After less than three weeks on the job, Chad Lassiter helped lead a Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission hearing in York on alleged racial discrimination at an area golf course.
The case garnered national attention after management at the course, Grandview Golf Club, called police on five women – Sandra Thompson, 50, Myneca Ojo, 56; Karen Crosby, 58; and sisters Sandra Harrison, 59, and Carolyn Dow, 56 – and asked them to leave on April 21. Before the police call, the women had been told by management that they were playing golf too slowly.
A little more than a month after the incident at Grandview, Lassiter was named the executive director of the commission, becoming on May 24 the fifth executive director to lead the agency, which was established in 1955.
A two-day hearing ended June 22 at the York City Council Chambers. It could take up to 60 days before a report is issued on the case.
Lassiter shared with Central Penn Business Journal his thoughts on what he might have in store for the commission, which is empowered to investigate claims of discrimination once a complaint is filed or an incident enters the public domain through news or social media.
In 2009, the agency investigated a Philadelphia swim club that was accused of racial discrimination toward a group of visiting minority children. Three years later, the club – which became defunct after filing for bankruptcy in 2009 – agreed to a settlement of $1.1 million, split among the 73 African-Americans who were refused swimming privileges at the club.
The following interview with Lassiter was edited for clarity and length.
CPBJ: What plans do you have to grow the visibility of the commission?
Chad Lassiter: My vision is for us to be known throughout the commonwealth and to be a national model with regards to the work we do as a civil rights agency. For this to occur we will be visible in all communities doing workshops, trainings, seminars, conferences, lecture series and hearings … We will have a newsletter and will publish in the areas of fair housing, employment, education and other themes of social justice. A greater social media presence has to occur as we can reach so many through this mode of communication. Lastly, our Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) Commissioners and staff will be active in telling the story of the commission to a greater degree than ever before.
Lassiter has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania, and more than 20 years of experience in race relations, conflict resolution, mediation, teaching, counseling, research, re-entry and prison reform.
Since 2006, the North Philadelphia native has served as an adjunct lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania and, since 2008, as a guest lecturer at West Chester University, teaching American racism, social work practice, gender and race.
Before accepting his position at the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Lassiter served as the executive director of the Red Cross House, an emergency shelter with the American Red Cross of Eastern Pennsylvania. Lassiter has been president of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work Inc. since 2003.
CPBJ: You mentioned being a national expert in race relations and former professor of race. Can you elaborate?
Lassiter: I have worked on civil rights and human rights over the past 20 years throughout the U.S. and in Africa, Israel, Canada, Haiti and Norway – specifically in the areas of poverty, race and other themes of social justice. I taught for the past 10 years within the undergraduate division of social work at West Chester University where I taught courses on race relations and the politics of diversity. Prior to that, I taught at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, of which I am a graduate.
CPBJ: What steps can businesses take to ensure that they don’t end up at a hearing of their own?
Lassiter: Businesses can be proactive and have trainings on anti-racism, mindfulness around implicit bias and diversity training. They can professionally package these up from a strength-based perspective, and their respective employees don’t have to view through the lens of punitive. Moreover, they can bring in experts of all races and ethnicities to work in tandem with them around policy review and development.
CPBJ: What would you hope businesses walk away with after seeing this case unfold?
Lassiter: I think that businesses should walk away with the mere fact that they should train individuals employed by them not to rush to judgment; not to call the police; to actually have appropriate people who understand customer service, quality assurance, interpersonal skills … I think interpersonal skills are especially important when interfacing with the public. And so I want businesses in York and elsewhere to look at this and say: Maybe there’s a way we can do business differently. It’s really about quality assurance. If you don’t have a person that understands how to interface with people and people that don’t look like them, do you really need them in this position of so-called power?
CPBJ: What does this mean for future incidents of this nature around the state?
Lassiter: I think it can serve as a catalyst where we can now be proactive and not reactive. We can say to organizations and entities when situations arise, ‘Let’s not rush to judgment.’ Let’s look at some internal politics with regard to how we mediate potential conflict. I’m not saying there was a conflict being generated by the women; it’s very apparent that these women were, in fact, golfing. What we also hear are the 911 tape in which the police officer asked the Grandview individuals, ‘Are there any weapons?’ And they respond with: ‘Not weapons, but maybe her mouth.’ How does a mouth become a weapon simply because someone is empowered to advocate and have agency for themselves? So for me, I want to work with the [York City] mayor and have a further conversation about the potential of having a town hall where we can have more of these conversations to foster more tolerance.