Having grown up in Philadelphia and being a product of the black church, Chad Dion Lassiter, co-founder and president of the Black Men at Penn School of Social Work, Inc., says he was always drawn to suffering.
“I always wanted to know why is it that so many people are comfortable with suffering,” he says. “I wanted to find a way to speak back to the scars and suffering in my community, but also in various other communities.”
Since high school, Lassiter says he knew his life’s mission was to be a social change agent. He majored in social work at Johnson C. Smith University, a historically black college in North Carolina, and studied the teachings of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells.
“I always wanted to embark upon this whole question that King posed when he said, ‘Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?’”
After receiving his bachelor’s degree, Lassiter returned home and earned a master’s in social work from the Penn School of Social Policy and Practice. He says he was interested in the School because it “prides itself on uprooting American racism and addressing all forms of oppression and marginalization with a superb faculty and staff.”
From the time he was an undergrad, Lassiter says he recognized that social work was not a diverse profession. In order to attract more black males to the field, he and a cohort of colleagues from the Class of 2001 collaborated with Walter Palmer, a lecturer at the School of Social Policy and Practice, to establish Black Men at Penn. The organization also provides anti-racism training as well as violence prevention and intervention workshops all over the country.
Lassiter’s work has taken him to Haiti, where he worked with the United Nations to provide trauma counseling to earthquake victims, and it’s also taken him to Africa and Israel.
It was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Israel, that he says taught him the importance of connecting with other races who have suffered as well.
“[My work is] not just committed to black humanity,” he says. “It’s committed to all humanity.”
The Current sat down with Lassiter recently to discuss Philadelphia’s high school dropout rate, black misery, the ‘savage black man’ stereotype and how he copes with some of the most devastating aspects of society.
Q. Why do you think there are so few African-American men in social work?
A. I find that we need to look at diversity from a strength-based perspective. Oftentimes, when we think of black males, we think of black males from a deficit model. There are some people in our society who will draw lines in the sand. They’ll build boxes and they’ll put black and Latino males in them. They don’t see the possibilities. There are also a lot of folks who, because of their xenophobic tendencies, tend to not embrace diversity.
Q. Besides bringing more black men into the field, what were some of the other factors that led you and your classmates to create Black Men at Penn?
A. We wanted to show the beauty of social work. We wanted to provide our narrative of why we ended up becoming social workers. There’s an African proverb that says, ‘The lion’s story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.’ We wanted to tell our story about the profession, the diversity of social work, the manifold occupations within the field. The other thing we said is there are a lot of young black males and Latino males in the City of Philadelphia who oftentimes buy into their own victimization. We profoundly understand that there’s structural inequality. There’s institutional racism. Also, we don’t live in a post-racial society, even though we have the first African-American president of these United States. Race still rules. One of the ways we wanted to navigate the color line and navigate the gender line was by serving black humanity and serving the larger Philadelphia community by going into schools, working with youth around racial identity, racial socialization, character development, self-esteem and self-awareness improvement, anger management and anger reduction.
Q. On a recent Fox 29 report about Philadelphia’s high school dropout rate, you stated, ‘What we need is for adults to apologize to the students of Philadelphia. We need for adults to be accountable. We need for home to be accountable.’ People have been saying this for years; why do you think we haven’t seen more progress?
A. We have to provide more than lip service to the profound needs of young people. We have to have a Socratic sensibility to the challenges that they experience. We have to be more proactive than reactive. What typically happens is we intervene—and our intentions are noble—but we might intervene relatively late. I think that there is a struggle between the school and home culture in the sense that school will send home the homework, and home does not check it. Young people are dropping out because of peer pressure; because they don’t find the curriculum to be culturally relevant; because they don’t find the teacher to be culturally competent; because some of them have to be the primary caretakers of their respective households. So we have to train the adults. We’re always concerned with training young people, but it has to be both.
We have to stop playing with the lives of young people. The adults have to get themselves together. We have to stop treating education like a white-collar factory in the sense that young people are on the conveyor belt and they’re coming out of this white-collar factory with limited or no skills to compete in a global market economy.
Q. Regarding the high unemployment rate in the black community, you recently told The Philadelphia Tribune, ‘Black leadership, starting with the president, knows full well the dire circumstances, but needs to provide more resources to be aimed toward the black community that has been hit the hardest.’ Why do you think more hasn’t been done?
