I come from an overwhelmingly white suburb of Chicago with a median income significantly above the state average. The range of my interpersonal experiences back home is quite limited because of this; yet in my life, I’ve been fortunate to connect deeply with other people of many different identities. On a superficial level, this is because I go to Northwestern. But more deeply, it’s because I joined a fraternity.
Ariel Sheffey’s recent column implored members of Greek life to defend their affiliations given the notoriety our organizations have around campus and the country. At the root of Sheffey and others’ complaints is a concern that Greek life stands in the way of increased inclusion and equality for marginalized groups in our society. Since Greek life is typically defended from the perspective of tradition and nostalgia, it makes sense that it would seem anathema to progressive values. But my experience in a fraternity shows how Greek life actually has the potential to lead the way in fostering these values on campus.
In the time I’ve spent in my fraternity, I’ve developed meaningful friendships with fellow brothers who are students of color, from low-income families and non-U.S. citizens. The pernicious reality of segregation in our country along racial and class lines already makes this fact an anomaly for someone like me. Perhaps more importantly, though, these friendships are informed by the full spectrum of human life, from the defining to the banal. I’ve heard first-hand stories of discrimination and hardship from marginalized brothers. But I’ve also come to know their personal tastes and dispositions — knowledge that can only be gained over months and years in the same organization, but is essential to shattering crude stereotypes based in a lack of understanding. Overall, my fraternity has created a diverse, inclusive environment that integrates members of disparate social groups into an authentic community, a small but concrete victory for social justice.
Of course, diverse, inclusive student groups exist all across Northwestern, so why is Greek life in particular necessary for the promotion of social equality? Greek life is indeed uniquely positioned to promote these values because it is the most expansive, institutionalized kind of community on campus. The close brotherhoods and sisterhoods formed in Greek organizations, the same bonds that are accused of being cult-like by detractors, are actually the most effective means by which students from privileged backgrounds can really hear otherwise-silenced voices. Hallmates in dorms often drift apart as they became involved with student groups — especially, as it turns out, Greek life — and most of these student groups seldom interact in person outside their weekly meetings and the occasional social gathering. Greek brothers and sisters, however, live together and eat together. We work together and play together, laugh together and cry together. The unparalleled scope of Greek life allows it to significantly shape the lives of its members, so with a conscious commitment to integration and inclusion, Greek life can do more than any other campus institution to inculcate progressive values.
To do this, Greek life as a whole still needs to change in substantial ways. Fraternities and sororities must actively seek out new members who have historically been excluded from membership. Greek organizations must also eliminate pledging in order to fully ensure the equality of all brothers and sisters from the moment they drop their bids. Thankfully, my fraternity has done both. In the past, Greek life has all too often been an incubator for toxic values, but my experience in a fraternity at Northwestern shows that in the present, Greek life can instead be a source of egalitarianism, inclusion and respect for all people. I hope that Sheffey and other critics of Greek life will help us make that a reality.
Vice President of Programming, Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity