South Salt Lake may rename Columbus building. A student started the conversation

City Council collecting additional feedback on renaming more than 100-year-old community center

(Cristian Martinez | Amplify Utah) The Columbus Community Center in South Salt Lake. The City Council is considering a proposal to rename the center.

This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.

When he was a high school student, Jevahjire France spoke at the opening of a new community technology lab dedicated to serving South Salt Lake’s youth.

France, who was a member of Cottonwood High School’s robotics team, knows the challenges many students face accessing the latest technology. During that October 2019 event, France expressed appreciation for the tech center’s establishment and praised the larger community center for hosting the lab.

That community center — dating back more than 100 years — hosts many of South Salt Lake’s activities and events. However, France was bothered that the community center is named in honor of Christopher Columbus.

In August 2020, he 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. 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.

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.

Following France’s letter, the City Council tasked the Youth City Council, a group comprised of local high school students, to come up with a name change proposal.

Edward Lopez, an adviser 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.

(Cristian Martinez | Amplify Utah) Jevahjire France, left, and Edward Lopez are pushing South Salt Lake to rename the Columbus Community Center. France's letter has kickstarted a public process.

They provided a finished proposal in April 2021 and outlined the reasons for a name change. They have the support of 17 organizations in and around South Salt Lake.

The English Skills Learning Center, a nonprofit that uses the community center to provide English classes to non-native speakers, was among the supportive 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, the learning center’s executive director, 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.

The proposal also lists three potential new names for the center: Amani, the Swahili word for “peace,” bridges and promise. Lopez said these names are only suggestions, but he noted that the YCC supports a “value based” name rather than naming the center after an individual.

“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’s percentage of foreign-born residents is 24.6%.

“The city talks about being an inviting and inclusive space,” Lopez said. “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 discussion of renaming the Columbus Community Center in July. The meeting attracted concerned residents.

“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. “That is why we honor Columbus.”

(Cristian Martinez | Amplify Utah) The Columbus Community Center in South Salt Lake. The City Council is considering a proposal to rename the center.

Fred Conlon, another resident, also wanted the center to keep its 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.”

Eight residents spoke at that meeting, all expressing opposition to a name change. The council members pushed the decision to an unspecified date to get feedback from a “wide representation” of the community.

Lopez said some people do not feel comfortable appearing at council meetings, and that often includes people from underrepresented communities.

“[A council meeting] is an intimidating platform and not accessible to everyone,” Lopez said.

Council member Sharla Bynum noted during the meeting, there is discussion of implementing an app to survey residents, predicting a roll-out in a “month or two.” As of Oct. 25, the council had not yet introduced a survey app.

Wood, the mayor, has in the past supported the efforts of the YCC, but 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.

“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.”

Cristian Martinez wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.