A .We have to create a new vanguard of black leadership that’s going to not maintain the status quo, that’s going to build earnest coalitions on every side of the color line and every side of the gender line without compromise. We’re in a profound crisis within black America and I think one of the ways that we address it is through education and making sure that we teach individuals not to buy into their own victimization, even though the obvious exists. I think that in the City of Philadelphia, where you have a black mayor, a black district attorney, a black head of the School Reform Commission, a black police commissioner and black churches on nearly every corner, we have to do something about black misery. I argue that black leadership needs to practice humility and modesty and reach out across the color line to engage others to help address some of the myriad of challenges that exist.
Q. After a Bucks County woman, Bonnie Sweeten, falsely accused two black men of kidnapping her and her daughter, you stated, ‘Black men in the area need to be discussing it, but not getting angry about it. We have a moral imperative to show that we’re not rapists, savages. We just tell our truth.’ Why do you think this ‘savage black man’ stereotype continues to persist?
A. Because white supremacy hasn’t died. And with the advent of the first African-American president, we’re seeing more racial hostility and more racial bigotry. What I meant by that is there’s no need to sit in the barbershop and the churches and say, ‘Can you believe she did what she did?’ We need to be proactive and say, ‘That’s not the picture of black males.’ There are a lot of black males who don’t abandon their children. There are a lot of black males who are in the University of Penn and not the state pen. We have to tell our narrative because for so long the narrative has been told by the dominant society, and more often than not, it’s a racial narrative deeply rooted in the fabric of American society. There are some to this day who will see an educated black man come out of his office or his classroom with a three-piece suit on and will still clutch their purse because of what they’ve been told, what sometimes is seen on the nightly news. That’s why I say that we have to be able to get into these spaces as activists, as scholars, as public intellectuals to speak back to those types of notions of who black males are.
What happened [with Sweeten] is she borrowed from a racist narrative. She borrowed from the same racist narrative that the white woman borrowed from with Emmett Till, that the white woman borrowed from on the slave plantation, that the white woman borrowed from with Rosewood. She borrowed that narrative. What’s amazing is that we have, as humanity, actually grown because if we flash back maybe 30 years ago, she would have told that narrative and they would have rounded up every African American in that area. So we have come part of the way, but we still have so much more to deal with.
Q. As a social worker, you routinely deal with some of the darkest and demoralizing aspects of society. Can it be emotionally draining?
A. It can devastate you. Sometimes you’re left speechless. Sometimes you wonder to yourself, ‘How did we get here?’ My outlet might be to take a walk, to go to the gym, but I think that for me, it’s relying on family, it’s relying on genuine friends, it’s talking to those who have been doing social work longer than me. It’s relying on those who paved the way for me and ask, ‘How can you be concerned but detach yourself from the emotional toll that it can take on you?’ But also, everybody’s not wired like I’m wired. I’m maladjusted to suffering. I’m not comfortable with American racism. I’m not comfortable with black-on-black crime. I’m not comfortable with xenophobia. I’m not comfortable with people who discriminate against other people because of their sexual orientation.
You always have to be aware of the burnout. You have to always check in with yourself to make sure that you’re not getting overwhelmed. And I always have the three S’s: Spiritual Support System. I rely heavily on the teachings of King and I noticed how, towards the end of his life, he got so overwhelmed. Even though he was a man of faith, he started suffering from depression because lifting the mindset of an entire race of people can be challenging. The Scriptures even tell us, ‘The physician cannot heal thyself,’ so I rely on others.
Q. What current projects or initiatives are you working on?
A. The main project right now is our ongoing effort to mentor youth whose parents are incarcerated. I am an appointee by Mayor Michael Nutter to the Philadelphia Prisons Board of Trustees. We fundamentally believe that we have to intervene in the school-to-prison pipeline to show young people that education is paramount to their life outcomes, not withstanding the risk-contributing factors that exist, whether that be substandard housing, whether that be fatherless homes, whether that be incarcerated parents, or whether that be a school that’s similar to educational apartheid where they are not getting the things they need. This fall we’re going to take the HBO series ‘The Wire’ and teach that from a social work perspective to inmates, primarily juveniles in Philadelphia and Chester. We have 40 families currently in our mentoring program. A child in that family is matched with a mentor. That mentor meets with that child one hour a week for a year and will take the child to the African American Museum, the Please Touch Museum, just be in that child’s life.
Originally published on October 14, 2010