One Man Can

One Man Can

When Payton Head heard the “n-word” shouted at him on campus, he was startled — but not surprised.

He was startled he was president of the student government at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He wasn’t surprised because “I’ve experienced moments like this multiple times at THIS university, making me not feel included here.”

“I really just want to know why my simple existence is such a threat to society,” Head wrote in a Facebook post that went viral.

His post led to the #ConcernedStudent1950 movement, during which campus protests resulted in the resignation of the chancellor and Mizzou system president in the fall of 2015. Now a graduate of the university, Head travels speaking on inclusion, based not just on race but disabilities and sexual orientation. He’ll visit the University of Arkansas Monday and Tuesday and answered these questions for SUP this week.

Q. Tell me about the events that led up to your posting your frustrations on Facebook in 2015?

A. I believe that one of the major reasons that I wanted to post was because I was tired of the silence. The silence on campus, the indifference, and complacency shown towards injustices faced by students are what truly ignited the post. I knew that the first step in fostering change was to raise awareness.

Q. Your post ignited the “Concerned Student 1950” movement at Mizzou that ultimately brought down the chancellor and the system president. What was it like to take part in these protests — and how have you moved forward from that watershed moment in your life?

A. My post, among many other events, ignited the protests in the fall of 2015. However, it is also important to remember that the source of the movement was the unarmed shooting of Michael Brown by the hands of the police in 2014. This movement was so much bigger than Mizzou. To be a part of it was intense but also empowering. This movement showed me that people united with a cause can truly create change. I’ve moved forward in many different ways. The fall of 2015 taught me resilience, but it also taught me that there is so much of a need for change-agents, social justice education and compassion and empathy.

Q. What are you focusing on now?

A. Now I continue to focus on building stronger and inclusive communities across higher education, global human rights, and on literacy for elementary school children.

Q. You’re now on the circuit to speak on college campuses — what’s your take on the climate now?

A. In my conversations with students and staff, I have seen that there is an eagerness to talk about social justice. The climate varies, as no institution is the same. However, it is refreshing to see that there are advocates everywhere who are inspired by this story and this movement to find their role in making positive change for their communities.

— Becca Martin-Brown

Categories: In The News