I will be quite transparent. I am a black man. I am a gay man. I am a brother, a leader, a son, an advocate and a fierce friend. No single identifier defines who I am as a person, nor do I define myself using one particular identifier. These facets co-exist and I don’t take any of these identifiers lightly, especially when we live in a country that is, at times, blindly fueled by hatred and ignorance of differences.
My name is Payton Head, this is my Crystal Stair, and I’ll start my story with a favorite quote:
“If you’re not at the table, you’re on the table”
What does this mean? One vantage point stems from the person in power discussing what, how, and why something is happening for them, while the latter can only wonder when something will happen to them. It’s always better to be at the table.
But before I sat at his proverbial table as a leader, honestly, I was just Payton.
Growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, failure for me, wasn’t an option. Not in the traditional sense, however, but more so looking at failures as shortcomings and learning experiences, rather than complete failures. Being deeply grounded in faith and hearing mirrored messages of support from both my family and my church gave me the motivation I needed to believe I could do…anything.
I would describe myself as creative, and no matter what I’m labeled: scholar, activist, student leader, I am able to envision a different world for myself and others because I’m creative. There are others who may not be able to fathom what it means to live without the current systems we have in place right now.
…Which brings me to a chilly November morning in 2015, where I had a choice to make… I could either uphold a status quo or use my voice and platform to take a stance on something that really mattered: racial inequality.
We were living in dangerous times in 2015; white students were terrorizing, yelling racial slurs at, and threatening the lives of black students in their pickup trucks on the University of Missouri’s campus. It seemed like something out of a history book. Yet, this wasn’t 1963, it was 2015 and it was very, very real.
That morning the MSNBC cameras were ready and the lights shone brightly. I was going to address the country and the rest of the world as the university’s 3rd black Student Body President about race relations and the (in)justice system at Mizzou, in higher education, and in America. I would go on to receive a lot of criticism for my views, but sharing that message and elevating the voices of my fellow students and constituents, would go on to be one of my greatest achievements.
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I believe in the power of intention and I still remember attending the first meetings that sparked my journey into student government. The funny thing is, if you’d asked me years ago if I’d be utilizing a platform to discuss social inequality, I probably would’ve told you unflinchingly yes because I believed in myself and my community that much. Even in a place as conservative as the University of Missouri, whose history and land was predicated on Antebellum pedagogy and slavery that spanned over 175 years, it’s important that we believe that you can still change your circumstances and that you aren’t locked in this rigidity of these systems forever.
Communication is very important to me and is one of the defining cornerstones in my platform. More importantly, there is a need to understand how language and actions play a role in dehumanizing people. As a speaker with the Keppler Speakers Bureau, I travel around the country to universities and institutions, visiting students and campus administrators alike. I engage them in dialogue about how they can make their spaces more inclusive and non-threatening. I show them how they can best prepare themselves to tackle the world’s most pressing issues by understanding the power of community.
This world is inhabited by some amazing, brilliant people. We all have a duty, as productive members of society, to make sure everyone feels supported and that their differences are embraced and encouraged– this is the world that I envision and the dream I have for our collective future. I won’t stop until that dream, becomes a reality.