“If, when you walk into a store, the workers sometimes suspect you are going to steal something because of your race, take one step back.”
One step back.
“If you can legally marry anyone you might fall in love with anywhere in the U.S., take a step forward.”
One step forward.
Five minutes prior, in the low–ceilinged basement of the Greenfield Intercultural Center, two dozen students found themselves in a horizontal line. They spaced themselves out, unsure of what to expect, and closed their eyes. After two questions, the line diverged as their privilege puppeteered them across the room.
“If having sex with several people may improve your reputation among your peers, take a step forward.”
One step forward.
“If you grew up in a household with housekeepers, nannies or landscapers, take one step forward.”
“Now open your eyes and look around.”
This is how University Chaplain Charles Howard, known as Chaz by most, starts his new class, The Heart of Social Change.
Fifteen years ago, after being kicked out of Penn and dumped by his girlfriend the prior spring, Chaz found himself nine Coronas deep at Smokes’. It was senior year and post–grad plans were on his mind.
“Yo Ex, I’m thinking about going into ministry,” he told his friend Andrew Exum.
“Doesn’t really look like it right now,” Exum replied.
Just before the walls collapsed during his junior year, Chaz was re–elected Chair of the United Minorities Council and elected Chief of Sphinx Senior Society. That’s when he got the news that he would not be returning to Penn the next fall due to his low academic standing.
“I was way overstretched when I was here,” he explained. “I was involved in 40 different clubs and I made the mistake I think a lot of Penn students make: of thinking that my extracurricular work was more important than my academic work.”
That summer, administrators in Chaz’s corner fought to offer him a second chance. By the end of July, he had erased the incompletes on his transcript and brought his spring semester GPA from somewhere in the two’s to a solid “three point something.”
“I used to have a cigar a day with another guy in Sphinx after classes,” he said. But everything slowed down senior year. He stopped drinking. He stopped smoking. This shift carried him across the stage at commencement in 2000 and through the next several years of his religious studies.
Eight years after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies, the Reverend Charles L. Howard, Ph.D became the Chaplain of the University of Pennsylvania.
Today, Chaz looks back on that night at Smokes’ and laughs. As Chaplain of the university he was once kicked out of, he oversees religious life on campus, teaches undergraduate courses and aids in crisis response.
Having seen life on both sides of the coin at Penn, first as a student and now as an administrator, he uses his unique position to provide knowledge and wisdom to the community.
His journey starting here nearly twenty years ago foreshadowed the same stories he comes across with students on campus today.
“The things we do while we’re undergrads—[they] seem so important,” he said. “You couldn’t have told me that the UMC and Inspiration and Alpha and Sphinx and Class Board...you couldn’t have told me they weren’t the most important things in the world.”
Today, Chaz says, “I think the biggest problem with universities, in general, is that they’re very insecure places. Insecurity is contagious.”
Discourse surrounding the culture at Penn is not new. On Tuesday, the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare, on which Chaz sat, released its final eight–page report. It concluded a year–long inquiry following six student suicides in 15 months. “The drive for academic excellence along with the perception that in order to be successful one needs to hold leadership roles in multiple realms contributes to the amount of stress and distress experienced by Penn students,” the report states.
“I think insecurity leads us to take jobs that we don’t want to take. Insecurity leads us to join clubs that we really don’t have to,” Chaz said with a calm, yet fiery frustration.
Everyone at Penn can tell a story about the friend who abandoned their startup idea to take a job on Wall Street or who went to law school like their parents always wanted instead of becoming a writer.
“That hurts my heart,” Chaz said. “You’re young. Take a risk. If you fall on your face, you’re good.”
A month into The Heart of Social Change, Chaz walked into the basement ten minutes late without his normal grin. The night before, three Muslim students were killed in Chapel Hill.
“It really grieves my spirit,” he said later, shaking his head and pausing to collect himself. “War and gun violence, I just can’t stand. On the other hand, I also recognize where all that stuff comes from. There’s an insecurity and fear that most people have about life and that’s the only way that people handle it.”
His class attempts to provide a space for students to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges, building upon a cross–cultural awareness course he taught in the past. He describes Penn as a place of doing.
“We’re not going to land on any answers about how you fix anything, necessarily, because there are so many ways to do that,” he explained. “But I really wanted to have a class that could go a little deeper into how you bring about change.”
Eric Shapiro, a senior in Wharton, was instrumental in designing the class and now serves as the TA. The two envisioned the course as “a space where people who are interested in social entrepreneurship, who are interested in art, who are interested in good old fashioned activism, are together learning from each other.”
Just as Chaz draws on his undergraduate experiences while working today, he also recalls his relationship with his predecessor, Will Gipson, when mentoring students like Eric. Since Chaz’s time as an undergraduate at Penn, Gipson has played a strong part in his personal and professional development. “I was that student who came in, tear–soaked face and sad, anxious about what I’m going to do with my life after I graduate,” Chaz remembered. “[Gipson] would drop anything if he could to be with a student or a faculty member.”
“That was the model I tried to employ.” Chaz said. “He did that for me.”
Mirroring Chaz’s sentiments about Gipson, College senior Victoria Ford said, “[Chaz] will stop and take the time out for any and every student that he’s interacting with. To talk, to pray, whatever it is that you need, he’ll make that time.”
Students go to him for advice, just as he went to Gipson as a Penn undergrad. “He draws the knowledge out of you in a way that you think it’s you,” said Eric.
“I think my job is to love, regardless,” Chaz said, “to catch where people trip, to affirm, to kick in the butt when people make mistakes.’
Chaz’s Bowl Award, the coveted prize granted to Penn seniors each year, still sits on the table in his office. His three bookshelves boast titles like King Among the Theologians and Negro with a Hat. One is lined with The Classics of Western Spirituality, while another holds family portraits.
A native of Baltimore, Chaz has faint memories of talking to friends and family about wanting to be a minister while growing up. He idolized Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom balanced their ministry with their politics.
“If you asked me in high school or even early Penn what I wanted to do, I would have said I wanted to be a politician,” he remembered.
Life had crushed him after his junior year, but with a “good couple of kicks in [his] behind,” he began to question his calling—better yet, God’s calling for him.
“It was the first time I asked God what he wanted me to do.” he said. “I wrestled with the question of not ‘What am I good at?’ and not ‘What do I want to do?,’ but ‘What am I called to do?’”
After morning prayers and taking his three daughters to school, the chaplain’s work day starts at 9am in the solace of his Houston Hall office. He resides on a pale red couch, sipping his morning tea. In an hour, he’ll be meeting with a student, then heading to Fisher–Bennett for his other class, Black History at Penn. He is at peace. For Chaz, this isn’t work.
“It’s not a job to do,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to love.”
Taylor Culliver is a senior from Montgomery, Alabama concentrating in marketing in the Wharton School. He is the former President & Executive Editor and the current Innovation Director of The Daily Pennsylvanian.