Fighting for Education and Italian American Heritage

By Grace Russo Bullaro
La Voce di New York

For years Mr. Vivolo has made it his Mission to defend the Columbus heritage and Italian American education. In 2021 he was appointed as trustee of the City University of New York by then-governor Andrew Cuomo.

Mr. Vivolo is president of the philanthropic Francesco and Mary Giambelli Foundation and has strived to secure $5 million in scholarships for underprivileged students attending elementary, secondary, and collegiate institutions. He is also a former Chairman of the Columbus Citizens Foundation, President of the National Columbus Education Foundation, and current President of the Columbus Heritage Coalition.

In this role he has fought tirelessly against the removal of the statues of Christopher Columbus and the celebration of the Italian American cultural heritage. We reached out to him for a deeper look at the relevant issues.

Can you tell us a little about the mission of the Columbus Heritage Coalition and how it is distinct from that of the Columbus Citizens Foundation of which you were president for many years? What led to the need for a separate organization from the Columbus Citizens Foundation?

“I was fortunate to have been the president of the Columbus Citizens Foundation in 2017 when there was a movement to remove the statue of Columbus from Columbus Circle in NYC. At that time my board approved of making a public statement and taking out full page ads in The New York Times, NY Post and the NY Daily News. We woke up our community who were outraged at the possibility of removing the Columbus statue.

I was able to bring together the leaders of the Italian American community to a meeting at the CCF.

The Columbus Citizens Foundation as a 501(c3), is not able to lobby or do anything politically. It is strictly a cultural and philanthropic organization, so at that time, we decided to create the Columbus Heritage Coalition as a 501(c4) organization. This gave us the ability to work on all, including political initiatives. I made a successful application to have the Columbus statue at Columbus Circle become designated as a historical monument on the NYS and national registries. This classification, although no guarantee, we feel will preserve the Columbus statue in NYC.”

The CCF fought a long and bitter battle to safeguard the reputation of Christopher Columbus and to keep the annual parade from being canceled. In what ways have you won or lost that battle?

“Columbus Day is a federal holiday and although it has been challenged in other parts of the United States, we have been able to maintain the celebration of Columbus Day and preserve the statue.

We have created relationships with Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul who support our position. There are however, forces in the legislature that think otherwise. We must remain vigilant in our efforts to preserve Columbus Day and statues.”

You propose the creation of Indigenous Peoples Day in New York State, “celebrated on Thanksgiving Friday, the day the Federal government already recognizes and celebrates Native American culture and history”, as you wrote. Do you see this as a last-ditch concession to save Columbus Day?

“Make no mistake, we support Indigenous Peoples Day. There are two days that recognize indigenous people. One is on August 9th, an International Day of Celebration, and the other is the day after Thanksgiving which is called Native American Day. I believe that people realize when you offend one culture, ethnicity or religion you offend all, and therefore we are protecting everyone’s rights, not just those of Italian Americans.”

Why is there such a focus on Columbus in the US and particularly in New York, as a symbol of Italian heritage when he is pretty much ignored in his native land?

“I believe for all Italian Americans Christopher Columbus represents accomplishment when we were for so many years looked down upon. Italians in Italy are constantly exposed to the greatness of our heritage and culture and the storied history of Italy in the world.”

In your Letter to La Voce di New York you focus on education. In relation to the Columbus controversy, what do you believe that the history books are getting wrong about his discovery of the New World and its disastrous aftermath? You also wrote that you “endorse real change in how our history is perceived.” What exactly needs to be changed?

“Our mantra is to drop the hate and seek the truth. The book by Howard Zinn who wrote a totally false history of Columbus, unfortunately has received unfounded support in academia. His book, which was published some 30 years ago, has never been challenged until recently by Mary Grabar with her book “Debunking Howard Zinn”. The history of discovery is so complex that to blame Columbus for all the ills of the Old World meeting the New World is totally unfair. There are so many untruths, too many to speak of in a short interview.”

You propose “developing the first-ever Italian Language Academy Charter School in East Harlem.” Why that location and why focus on a curriculum specializing in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages, and cultures”?

“To expose children in Harlem will help create an appreciation of a culture that has contributed greatly to the world in all facets, and one that they most likely are not familiar with. It will help generations of young people to be exposed and appreciate the great contributions of Italy to the world.”

Is woke ideology the enemy of the effort to keep Columbus alive as a symbol of Italian American heritage? Or is the insistent focus on it instead hurting the image of that community?

“The woke ideology is not founded on open dialogue or facts but on the one-sided refusal to understand the complexities of history. It is its own worst enemy. It is irrational and yes, hurting its ability to be accepted.”

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