Momentum Award: Cai Thomas

There’s a certain energy that emanates from Cai Thomas.

It’s not something that’s easy to describe, if you recognize it at all in the first place. You can’t meet her without immediately knowing she’s different from the average college student, because right away she looks different, just based on her clothes.

She started out the first of her four years at Boston College wearing mostly athletic garb for a couple semesters, before eventually settling on the “uniform” you see her in today: a printed button-down shirt, black jeans or dress pants, and a baseball cap. Like her hair, her fashion, which comes from mostly the Gap, Grand Frank, and H&M these days, is distinctly her.

“I’m definitely nowhere near Obama, but I remember him saying having a uniform is one less decision he has to make in a day,” Thomas said in an email. “It’s really simple and what I’m most comfortable in.”

But it’s not only her clothes—dressing like a hipster doesn’t automatically mean you can command a room the way she does. Yet the producer and filmmaker still has the natural ability to both stand out and then blend into the background when she needs to.

“She has a certain draw to her,” said Alex Stanley, an audio assistant on a few of her projects, a former sports staffer on The Heights, and MCAS ’16. “I’m not sure what it is. But she does … I’ve heard other people say that it’s somewhat intimidating. You kind of want to impress her.”

Stanley had a soft smile on his face as he said it, as he did for most of the time he spent talking about one of his best friends. After a few seconds, he added:

“She’s super confident, too. That might have something to do with it.”  

There are a lot of things that hold people back from embracing opportunity, and Cai finds opportunity everywhere, and constantly. Molly Boigon

Unlike many of the people I talked to about Thomas, I don’t have a clear recollection of the first time I met her.

Like me, she has worked as an undergraduate employee with Video Services, a department at BC that handles requests for filming classes and events. The office, buried in the dreary basement of Campion Hall, was where I first saw her around last winter. As a freshman new to the job, I just wanted to keep my head down and get through my three-hour shifts.

That’s not at all how Thomas works. Combine that with the fact that our shifts haven’t overlapped very often, and we didn’t talk much. But I distinctly remember the first time our interests really aligned in a conversation about a year later.

She had organized a digital media panel called “Black: We Are Here,” featuring writers Jamilah Lemieux and Rembert Browne, the latter of whom wrote some of my favorite all-time pieces for Grantland during its heyday. She was mediating the panel, a job that required her to research the finer points of their work. When I made an offhand compliment about Browne’s writing on Grantland, I suddenly had her undivided attention. We spoke a little about his work and then shared a laugh about the perfection of Browne’s analysis of a Nicki Minaj photo alongside several boys at a bar mitzvah. I then recommended she listen to an appearance he made on an episode of Longform, described on its website as a podcast with “a weekly conversation with a non-fiction writer or editor on craft and career.” By the time I’d finished telling her what it was about, she had already pulled it up and begun listening to it.

That might be the biggest difference between Thomas and everyone else: She doesn’t beat around the bush. There’s no fluff, no bulls—t. If she takes an interest in something, she’ll pursue it and ask about it, hungry to know more. If she doesn’t think something’s important, she won’t entertain it.

At this point in her life, she has a pretty good sense of when she’ll find someone interesting—in her words, when she’ll “vibe” with them. If the signs are good, she won’t hesitate to go right up and ask them if they or someone they know have any good stories, if they’ve heard of a project she could collaborate on. That approach worked with Kirsten Johnson, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, who Thomas went up to with “a little spiel.” The pair clicked, ended up having dinner, and have kept in constant contact since.

It’s this part of Thomas that has allowed her to build up a vast network across the country—she says there are few metropolitan cities she could go to without a connection. It took a little more to make her latest project, an international endeavour, happen. Specifically, she needed the Jackie Robinson Foundation, which she entered as a graduating high school senior. The competitive program has provided Thomas with scholarship help and career support services for the past four and a half years. That Foundation, besides helping her out one time when she got stuck in Cleveland pursuing an opportunity to work on a movie set that fell through, allowed her to complete her latest film project: a trip down to Brazil to work with Sonia Dias and WIEGO—Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing—on the Gender Waste Project.

The project was intended to empower women, who work at “cooperative sites” (a.k.a. trash pits) to sort out recyclable materials from garbage. For every kilogram of paper the women collect—that’s about 200 sheets of 8.5 x 11-inch paper, for reference—they make 12 cents of reais, which is just about 4 cents. It’s extremely hard to support a family doing it, but many have no other choice. In capturing their struggle, Thomas had to work around not only the foreign location to film, but also the language gap. She was forced to bring along a translator from BC and remain silent for many interviews, not wanting to reveal she only spoke English, which could make her subjects uncomfortable.

