Donte Palmer grew up in Philadelphia, one of five children, including a twin brother. Raised by a single mom, Donte and his siblings learned from their mother’s example how to fight for what is important and support those who need the most help. Donte’s early years were difficult, and the opportunities for poor choices were available every day. But his mom was always a big supporter of Donte and all his siblings.
Her support helped direct him as he graduated from Indiana University – Pennsylvania with a degree in Communications and a minor in Theater Arts. His goal upon graduation was to pursue a video production career, and the best place in his mind to work towards that goal was in New York City. For two years, he lived in New York pursuing his dream, but the expense of city living became overwhelming. During this time, his mother had moved to Jacksonville, and Donte made the difficult decision to say goodbye to the Big Apple. He moved to Jacksonville to be closer to his mom and secured a teaching position in St. Johns County.
With a new career secured, Donte decided to try out the online dating world and soon met his wife. Four years later, their blended family includes three boys, ages 12, 7, and 2. Donte and his family lived a typical, normal life. His twelve-year-old dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. His two-year-old entertained everyone with his toddler antics and burgeoning personality. His wife had her own successful career. Nothing major happens in normal families, right? Life was good, quiet, and peaceful. Until the day he changed his son’s diaper and, literally overnight, everything changed.
It all started in October of 2018 when Donte and his sons were out at a restaurant, and his youngest son needed a diaper change. Donte got to the men’s room and realized there was no changing table, no counter, no surface anywhere upon which to change his son’s diaper. So, he squatted and placed his son across his knees, awkwardly (yet successfully) changing the baby. As he maneuvered through the process, his oldest son silently took a picture of him. He showed it to his dad, and they had a quiet laugh about how hard it is to change a squirming two-year-old perched upon his knees. Donte shared the picture in a brief Instagram post that evening, lamenting the lack of changing facilities for dads. Then he went to bed.
The next morning, Donte was awakened by his wife who excitedly said “Look. At. Your. Phone. Now!” Confused and curious, Donte picked up his phone. To say his post was “blowing up” is quite possibly the grandest understatement of the year for Donte.
“The phone was buzzing so fast from all the notifications,” says Donte, “that I could hardly unlock my phone and see what was going on.” The simple picture he had posted before bedtime had become an overnight sensation.
Quickly, he had over 1,000 likes. And the number grew rapidly with each passing moment, on its way to reaching over 10,000. “It was surreal,” Donte says of the incessant notifications from the app. And just when he thought things couldn’t be any crazier, his phone started actually ringing.
Yahoo, BBC World News, CNN, and Fox News – just to name a few – were clamoring for an interview. The Washington Post even tracked Donte down by locating his mother first and getting his phone number from her before reaching out to him directly. Donte was still teaching at this point, but the fervor was not dying down. Media outlets from all over the country were reaching out to him, some even showing up at his door, requesting interviews or just a few statements regarding the picture.
After several weeks of this activity, Donte realized there was something larger happening than simply a brief “15 minutes of fame” phenomenon. People from all over the world – Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, United Kingdom, several Asian countries – began reaching out to him, thanking him for posting the picture and bringing awareness of the plight of men everywhere trying to care for their children by doing something as simple as changing their diaper in a public restroom. Members of the LGBT community also contacted him, telling him of their unique struggles in parenting. Soon, Donte had a group of about 100 individuals from all over the planet that formed a support group of sorts – sharing, talking, and encouraging each other on a regular basis.
As 2018 came to an end, major brand name companies began reaching out to him, asking to collaborate in some aspect with Donte and the movement. Before he could get involved with them, however, it became clear he needed to make a major decision: it was time to become official.
#SquatForChange became his motto and in January of 2019, he formed the 501c3 non-profit organization of the same name. As soon as the hashtag went public, the picture went viral all over again with renewed vigor. Requests for interviews came pouring in again, but this time people began to ask, “What’s next?” Donte was asking himself the same question.
In early February 2019, Pampers released a new commercial for the Super Bowl featuring John Legend and Adam Levine. Donte sat in his home watching the commercial and he thought to himself, “Why am I not included in this?” He took to Instagram again, tagging Pampers and asking that very question. Within five minutes, Pampers had reached out to Donte saying, “We’ve been looking for you!”
Since February, his entire focus has switched from “Why aren’t their changing tables in every bathroom?” to “How can I use this platform to reach more people?” Pampers teamed up with John Legend, Koala Kare, and Donte’s organization to commit to installing 5,000 changing tables over the next two years in the U.S. and Canada. That simple diaper change all those months ago was now making waves around the world, and Donte was at the center of it all – the good and the not so good.
