Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Myth of the All-Greek BBQ

You’ve probably been there. It’s the waning hours of a Greek retreat, at which representatives from all of the fraternity and sorority groups at a given campus have discussed the greatest challenges facing their system. There are flip chart pages full of issues and concerns on the wall, and props from a variety of teambuilding games on the floor. The facilitators are busy sniffing the scented color flip chart markers (orange is best), while small groups of tired students are now slogging through the final step of action-planning. The groups are taxing themselves to think of the next best idea to further their system – the idea that will be revolutionary, historic, and produce gulps of amazement when shared far and wide.



Discussion time is over, and the sharing now begins. At this point, the facilitators, Greek advisors, and senior leaders cannot stop what’s coming. The momentum is too strong. And besides, after several days of bonding and hard effort, who wants to be the Debbie Downer? There is an unspoken code in the room that every idea deserves a round of applause and a hearty “that’s great!” from the facilitator. 



It doesn’t take long. The first group has it on their list. Actually, every group has it on their list. It’s coming, whether we like it or not. The tension builds, as the loudest voice in the group proudly stands up and exclaims…



“Let’s have an all-Greek BBQ!”



The facilitators wince as the room erupts into a scene resembling Chariots of Fire. There are cheers. There are hugs. There are long passionate kisses from the retreat romances that have formed (hey – you can’t stop love). One of the chapters offers to host, and another has the grill. Thankfully, the IFC VP of Recruitment is in a reggae band, so entertainment is covered. This. is. Going. To. Be. Epic! All of tension, fighting, and distrust that engulfed the Greek system will be devoured as quickly as an overcooked hot dog. We did it! We will forever be changed by the all-Greek BBQ!



Of course, I exaggerate. But not by much. Of the countless fraternity and sorority system (I know I’m supposed to say “community,” but I prefer “system”) retreats I’ve facilitated, the all-Greek BBQ emerges as a profound idea almost two-thirds of the time. Why are we so quick to play the BBQ card? Easy. It’s sounds spectacular! It’s the stuff of Woodstock and Coca-Cola commercials. If we all rally together and have fun, our fraternity/sorority relations will be strengthened or healed. It’s a miracle cure. If all-Greek BBQ’s were sold on a 2:00am infomercial, every fraternity and sorority leader would own one. It’s as comforting as a Snuggie. The only problem is, it’s less useful.



There is a place for all-Greek BBQs – as a celebration, or as a minor piece of a comprehensive plan to build up interfraternal relations. Most of the time, they are just a waste of money. The BBQ emerges so often as the miracle cure because it’s easy to imagine. It’s also the easy way out. 



Large, sprawling events are inherently incapable of bringing disparate groups together, at least in a significant way. Those groups are at odds with each other because of deeper emotional issues, and large social events are not meant for brutal honesty and difficult conversations. It’s probably why an Israel/Iran BBQ has yet to be proposed. They’re just meant to be fun.



And really, let’s imagine an all-Greek BBQ at the typical campus. Do we really expect that hundreds of fraternity and sorority members would show up at an open field and just begin mingling across groups, searching for common ground and shared values? Would we even expect it to be that collegial? Hey Delt guy, would you like some mustard? Sure, Omega guy. You’re the best! 



Building interfraternal relations takes time, and many micro-level efforts. As politicians like to remind us, problems aren’t made in a day, and they won’t be solved in a day either. 

If you want to improve interfraternal relations on your campus, first consider your expectations. What does "good interfraternal relations" mean to you? You might want to lose the image of the latest fraternity/sorority store catalog, with 4 men or women all wearing their chapter's T-shirt proudly while engaged in a group embrace. That's not realistic or necessary. Strong interfraternal relations does not require friendship or love. It requires respect. I do not think it matters very much if you like the women in the house next door, as long as you respect their organization. By starting with respect, you might actually put yourself in situations where you'd get to know those women and start to build a friendship.



Without building respect among the groups first, an all-Greek BBQ will have no measurable effect, except to make the local Sam's Club a little richer.



So how do you build respect? Personally, I gain more respect for someone when I can engage with him or her in serious conversations about serious issues. This allows me to understand their worldview and opinions. This process may be tough at times. There may be moments in those conversations when I don't like the person across from me very much, but if I trust the process, the adversity will only make us stronger in the end.

Start with your governing council (IFC, Panhellenic, NPHC, MCGC, etc.). How much time is spent in those meetings on substantive discussions about issues that matter? Are these meetings a place where respect is forged through intense conversations, that are sometimes brutal, emotional, and honest?

Of course, if your meetings aren’t like that now, they’re not going to change tomorrow without significant leadership from the executive council. Here is a process to consider:
  • At the start of a new term, have a full-day retreat with officers and representatives included. The primary goals of the retreat should be to (a) allow participants a chance to introduce themselves, (b) ensure everyone knows roles, responsibilities, and expectations, and (c) set 4-5 strategic priorities for the system. Strategic priorities may include items like recruitment, new member education, university relations, risk management policies, etc.
  • Set up task forces, one for each strategic priority, made up of members of the council. These task forces will research their topic and be prepared to present findings and suggestions at a future meeting.
  • Schedule time at upcoming council meetings to have considerable discussion about each of the strategic priorities, led by the task forces. In those meetings, intentionally speed through reports and make sure nothing else is scheduled. You’ll need time and you don’t want to lengthen the meeting.
  • In the meetings, use facilitation techniques to get the group talking about these issues. Such techniques would include starting in small groups or pairs. Your Advisor can be a great resource for these techniques.
This is just a place to start. It will help you add seriousness and substance to your meetings (and thus, your council). The debate can also help build respect. At the very least, it will help the groups feel as though they contributed something meaningful. And, that next best revolutionary idea may come after all.

And then, if you want to celebrate a year’s worth of productive discussions with a little BBQ, go for it. I’ll bring the chips (and the scented color flip chart markers).


A hat tip to Phired Up Productions for their blog post on big events as they relate to recruitment activities. They reminded me of my disdain for the all-Greek BBQ and hence, this post.

5 comments:

  1. john, a few years back you + i did an IMPACT at south dakota and i snapped a picture of one of their ideas to improve the greek community:

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=19794&id=501652427

    suddenly there were "many more chapters."

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  2. Corey, that picture is priceless. John, this post is so amazing. Especially the first half (even though I know it's not the important half). And, for the record, I don't think you exaggerate. That happened. Salt Fork Resort, Ohio, circa 2004.

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  3. Now you tell me! To think of all those BBQs we planned with such hopes of world peace! Great job, Shertz.

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  4. hot dogs are a no then? what about hamburgers?

    great blog...exnay on the BBQ we were planning for the end of the year...thanks for the reminder of whats important.

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  5. Yeah this is what councils are for. Those greek BBQs are really ackward. Sometimes its nice to see your friends in other organizations but I think the idea just flat up sucks. Thats just me.

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