“Encouraging honest conversation benefits everyone,” says Head.
Payton Head
Payton Head

How can campuses be more inclusive? What does it mean to have an engaged community? What does student leadership look like in relation to the student body?

Payton Head, MA Class of 2019, has been posing these questions for most of his academic life. Asking such questions, he notes, likely stemmed from growing up on the South Side of Chicago. “I always wanted to engage in the University of Chicago, but when I was younger, I never felt I could be part of it. Growing up not east of Cottage and not north of 61st, I crossed a segregation line. But now, I realize I can be an influencer, getting people who look like me into these spaces.”

Head’s desire for inclusivity was a driving force in his undergraduate career at the University of Missouri (commonly referred to as “Mizzou”)—especially in the wake of the nation’s response to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. “I realized I could be a better advocate for African Americans in Missouri and across the nation.” Head subsequently decided to run for, and eventually served as, student body president of Mizzou.

After Mizzou received national attention due to a series of campus protests centered on race, employment benefits, and institutional leadership, Head says he felt “propelled into a position where I could be a voice for different student leaders trying to make campuses more inclusive.” After graduation he moved to Washington DC, working for the National Campus Leadership Council, the largest network of student body presidents in the nation. “Students are the largest stakeholders in the academic community, and I wanted to explore how student bodies could leverage that status with state legislators.” Among other accomplishments, he helped launch the It’s On Us campaign, which focuses on sexual assault prevention on college campuses; led inclusion and diversity seminars; coauthored a guide for student leaders about addressing the student protests of 2015–16; and planned conferences for student leaders and campus advocacy.

Head eventually went on a speaking tour to more than 50 colleges and universities nationwide, where his message of participation and inclusivity resonated. “One person told me she had never seen the point of participation. She said, ‘Before we talked, I was ready to transfer. But you inspired me to say, if you want something, you need to be part of changing it.’ She went on to become the first black female student body president of her school, which was really cool!”

Unsurprisingly, Head dove into community involvement at The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. In his time at Harris, Head has served as Communications Director for Black Action in Public Policy Studies, Harris Student Government Academic Committee, and Obama Foundation Scholar Program coordinator. He hopes the work he and his classmates have done, and continue to do, not only makes Harris a quality experience but fosters something sustainable for incoming students. “The Harris community is built on wanting to see people succeed, and it’s amazing how faculty, classmates, speakers, student affairs, academic advisors, and staff all are doing incredible things and supporting each other in that process.”

Head recommends diving in fearlessly at Harris. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Sure, you’re going to struggle with something, somewhere—everyone does. But there are people both going through that struggle as well as people who can be resources to help you get through.”

Ultimately, inclusivity and developing community drive Head’s interest in public policy: “When people are better informed about policy, they can understand there are tools out there to make improvements.”