Chaz Howard finds common ground in the face of division

Charles “Chaz” Howard was already wrestling with imposter syndrome when he first arrived on Penn’s campus in the fall of 1996. So he was shocked and crushed when his freshman advisor looked at him during their first meeting and said, “Another Black student from Baltimore—you’ll probably fail out too.”

Chaz Howard sitting outside in on a sidewalk in front of a brightly colored mural.
Chaz Howard in West Philadelphia, near the former “Black Bottom” neighborhood razed in the 1960s. (Image: Candace diCarlo)

Howard quickly found a new advisor but still “took a series of L’s” as a freshman. His athletic career as a triple jumper on the Penn track team was short-lived. He lost a student government race and didn’t make an a cappella group. His high school sweetheart dumped him. “Being a freshman’s hard enough,” he says. “Being a first-year student facing social inequities makes it even harder.”

Trying to push aside his insecurities, Howard soon made it into several prominent groups, though in the course of becoming a campus leader, he overextended himself to the point that he drank too much and was briefly kicked out of school for bad grades. After giving up drinking and graduating Penn on time, he felt a calling to ministry. This led him back to his alma mater as the University chaplain, where for the past 12 years he’s been ministering hope and love to students also struggling to find their place on campus and in the world.

Now, he has another important role. In late June, President Amy Gutmann and provost Wendell Pritchett announced the appointment of Howard as Penn’s first-ever vice president for social equity and community, beginning Aug. 1.

“Chaz has made it his life’s mission to bring together diverse groups of people,” Gutmann says. “Where some see division, Chaz sees common ground; where some see despair, he sees hope; where some see hate, he sees love.”

Howard’s appointment came on the heels of the nationwide racial justice protests sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans. Howard had attended some of the demonstrations in Philadelphia, leaving each one encouraged by the “amazingly diverse” group of protesters he saw. “I was feeling very low. Very, very angry. Very sad,” he admits. “And then, I think, some of the activism and some of the changes from people on the streets really has brought me a lot of hope.”

In his new role, Howard will design and oversee the University’s recently announced Projects for Progress, a fund intended to encourage students, faculty, and staff to implement research-based pilot projects designed to advance Penn’s aim of becoming a more inclusive university and community. He will also work with other administrators to expand the five-year-old Campaign for Community, which offers funding and sponsorship for small-group events related to social issues.

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.