Headed out: Payton says goodbye to the MSA presidency

Head: “I think through everything, we accomplished a lot.”
Maneater File Photo

Payton Head remembers having a conversation with a waitress at The Heidelberg before beginning his MSA presidential campaign. She told him she would vote for him and his running mate Brenda Smith-Lezama because she felt they “truly got it.”

She said to him: “I work all these hours for the Heidelberg. I barely have time to study. I can barely afford to go here. If I miss one paycheck or if somebody doesn’t tip me the right way, I could be out of here in a heartbeat.”

Head said the conversation opened his eyes to the amount of privilege he had in even being able to run for and hold the position of Missouri Students Association president. He realized that students like that waitress were not able to be active in MSA because they had to work and did not have some of the options that he did, such as taking only nine credit hours one semester to give more time to the organization.

“The average student who’s working 40-plus hours a week just to stay a student at Mizzou is not going to be sitting in MSA committee meetings, but somebody has to know their experiences, and somebody has to speak up for them,” he said.

Head has tried throughout his presidency to understand students who come from different backgrounds than his own. He grew up in the South Side of Chicago, so he said when he arrived at MU, he was “still learning about white people.”

He and Smith-Lezama ran on a platform titled “Ignite Mizzou” with a strong social justice emphasis. He said in September 2015 that he was initially told he would “never win” because he was black and, at the time, not a member of a fraternity.

Head and Smith-Lezama were the first two black students to win the presidency and vice presidency together. The election received the highest voter turnout in MSA history.

“I think we did really well (meeting the goals of our platform), honestly,” he said. “The first semester, I was a little concerned because I didn't know that we would have time to do everything that we wanted, but I think through everything, we accomplished a lot.”

He said one of the major successes was establishing the national It’s On Us campaign at MU, which he said became a model for other universities to follow. The implementation of the campaign came with a few struggles. He and Smith-Lezama were dissatisfied with the lack of national leadership in programming for It’s On Us, which left most of the work to students at individual universities.

He and Smith-Lezama used It’s On Us to promote existing sexual assault prevention organizations and initiatives rather than trying to “reinvent the wheel” and create new ones. He said he was also satisfied with the way his cabinet handled a controversy over a showing of the film “American Sniper” as well as their participation in different leadership summits, including trips to Israel and Washington, D.C.

However, the promotion of It’s On Us and other programs were set aside when MU became the focus of a national conversation on race relations.

Head was at the center of one of the first events leading up to the resignations of former UM System President Tim Wolfe and former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin. After a group of students called him the N-word as he was walking through campus, he made a Facebook post that went viral.

The first “Racism Lives Here” demonstration came 12 days later. As more and more events unfolded, Head played a prominent role in the activism. He had already been interviewed by The Washington Post for an article about his Facebook post and was comfortable speaking with national media outlets.

After the resignations, he went on CNN and MSNBC. He said that by then, giving an interview felt routine.

“I had to be very discerning with the media outlets that I chose to interview with because some people weren’t after the real story,” he said. “Some journalists came down with the story they were going to tell and they just needed two or three people to validate it for them.”

Although Head and other activists celebrated the resignations of the administrators Nov. 9, the next night was different. Concerned Student 1950 tore down their makeshift campsite amid threats on Yik Yak of violence, and Head mistakenly posted on social media that the Ku Klux Klan was at MU.

After that post, which he removed and posted an apology for, calls for his resignation began circulating on Twitter.

“Honestly, that was horrible,” he said. “Nobody wants to scare people or put out misinformation. Especially for me, I had the best intentions of the students at mind in every single thing that I was doing, and I think that was hard for me, you know, to fail.”

Looking back on that week, he described it as hell.

“It was really scary,” he said. “For a peaceful protest, people wanted to take my life. I didn’t go home for two weeks. I was living at my friend’s house or I was sleeping in my office, and there were times when I didn’t even go to my office because it was so bad.”

On Twitter, he and other activists received tweets from “trolls,” he said, who tried to “suppress people who tried to get the word out” for Concerned Student 1950. He said sometimes he would refresh his notifications after just a few seconds and find 30 or more mentions.

He said he felt like he had a target on his back and that he and other activists were “scared for (their) lives.” Since then, he said he has gotten treatment through the Student Health Center and is learning to rely on others to support him.

“I’m still in a traumatic state after last semester,” he said. “I don’t interact with people in the same way that I did before I was elected.”

He said he met with students who emailed him about the incident and said all of those conversations ended positively.

After that semester, Head was ready to move on. In an interview at the beginning of the spring semester, he said he was looking forward to “focusing on being a student” and leaving the stress of the presidency behind.

President-elect Haden Gomez and running mate Chris Hanner both resigned the night they were scheduled to be inaugurated, and Head became interim MSA president for over a month while the Board of Elections Commissioners and Senate organized a new election.

“I’m getting ready to graduate, obviously,” Head said in an interview the night of Gomez’s resignation. “But at the same time, I care about MSA, I care about the students, and I want us to be in a much better place. I don’t want to leave MSA in a place where it’s not productive and not serving the student body like it should be.”

After Sean Earl and Tori Schafer were elected president and vice president at the end of the special election, Head said he believed they genuinely cared for the students.

He said he hoped that Earl and Schafer would put students first and not get caught up in the “gold nametag” mentality. He called the special election “cute” and said he was looking forward to graduating the night of the announcement at Traditions Plaza.

“(MSA president is) something that’s been a part of my identity for the past year, it’s been a position where I’ve grown and learned so much about myself, and I’m just excited that that experience can be shared with somebody else moving forward,” he said. “I’m not meant to be here forever.”

Head is graduating with a degree in political science. He does not have concrete plans yet but says he is looking into ways to include his work with advocacy and diversity into his career goals.

“This semester and this experience that I’ve had have changed and shaped what I want to do and what I thought I wanted to do,” he said.

With regards to the protests and resignations earlier in the year, he emphasized that he wanted students to remember that MU was “not a bad place to live” and said he was glad to go to a school that made itself a model in speaking out against racial harassment.

“Every other school in the country has its issues,” he said. “Mizzou just became the epicenter of it. I’ve never been prouder to call myself a Missouri Tiger.”

Edited by Waverly Colville | wcolville@themaneater.com

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