discussions about the narrative around Thanksgiving and the best way to navigate Thanksgiving pageants. “[We’ve discussed] how having kids dress up as Indians is inappropriate,” Cavallo said. 

“There is a lots of positive around Thanksgiving, but we don’t want to teach a false narrative,” he said.