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An intimate portrayal of Black youth organizing on the west side of Chicago, Change the Name follows a group of 5th graders from Village Leadership Academy as they embark on a campaign to rename Stephen A. Douglas Park after freedom fighters Anna and Frederick Douglass. Over the course of the three-year grassroots campaign the students tackle bureaucratic Chicago Park District systems, underestimations of their capacity to make change as well as a pandemic and a global racial uprising. 



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In the spring of 2018 I was introduced to Village Leadership Academy and was immediately fascinated by the learning environment, particularly their grassroots campaign curriculum and how affirmed their students felt. It was clear upon my first visit that VLA is a place where students feel loved and academically challenged. I had been asked to make a film in relation to the school by my mentor Thaly Germain that captured the essence of VLA. After some pre-interviews with the school’s leadership team it became clear that Ms.Jones and her students were the folks I should be documenting. The Change The Name campaign was in year 2 of existence at the time. I was inspired by their efforts and made a short film chronicling their organizing called DOUGLASS. I had never seen anything like what they were doing. That short earned me a Sundance Ignite Fellowship and has had a rippling effect on my career. 


After that film released in the fall of 2018, the young folks kept organizing and remained adamant that they were going to see this change through regardless of how much time it took. Their new educator Ms. Pagán and Ms.Jones continually asked me to document but due to scheduling conflicts I wasn’t able to in 2019. 


But then 2020 happened. The young folks and educators relaunched the campaign. Ms.Jones invited me to document this new wave and I enthusiastically agreed. I didn’t think at the time that this new documentation would turn into a new film, I had approached the documentation as an archive of their organizing so that the young folks’ work would never be questioned. After spending the spring of 2020 inside as the pandemic raged across the world, documenting this story was the first time I picked up a camera again. 


As the organizing progressed over the summer it became clear that I should make a new film with this footage. Ms.Jones and I began meeting with funders in the fall as a co-directing team to make sure the project would have support to reach the finish line. We found early support from NeXt Doc, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, Onward,The Peer Fund and The Field Foundation. 


Then in late 2020, I was asked to submit for the Queen Collective, Queen Latifah’s initiative with Tribeca Studios & P&G supporting women of color directors. I was shocked and stunned, how did they know I even existed? I must admit I was hesitant to pitch Change The Name because it was a project that was close to my heart, and I’m used to working for myself. This partnership would be different. I’d have more collaborators. After some back and forth they green lit the project. It gave me the resources to do some additional shooting as well as hire folks that I’ve always wanted to work with. It has expanded my purview as a filmmaker. 


This film now exists in a larger way than I ever could’ve imagined. A Tribeca Film Festival premiere as well as a BET broadcast. I hope you enjoy the film.

-Cai Thomas

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