How Donte Palmer Became The Accidental Figurehead For Modern Dads

Jeremy MacveanBy Jeremy Macvean.
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The shifting nature of fatherhood can be told through the social history of nappy changing. In 1982, 43% of British dads had never changed a nappy. By 2000, according to research from Warwick University, that number had slumped to just 3%.

Twenty years on from that, men are more actively involved in their kids’ lives (and nappies) than ever before. But that reality isn’t reflected by the available facilities. Head into a men’s toilets and there’s rarely a nappy change table.

In October 2018, Donte Palmer faced that exact scenario when he headed to a men’s restaurant bathroom in Jacksonville, Florida to change his son’s nappy. Inevitably, there were no change facilities so he awkwardly squatted down to change his son by forming a makeshift “table” with his thighs. As he struggled through the process, his oldest son took a picture of him.

In this episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work, Donte explains how that photo accidentally went viral to create a global movement, #SquatForChange.

What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.
Listen to the full podcast: here

The Father Hood: Explain to us what’s Squat for Change is all about?

Donte Palmer: Squat for Change is a non-profit organization and our mission is to drive initiatives to get appropriate changing stations in all public restrooms.

It started from a picture of me in a restroom with my two year old son. I was changing him but there was no changing table. My oldest son took a picture and posted it one night and literally the next morning it went globally viral. We had a story on BBC World News right down to local news channels back here in Florida. So that’s what Squat for Changes is.

Since then, we landed a major brand partnership with Pampers and have just been pushing the narrative of what fatherhood means to us now. But we’re really focusing on the lack of changing tables in men’s restrooms.

TFH: Did you have any idea that picture would go beyond your immediate friendship circle at that time?

Donte Palmer: No. Honestly, when my son took the picture at the restaurant, he showed my wife and I at the dinner table and it was just a brief discussion. My wife laughed about it because she was like, “Oh wow. My husband is doing some kind of ninja-type movie to change our one-year-old son!” And that was that.

I just posted it on Instagram for a small reaction from family and friends. At this time, my following was minuscule – it was so small. The following morning my wife woke me up and said, “Hey, check your phone.” I picked the phone up. It was like literally spritzing from notifications, phone calls, text messages, emails from just a ton of different resources and outlets saying, “We need to speak to you now.”

Even in that moment, I was like, “Okay, I just changed my son. What’s the big deal?”

But I think it really manifested in my life when I saw fathers from across the world, from Australia, Uganda, Mexico, Canada, a lot of fathers from across the world posting their images and saying, “Hey, we see your struggle. We see your pain, we stand behind you.” And I was like, “Stand behind what? What do we have here?”

So one day I sat down with my wife and said, “You know what? We have something, we struck a nerve, let’s form something, let’s push this campaign forward because there is a need. So let’s go ahead and change something for the world.” And that’s what we’re doing now.

TFH: So you weren’t expecting it. Why do you think you struck such a nerve with Squat for Change? What’s going on out there that makes people react so strongly to this image?

Donte Palmer: First off this is honing in on what fatherhood really means these days. It means a lot to myself and to my brothers and to my uncles who are fathers. But we don’t get a lot of attention as fathers. And I hate to throw race on top of it, but this is especially true with black fathers where the narrative is often: do we exist? Are we active with our children? Do we love our children? Do we do our daughter’s hair So when I put that picture up, initially it showed the power of a minority father because I can only show my experience, growing up as a black man, having three beautiful black boys.

But then I got a lot of different races, cultures and ethnicities reaching out to me saying, “Hey, it’s not about race or financial status. We’re all fathers.”

And that’s when I took a step back and say, “You know what? This is a movement for all. You don’t have to be a Democrat or Republican, black or white, rich or poor. If you’re a parent, at the end of the day, that’s what matters.

What helped to strike that nerve was the power of social media. My father was actively in my life. But my dad didn’t have Instagram. He didn’t have Facebook and Snapchat. So I just think now in our modern day, we have a platform where we can actually show us being active. We just have a lot of fathers who are active now, who want to be acknowledged. And I just think men now are really opening our mouths, speaking, saying, “Hey, we exist, let the wives go get their nails done and we can stay home with the kids.”

So I’m just honored to be a part of an amazing movement that pushes the narrative of what a father is. Because we do matter and we do care for our children.

The Father Hood: But it also sounds like you’re saying there are great benefits in deeper involvement not just for dads, but for mums and for kids too. Why do you see this change as such a positive thing for everyone?

Donte Palmer: Squat for Change is really deeper than installing changing tables in restrooms. It’s really showing the dynamic of what a marriage looks like and what a father looks like and the dynamic of the relationship between parent and child. It’s about being open about what modern families look like. In my case, I brought a son into my relationship, my wife brought a son in. So we’re a blended family.

But it’s also about breaking those gender boxes. And that’s what we’re doing in my household. My wife cooks and clean, but daddy also cooks and clean. I take the boys to football practice, she does as well. She works a nine to five. I currently am a stay-at-home dad. So it was just showing that mums can go and work. Dads can also work, but you can also do it on the flip side, too. We just want to break that traditional narrative of dads working the nine to five while the mums are at home. In some situations, it has to be that way. But I also come across a lot of fathers who are stay-at-home dads and who are very active and love playing that position and that role.

I just want Squat for Change to acknowledge those dads and celebrate them. Being a stay-at-home dad, it’s rewarding, but some days it’s draining. So it’s good to have other fathers encourage us and lift us up to keep pushing us forward.

The Father Hood: It’s awesome. It sounds like you’ve become this accidental figurehead.

Donte Palmer: I tripped into it. But I want to keep building my platform to the point where I can start building my own conferences and just have dads share their stories. This is not for me, it’s not for my family. We are a part of the story, but I just want to share dads’ stories. Because that’s how we learn, that’s how we grow day by day.

Listen to the full episode of The Father Hood’s new podcast in partnership with Parents at Work: here.