“As a filmmaker, especially as a camera person, you just want to blend in and sort of just tell the story,” she said.

The film, which took countless hours to edit over the course of the past couple of months, premiered at Arts Fest this past weekend. But that’s just one of the more recent trips she has made in pursuit of something that attracted her. She has been pretty much everywhere—Brooklyn for a summer internship at How to Tell You’re a Douchebag, a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival; Phoenix for Major League Baseball’s Diversity Business Summit in March; Telluride, Col., for an international film festival, at which she almost bought Rachel McAdams popcorn when the actress forgot her debit card.

Oh, those are just a few highlights from the past year.

She has been so many places in the last several semesters that she has trouble recalling them all. Yet, she almost always has something new on the horizon. She is missing her last day of college classes today because she’s at the White House with 24 other student journalists as part of a program called Newsroom U. This will allow Thomas and the others to meet with the press secretary team (and hopefully, maybe, President Barack Obama) and then produce stories about the upcoming election.

After graduation, she’ll be off for 10 days to Northern Ireland, where college-age students from across the world will meet to discuss peace-building through economic development. Then she’s heading to Birmingham, Ala., telling environmental film stories.

And that’s as far as she knows, at least for now. Thomas almost always has a new project she wants to pursue, a new story that has piqued her interest and is therefore about to suck up sizable portions of her near-endless energy in the weeks to come. That’s just the way she likes it—after all, she puts in more effort to pursue them than just about anyone. Her projects are almost never a “random opportunity that just came up,” a phrase she used to describe her White House venture. They’re the result of putting in the time to build a resume and applying for everything.

That filming in Brazil? The costs were covered by a grant from BC, which allows film students to go abroad and make a social justice documentary. The internship on set in Brooklyn? Those high expenses like rent and food were covered by BC through the EAGLE Summer Internship Stipend. The Telluride Festival, the White House trip, the Jackie Robinson Foundation—all those opportunities were opened to her because she sat down and applied to them.

“A lot of people don’t want to put themselves out there all the time because they’re afraid to be rejected, or because they don’t really know in what way it’s going to tangibly manifest itself, they don’t know if they have the time,” said Molly Boigon, another one of her best friends and MCAS ’16. “There are a lot of things that hold people back from embracing opportunity, and Cai finds opportunity everywhere, and constantly.”

All of that could seem impossible at a school like BC, which isn’t rich in film resources. Thomas laments the general lack of access to equipment, but appreciates that the program is small enough that she can send out a few texts and usually borrow what she needs to shoot. Even if it were harder, Thomas would find a way to make things work—probably by applying somewhere to get more equipment.

“I bet you right now she’s applying for something online,” Boigon added.

Actually, she was filming in The Heights office, about which she had taken a sudden interest in doing a small project less than a week after our interview. But close enough.

If there has been anything that put Thomas on the map at BC, it was her appearance on NESN Next Producer, a competition for which she produced a five-minute film on Blake Bolden, a former BC hockey player and the first African-American player in the CWHL as a member of the Boston Blades. Thomas was one of 10 finalists on the show, an especially impressive task considering she did much of the filming and editing on her own.

Sports in general have been her main focus at BC—including both her films on Bolden and Lou Montgomery, a highly talented running back for BC just before World War II and the first black football player at the University. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not what Thomas is really about.

“I’m trying to move away from that,” Thomas said. “Do more news stories, do featurettes and things of that nature. I realized that I don’t want to be cutting highlights or working at a sports network, I want to do stories that are going to have an impact on people.”

She has sought to have as profound an effect as possible on her fellow students here. As a gay, black woman, she has been heavily involved with promoting on-campus events for both LGBTQ and AHANA students.

Just as she holds high expectations for the people she works with, she has them for both the student body and the administration. She was disappointed with the low turnout at her digital media panel, where just 25 people, mostly from Boston, came out to listen to two of the country’s best writers, in her eyes. She is disappointed that the University doesn’t have more AHANA faculty members.

But that’s why she tells her stories—she can’t change everything at once, but she can keep seeking out injustices where she finds them and present them to the world in her own way. No one is exactly sure where Thomas will end up after she finishes up in Alabama this fall, but at the same time no one is particularly worried about her finding a good path to head down.

Like her Twitter and Instagram handles say, Thomas aspires for greatness. She is well on her way.

Featured Image by Liam Weir

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About Alec Greaney

Alec is the online manager and a sports writer for The Heights, as well as a copy alum. When he's not running the Internet, he's waiting for baseball season. You can follow him on Twitter @AlecGreaney.