For the past three years, 6th grade history teacher Keedra Gibba has had her students follow the campaign to rename Douglas Park. During a time when there are questions about monuments and naming rights around the world, this particular renaming process is compelling to follow not only for its local connection, but because it was led by students.
Located in the Lawndale neighborhood, the park’s name previously recognized U.S. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a proponent of slavery and a former slave owner himself. Students from the Village Leadership Academy, a K–8 school in the South Loop, recognized the injustice of this name and took the issue before the Chicago Park District.
Parker parent Ashley Netzky serves on the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners. When she learned of Netzky’s direct role in the renaming, Gibba invited her to speak with students about the process of making this type of change.
Netzky explained that renaming the park was one of the first discussions she faced as a commissioner. The students came to the Board of Commissioners with the proposed name change and had amassed 10,000 signatures in support of the campaign.
When the students first came to the Board, the Chicago Park District had a mandate that they were unable to make a name change. Despite this initial rejection, the students persisted and came back to the Board several times. The Board has now completely altered its approach to changing the name of its park because of their actions. “I really commend them because the change that they have made in the Park District is fantastic,” Netzky said. “It’s really important what they’ve done.”
Gibba used this current event to demonstrate the importance of persevering with integrity when challenged; confronting behaviors that oppress, exclude or demean the humanity of others; and exercising civic power to impact real change. She commented, “Persistence is necessary for creating any change, and students need to understand that lesson so that they don't give up when they are faced with challenges.”
“Sometimes we assume that because we don't have access to wealth and political power, we don't have any power at all,” Gibba said. “The students learn very early in the year that many people have proven that sentiment is wrong. Indigenous people, young people, Black people and other people of color, women, men—so many have used different forms of power to impact change. I am happy that students want to learn how to shape the world they are in. It starts now—not just when they are older. I am constantly bringing examples to my classroom to remind them of that.”
for photos of this experience.