The North Philadelphia native calls his new position as head of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission a “calling.” Here’s how he plans to tackle discrimination across the state.
“Talk to me.”
This is Chad Dion Lassiter’s phone greeting, but it could just as easily summarize his first steps for transforming and strengthening the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC).
The PHRC was launched with the passage of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act in 1955 after decades of intense lobbying by Black state politicians. The state became a national leader in the advocacy for progressive civil rights legislation and policy: The commission was given the power to police discrimination, especially in employment, education and housing, which was considered novel at the time.
Lassiter, who was recently named executive director of the agency, is sailing into a maelstrom. As M. Joel Bolstein, the interim chair of PHRC commissioners, wrote in a 2016 op-ed, “Discrimination is a very tough enemy to defeat,” especially in a state that is home to 36 hate groups — the fifth most active state behind California, Florida, Texas and New York, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Look, I am very historically aware of the challenges of white supremacy, state violence and of bringing about tolerance,” Lassiter said. “The question is how the agency speaks back to discrimination.”
To help get answers, Lassiter’s first management activity has been to conduct a listening tour of his 70-person staff which is spread over three regional offices.
“Talk to me.”
However, Lassiter is working with a decimated toolbox. The state’s appropriation for its civil rights watchdog has decreased for the past decade resulting in more bark than bite. According to the PHRC’s latest annual report, budget cuts and decreased staff have taken a serious toll on the agency’s ability to do its work.
“I have expertise, a skill set, gifts and a calling that God has given me to be on the side of justice.”
Lassiter is too politically savvy to dwell on the negatives. Instead, he adroitly steered our conversation to assets: Last year the PHRC managed 160 community meetings, secured $3.1 million in settlements and closed 1,348 cases.
Lassiter is also homegrown. He was an awkward, good kid from a tight-knit North Philadelphia family, teased by others for his nerdy ways and high-water Boy Scout uniform.
One constant, however, has been his deep religious beliefs. He’s been attending Triumph Baptist Church since he was born — October 5, 1972 — and its Christian message works its way into his personal mission. This is the context for describing the new position as a “calling” — as in, “I have expertise, a skill set, gifts, and a calling that God has given me to be on the side of justice.”
Despite his interest in social justice, Lassiter didn’t opt to become either a preacher or a lawyer. He earned a bachelor’s degree in social work fromJohnson C. Smith University, a HBCU in North Carolina, and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania.
In the process, the self-conscious, nerdy kid transformed into a professor and public intellectual. The former Boy Scout has become a community advocate, including cofounder and president of Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc.
“Chad Lassiter strikes me as the quintessential social worker, someone adept at thinking across various scales of analysis, from the clinical or interpersonal to the macrostructural, while also doing whatever needs to be done, rolling up his proverbial sleeves, in an effort to help make people’s everyday lives better,” Dr. John L. Jackson Jr., dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice.
Lassiter has a list of issues — from food desserts to environmental issues that may not be traditionally thought of as civil rights issues. But he is broadening the definition of civil rights to include social justice and the role discrimination plays in perpetuating disparities.
So what does he intend to tackle?
“All forms of oppression and marginalization, specifically in employment, fair housing and education,” he said — and the measures of the quality of the job he does should include greater visibility for the PHRC, greater efficiencies in handling old cases and timely handling of complaints.
Right before Lassiter was named the executive director of PHRC, four Black women golfers decided to hit the links at the Grandview Golf Club in York, Pa. They were experienced golfers who travel all over the world playing. Yet that day, the owners of the club called the police twice, claiming the women were breeching golf etiquette by playing too slowly and refusing to leave.
“The commissioners chose to authorize this investigatory hearing because of public reports about this matter and racial tension concerns raised by the public reports regarding this matter,” he said.
“Talk to me.”