When a Change Becomes Essential

Posted on 3/7/22 6:00 AM
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By Sam Kusic

An outdoor portrait of members of the Palmer family smiling as they stand in front of some trees on a sunny day. The father, mother, and oldest son have their arms around one another’s backs, and the father is holding a toddler upside-down. The middle son is in front.

The Palmers, from left: Liam, Donte, Taylor, Lakeisha, and Isaiah (Kate Gardiner Photography)

There is, of course, education of the formal sort, from textbooks and lectures and the application of critical thought. But there is also education of the informal variety—the kind that comes simply from meeting new people in new places and having new experiences together. 

Donte Palmer grew up in Philadelphia and attended a mostly Black high school. So, the Punxsutawney campus, where he started his IUP education, certainly offered him new experiences, and the connections with classmates weren’t necessarily immediate. But they were made, all the same.

“IUP prepared me to open up my mind to receive opinions and thoughts that aren’t like mine and to try to find ways to connect so that we can build together,” said Palmer, a 2009 communications media graduate with a minor in theater. “What I learned from IUP was to learn from other people and to grow from the experience.”

It’s a lesson that has been invaluable to Palmer in his role as founder and principal of Squat for Change, an international advocacy group working to change how society views the role of fathers.

Palmer started Squat for Change in 2018, initially with the intent to push for the installation of diaper-changing tables in public restrooms. The organization has since expanded its mission to represent all parents, but especially fathers.

Palmer wasn’t thinking about that, however, when on a whim he posted a photo of himself and his son Liam on Instagram. The photo candidly shows Palmer squatting on the floor, his back against a wall, with Liam splayed out on his lap for a diaper change.

It’s a moment that rings true and familiar and frustrating to fathers who have had to attend to diaper duty in public spaces. Palmer said the moment capped a long day of running errands with the family. Annoyed with having to complete the task on the floor, he asked his oldest son, Isaiah, to document it. (Palmer also has a wife, Lakeisha, and middle son, Taylor.)

That photo might have stayed on his phone but for the fact that he rediscovered it one evening while thumbing through pictures. He thought he would share a bit of frustration with family and friends.

Closeup of a hand holding a mobile phone that displays an Instagram post with a photo of Donte Palmer squatting on the floor of a public restroom with his back against a wall as he changes a toddler’s diaper on his lap

Donte Palmer’s Instagram post that led to a national campaign (Brian Henry photo)

“This is a serious post!!!” Palmer typed on Instagram. “What’s the deal with not having changing tables in men’s bathrooms as if we don’t exist!! . . . Look how comfortable my son is. It’s routine to him!!!! Let’s fix this problem!”

And then he went to bed, thinking nothing more of it.

Overnight, the photo went viral, and a few hundred followers quickly turned into a few thousand. And now, more than three years later, Palmer leads a national campaign that represents every parent who has had the awkward experience of trying to change a child’s diaper, sans table, in a public restroom.

Squat for Change is at once pushing for the installation of changing tables in public restrooms, especially men’s rooms, and challenging conventional and often stereotypical narratives about the role of fathers, in particular Black fathers.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Palmer said, recalling a conversation with a man who told him it’s okay for a father to change a daughter’s diaper but not really “manly” for him to change a son’s diaper.

In addition to prompting a rethinking of fathers’ roles, Palmer hopes his organization will give a voice to Black fathers, who are often written off.

“What they need is not just the installation of changing tables,” he said. “They need someone to sit down and tell their stories.”

As the campaign’s principal spokesperson, Palmer is trying to tell those and more stories to anyone who will listen—restaurant owners, parents, policy makers, reporters, and the occasional celebrity. He’s been interviewed by the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.

“What [Black fathers] need is not just the installation of changing tables. They need someone to sit down and tell their stories.”

“I was confused,” he said. “I changed a diaper, and now I’m on CNN?”

He has been on YouTube, too, delivering a TEDx Talk, and has had conversations with TV personalities. Drew Barrymore had him as a guest on her daytime talk show. And actress Jessica Alba offered a lifetime supply of diapers.

The attention is flattering, he said. And fun. But he said he doesn’t deserve all the credit.

“I go into a restroom to change a diaper, and I’m now like the best dad,” he said. “But I wouldn’t even be a parent if it weren’t for my wife. And I just don’t think moms get the attention they need.”

Palmer said the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress on the campaign’s main mission. Restaurants and taverns, if they’re open, are struggling, and the installation of diaper-changing tables is low on the priority list.

However, the conversation around parenting has not stopped, nor will it. Palmer and Squat for Change are hoping to organize a national parents’ conference in Miami, where he lives, perhaps late this year.

IUP’s assistant vice president for Student Affairs, Malaika Moses Turner ’95, M’99, D’15, has known Palmer since his freshman year and said she sees his creativity in the Squat for Change initiative.

“I think Donte is not allowing himself to be boxed in,” she said.

Turner emphasized that educators can only guide students; they can’t teach them to change the world. So, when students do, as Palmer is trying, she said it’s exhilarating to see.

According to Palmer, “People always ask me, do I support old dads, Black dads, young dads, gay dads, or trans dads? I want to help out any good dad, any good mom, any good parent. What defines a good parent is if they are changing those diapers and putting their children first and not their egos. We have to learn to put our children first, not our labels.”