Since December 10, 1899, the greatest progressions of my fraternity have come at the demand of students. Whether forward-thinking or regressive, it was the membership that made the call. Most national-level decisions aren’t as democratic today.
National fraternities and sororities are governing structures, plain and simple. Much like the governments of the United States, any individual state or any individual town, they are meant to be of, for and by the people.
Initially established by students and alumni to maintain a consistent set of standards for all chapters of an organization: a consistent ritual, a consistent set of rules, an opportunity to grow a network to additional colleges and universities, these organizations are now full-scale non profit programming teams.
I have met with countless students affiliated with several fraternities and sororities who feign helplessness in the face of what they consider to be unfair, inconsistent or, worst of all, inattentive national leaders or college/university administrators.
Funnily enough, students hold all of the leverage. It is a student’s choice to attend a college that results in a tuition check. It is a student or chapter’s choice to pay fraternity dues so that national organizations have a dime to operate with.
Remember the saying: “He Who Pays The Piper Calls The Tune.”
I’ve been involved in Greek Life long enough to know that every organization, college or university has similar issues with responsiveness and transparency to their creditors – students.
Here are some tips to becoming an activist in your organization, on your campus, within your council or even at a state/local political level:
1. Approach With The Right Mindset: Don’t Hate The Players, Hate The Game
You will always face debate and competition to make an idea come to life. It is important that you understand when your ideas are of value and when you are wasting your time. Concerning yourself with individuals is a waste of time and leads to resentment and enemies.
Instead, determine an issue you think should be addressed and go through the motions of creating a conversation around that issue. If you are stubborn and fight only for your solution, people may nitpick the details to death, so aim for something more honest and general such as greater transparency.
People move in and out of positions, and if your concerns are tied with a specific person your cause dies when that person moves on.
2. Learn The Game
Know the system you are working within, plain and simple.
As a member of your organization or as a chapter, you have certain duties and rights. You also pay the bills, and should expect the same of your fraternity/sorority as you would of your mayor, governor or the President of the United States.
Get a group of people who share your beliefs and study your organization’s Constitution, Bylaws and other governing documents together.
Ask questions if you are curious about something done at the national level. I held several “town hall” meetings with chapters last year, and was asked questions about our budget, initiatives and programs. You don’t need to wait until someone comes to you to ask a question.
Remember, you should not attack individuals or villainize your college/national organization. You should lead others to care about their fraternity, sorority or school of choice.
3. Start Responsible Conversations
Governments require politics. Explore your options by reaching out to individuals you think may be able to assist in your activist’s cause. Be honest with your intentions.
There is nothing wrong with disagreement within a fraternity, sorority or campus community.
From disagreement comes conversation and from conversations come adaptations to an ever-evolving world. Be proud that you have ideas for how things can improve. Do your best to make those concerns heard without offending others or making yourself look like a loud buffoon desperate for recognition.
If others take your beliefs personally, they have already tapped out of the debate.
4. Consider Chapter-Level Options
If your chapter members feel a certain way, explore where you have jurisdiction to make chapter-level decisions.
If you would simply like support with a question, request or grievance, vote as a chapter on a resolution and submit documentation of the vote to your national liaison. Request that it be considered within a committee or at your national organization’s or national board’s next meeting.
As much as you may not believe it, those who work or volunteer for your fraternity do it out of love for the organization and the wise ones will take your chapter’s message seriously and work to address it. All you need to do is organize a chapter vote and draft a letter confirming the vote and the question/resolution itself!
OR As a chapter, invite a national officer to one of your meetings or to a conference call to answer questions and share more about your organization.
5. Network With Other Chapter Leaders
Chapter leaders will often meet leaders from other chapters at regional or national events. These are opportunities to amplify legitimate inquiries or concerns.
If your chapter has voted on a resolution or signed a petition, circulate it to chapter leaders you know and inquire as to whether they’d consider a similar vote at their chapter or if they would open the petition to their chapter members.
It’s better to work with other leaders you have met and who you know have similar inquiries, so don’t just blast something out on social media for the world – you’ll create some early, unwanted opposition. Being honest does not mean being obnoxious.
Organize a meeting of chapter leaders and advisors in your state or region – a mini-convention, and invite national officers. Use that time to consider questions affecting all chapters in a state or region.
At the campus level, work with (gasp) the other chapters and student organizations on campus.
Get a group of volunteers together to host other chapter leaders or advisors and take part in as many activities with your national organization as possible. This will give you an opportunity to understand how your organization operates and get to know the dedicated individuals who work within it (both staff and volunteers).
True, honorable politics and democracy requires understanding those you work with or against. There is no reason for grand debates or personalized politics. Leave the drama to the Democrats and Republicans and love your brothers or sisters instead.
You don’t need to volunteer with your national organization, but you should volunteer for your fraternity/sorority. Offer to mentor a student, provide a local scholarship, speak at a chapter meeting, help a chapter with an event, help advisors with an event, etc.
7. Use Your Strengths
If it hasn’t gotten through yet: Don’t start yelling about a cause in the streets and on social media.
If you create films, use that creativity to enhance your fraternity experience or to serve your activist needs. Maybe you manage a moderately popular blog or podcast, or perhaps you are great at graphic design.
Use your strengths to the advantage of your cause. I’m a big believer in crowd-sourced educational programming and communications for fraternities and sororities, so until any one organization wakes up to that awesome reality we might as well crowd-source our attempts to benefit and change our respective organizations.
8. Don’t Quit
People may take things personally. The specifics of your idea may be torn to shreds. Don’t lose sight of what you’re after.
Personally, I want a fraternity and sorority world in which students make more decisions, in which a master’s degree isn’t required for a job at a fraternity headquarters or as an on-campus advisor, and in which members are celebrated for being their best self, not some cookie-cutter, universal standards, plastic Barbie/Ken doll fraternity god or goddess.
Point and case, consider how your organization operates, not the specific things it does, as the target. It doesn’t matter if you like or dislike a certain program or initiative, the problem is how that program or initiative came to be and whether or not you and other members had a say.
Anything you do will be subject to the will of the members, so consider that you’ll need support from a majority if not a significant majority of other chapter leaders and voting alumni to make change happen. This isn’t the time for pet projects.
9. Be Patient
If the going gets tough, don’t quit, but be patient. You lose every argument in which you lose your cool. Be the bigger person 100% of the time you have an opportunity to.
Furthermore, don’t become a leader or activist until you’ve committed yourself to the 10 Commandments of Ethical Leadership.