One aspect of his sudden rise to fame that bothered him was the fact that he was being treated like a “unicorn,” he says, “as if there are no other men of color being dads, raising families, having careers. Not all men of color are thugs and criminals.” Donte knew he had tapped into something enormous that simply needed a platform and a voice. “In all the time since the picture was posted, I had never anticipated the movement heading in this direction.”
Suddenly, there was so much more he felt he could do. He quickly came to the realization that he didn’t want this to become just a “local man makes a big splash,” but something much larger, and with greater purpose.
A quick Google search of #SquatforChange shows multiple Twitter feeds from activists, individuals, and larger organizations calling for more gender-neutral facilities allowing men to take a publicly active part in the parenting process. Donte references a statistic he learned that in 1982, a UK survey showed that 43% of dads had never changed a diaper. By the year 2000, that number was down to 3%. That number clearly shows that parenting styles have changed drastically, Donte thinks.
And the movement has not created awareness only globally but also locally. Alex Mavris of Panama Hatties relates to being on solo dad duty. When his wife gave birth to twins, she needed his help caring for them, especially immediately after their birth. He found the experience eye opening. Having twins certainly played a role when it came time to remodel the restaurant in St. Augustine Beach. Alex says it was a “no brainer” that changing tables would be included in both gender restrooms. “More dads are helping out with parenting duties now, which is great to see,” he says. “And moms can always use the help.”
Monica Parisi, owner of Terra and Acqua restaurant, also in St. Augustine Beach, echoes this sentiment, but from the opposite side of the changing table, so to speak. “The changing table was already in place in the men’s room when we purchased the restaurant, but I have to say, as a mom, I have done my fair share of changing diapers on my knees in random places.” While she is thrilled to see men taking on greater parenting roles and raising awareness about their activities, she thinks women have always had to adapt to changing diapers in awkward and less than sanitary places. Regardless, Monica says that the movement is great to bring awareness to all types of parenting, not just moms or dads. And as the #SquatforChange movement evolves and takes on a more definable shape, Donte has come to the same conclusion.
“I don’t want this to be simply about adding changing tables to men’s restrooms in St. Augustine, Florida,” says Donte. “I see this movement now developing into a global change in parenting roles for anyone who is facing a challenge.”
It’s not lost on Donte that young men of color don’t have access to many great role models. Donte knows he has the opportunity to be a strong role model for all men but especially for young men of color, and with every passing day, he becomes more and more aware of the fact that his organization is pushing him in a new direction – as a positive role model – for men all over the world. Now he sees the doors opening up to step in and not only become a visible, down-to-earth example, but also to use his organization to train other young men to become role models in their own communities.
The first step is a six-city tour this fall. While details are still being ironed out, the goal is to visit two cities on the west coast, two in the Midwest, and two on the east coast. The tour, which he hopes to fund with sponsorships and partners, will provide free educational classes with subjects like CPR and first aid, gun safety and protection measures, single parenting, navigating teen conflict, understanding children’s test scores, and having moms teach dads how to do girls’ hair.
The possibilities are really endless, Donte thinks, as to where Squat for Change could go. Right now, his goals are as simple as developing corporate and other partnerships to expand the movement’s reach globally. There are early plans developing to travel to the UK next year and establish a strong presence in order to branch out to the rest of Europe. Donte hopes the more awareness these partnerships bring, the more he can tap into some celebrity dads who might want to travel alongside him in this journey. And ultimately, he’d love to design and brand his own changing table.
For now, his team is strong, though, and his wife is acting as the head of his board of directors, bringing her own experience in helping families in need through her work to the table. “She’s the strength behind this whole endeavor,” Donte insists. “On days when it seems impossible to go on, she helps me focus on the big picture and not ever give up.” His marriage and family, he says, are stronger than ever.
“My 12-year-old used to want to be a professional baseball player. The other day he came to me and said, ‘Dad, when I grow up, I want to do work like you and help people out.’” That, Donte says, is the greatest reward.
Donte never expected his life to take this direction, but now that he’s firmly entrenched upon it, he expects the road ahead to be full of not only challenges and struggles but also rewards and fulfillment. “It’s now so much deeper than just a movement about changing tables,” says Donte. “It’s about growing as men and becoming better dads, husbands, partners. It’s a way to bond with other men and learn from each other.”
If you’re looking for a way to make a change in the world, just change a diaper. Who knows where it will take you.