Story By Stephanie Kalina-Metzger
Chad Dion Lassiter has been at the helm of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) for four years now and considers his role as Executive Director as a calling. “I’m a man of faith, therefore I’ve always had an assignment, but never a job,” he said. The PHRC leader said that he strives to honor that faith in everything he does, from mentoring youth in the community, to stepping in to help his family when a sister- in-law died of pancreatic cancer and left three daughters behind. “I was instrumental in raising them,” he said.
Lassiter’s resume is impressive and his dedication to his field is evident by the numerous accolades he’s received over the years, from being named among the “Young Leaders of the Future” by Ebony in 2002, to being recognized by the Philadelphia Tribune as “The Most Influential African American Leader from 2010-2020.” More recent recognitions include an induction into the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice Hall of Fame and a “2021 Social Worker of the Year” award from the Pennsylvania Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
Lassiter is the fifth to serve as executive director of the PHRC, which has regional offices in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. The civil rights enforcement agency was created more than six decades ago and is still adding to the list of goals to accomplish. According to Lassiter, the agency promotes equal opportunity for all and exists to protect individuals from unlawful discrimination. “If someone perceives that they’ve been discriminated against, they come to us,” said Lassiter, adding that Pennsylvania has a long way to go when it comes to treating one another with kindness and respect. “According to the Anti-Defamation League, we are eighth in the country when it comes to hate groups,” said Lassiter, explaining why outreach is so important. “When I look at Pennsylvania in context, I believe we have a lot of under-reporting when it comes to discrimination. People may not want to report it. Perhaps their culture tells them to put their head down and not make waves,” he said.
One initiative that Lassiter has developed and launched to combat institutional racism is a “No Hate in Our State Townhall,” to address the surge of white nationalism in Pennsylvania. Another is a “Social Justice Lecture Series,” providing an outlet for communities in Pennsylvania to discuss such issues. “We bring in the top people in the field to provide a framework on how to address systemic and structural racism and to spark action,” he said.
The PHRC staff also undergoes Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training, along with social justice training. “We start with ourselves. How can we advocate for others if we can’t be self-reflexive?” asks Lassiter.
The agency has also developed six PHRC social justice committees, which are jointly led by a senior staff and a commission member. Those committees focus on educational equity, fair housing and commercial property, police and community relations, diversity and inclusion, community outreach and human relations.
Lassiter points out that the PHRC exists to make positive changes in race relations in Pennsylvania. “Those who promote hate oftentimes do so due to traumatic experiences that they’ve endured that puts them in that place. I’m not here to point fingers, but to highlight the great stuff we’ve been doing in the past four years to eradicate that,” said Lassiter, who is known as a National Expert in the field of American Race Relations and has worked on race, and poverty issues in not only the United States, but also in Canada, Africa, Haiti, Israel, and Norway. He brings this experience to the PHRC to push for improvements in race relations and to combat misunderstandings as well. “We exist for ALL people, because all people can be discriminated against,” he said. Another controversial issue he tackles is the right/left divide. “We can be Democrats and Republicans, but we need to be civil towards one another,” said Lassiter. Then there’s the question of the PHRC and its relationship towards policing. “I’m always articulating that we aren’t anti-police. We are anti-corrupt police; we need to recognize the humanity of law enforcement and vice-versa,” said Lassiter. “In the end, it’s learning from people like Martin Luther King and Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel and striving to create what King deemed ‘the beloved community,’” he adds.
Mentoring as a Mission
Lassiter said that he can’t stress enough the importance of mentoring as he, himself, was also once mentored. “The late Arlen Specter shared with me the importance and the value of mentoring. Planting that seed in the life of a young person can really make a difference,” he said.
Lassiter put this into practice when he co-founded a mentoring group where he currently serves as president. The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice’s Black Men at Penn is known as the first Ivy League black male group of social workers. Part of their mission is to recruit black males into the social worker profession. Additional initiatives are providing anti-racism and violence prevention training to urban and suburban schools around the country and offering diversity and inclusion training for corporate entities and penal systems.
Lassiter said that mentoring has made a difference in the lives of countless young people, and he hopes that they will take the initiative to pay it forward like he has.
As for those nieces he stepped up to raise and consequentially mentor, he said that he has enjoyed watching them grow into adulthood and that they are thriving. Two are married and all three are mothers, active in their respective churches and making inroads within their chosen professions. “Losing a parent to pancreatic cancer was beyond a challenge but having a strong spiritual support system and a healthy village got them through,” he said with a smile.