Marching Together, For Something That Matters

Today we celebrate 50 years since the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is the most well-known public demonstration for civil rights in our nation’s history.  It was at this event that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous address at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 

In thinking about a post to commemorate this event and apply its lessons to fraternity, there were a lot of directions to consider.  To me, a lesson that resonates loud and clear from this march is timeless and appropriate to any organization or set of organizations that face tough challenges.  The human spirit is unstoppable when you march for something that matters.  And, when you remember that you're not alone.

I can’t know what it was like to face discrimination in the 1960’s, but I can appreciate the fact that it had to eat away at one's psyche and self-confidence.  Continuous hardship can beat down a person’s soul, and with it, their own personal courage.  There likely comes a time when it is easier to give up and just accept things for the way they are. 

As individuals boarded buses, trucks, and cars to come to Washington DC for the march, I’m sure there were many of them who were hesitant.  These individuals mostly wanted to speak out for what they believed in, but I’m sure a large part of each person wanted to simply see who else would show up.  Would this be a bust?  Would this act of defiance and protest be squashed by unmet expectations?  
“When we were going to the March on Washington, we didn’t know whether it was going to be violent, and we didn’t know if it was going to be a place where fear pervaded. The reality was, it was quite the opposite. Joyful doesn’t really describe it for me. It was like the physicalization of love. It was ecstatic perhaps, but it was not giddy and silly or ‘Let’s have a good time.’ It was a far deeper kind of joy. It went beyond joy. It was hard to describe, but it was the antithesis of fear, and it propelled us all into another channel in our lives.” – Peter Yarrow, Time Magazine #onedream
What they found were hundreds of thousands who shared their beliefs.  It had to be extraordinarily heartening to know that your beliefs were validated, that your worldview wasn’t the outlier, and that the pendulum had swung towards you and all your hopes and dreams.

That joy...that passion...that mutual commitment to something significant...that electricity of people connected by a spiritual and spirited feeling.  Could this all have been as important – if not more so – for the success of the march than any speech that was delivered?  After all, work needed to be done after the microphones were turned off and most likely every person who was among that crowd – and who knew they weren’t alone – left that mall with heightened confidence.

When you take on big things it’s nice to be able to take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.  That could describe the essence of fraternity or sorority.  The goal of a fraternity experience is to give you values, knowledge, and skills to navigate life.  In addition, it provides you with the people to join you on the journey. 

But why are some Greek organizations able to build a march-like experience that feels alive and important, while others feel completely ordinary if not lifeless?

Obviously I wasn't there, but after reading many personal accounts from those who were, it seems that these conclusions can be drawn about the crowd that day:

Everyone in that crowd believed they were doing something that mattered.  That human electricity wasn’t just manufactured out of thin air.  It wasn’t created by a series of icebreakers and get-to-know-you games.  It sprung out of the sense that these individuals were part of something big, something that really mattered.  I can imagine that when you looked into the eyes of a fellow traveler that day, it expanded your heart.  It moved you and kept you walking.  Do your members know why your fraternity/sorority matters?  Do you?

Everyone in that crowd put the cause above their own self interests.  It was a
group of individuals that arrived that morning, but it was a unified community that emerged by the end of the day.  Everyone retained their own personality, ambitions, and character, but all shared the imprint of that day on their minds and hearts.  They were forever changed and forever bonded by the march.  Think about how our Rituals can do a similar thing if treated with respect.

Everyone in that crowd allowed themselves to feel fellowship with every other person.  They were inclusive and didn’t dwell on differences.  The cause united them, just like a belief in shared values unites a brotherhood or sisterhood comprised of diverse individuals.  There was room for any person who was committed to the cause and could offer something to it.

Everyone in that crowd understood that they couldn’t have achieved this
alone.  The size of the crowd mattered for it showed that momentum was shifting.  The diversity of the crowd mattered, because it showed that this was a transcendent issue.  The fact that so many showed up (or joined in from afar) made this more than a rally.  It was history in the making.

It seems simplistic to say, but it can’t be said enough: fraternity or sorority is not something you can do alone.  Our power as organizations is derived from that fact.  We are built on the premise that relationships lead to better outcomes.  Otherwise, the Rituals and values of our organizations could just become self-help books that anyone could read.  Instead, it’s the people that gives our organizations expression.  If the values are our foundation, it’s the people that build the house.

Let’s honor the fact that we are organizations fueled by human relationships.  We will achieve more and enjoy the ride more if we pay attention to the “people power” we have. 

And take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.  You may think you are the only person in your fraternity, sorority, council, or Greek community that believes change needs to happen.  Start talking to your brothers and sisters.  Start describing what you think the organization could be.  You’ll likely find you have many allies who will join you on this march.  Remember that like the March on Washington, if you want to create change, who and how many you bring with you matter greatly.  You can’t make significant change alone, and you can’t make sweeping change without a crowd alongside you. 

Alone, all alone  
Nobody, but nobody  
Can make it out here alone. 
- Maya Angelou

So, imagine yourself that day 50 years ago, in the hot August sun, walking past the monuments of our nation’s past.  Imagine walking with purpose and determination.  Imagine the faces around you – their joy, their hope, their spirit.  Hear the singing and the shouts of change.  Imagine what true fellowship felt like that day.

Is it possible to replicate that feeling in any organization, much less a fraternity or sorority?  Perhaps not entirely.  But it can serve as a model for us of what it feels like when you march for something that matters, and you remember that you are not alone.


The Next Big Thing!

We have an inflamed desire in our society nowadays to be the next big thing.  We want to be talked about, to be applauded, to become renowned.  Simply put, we want to be buzzworthy.  This is true in the fraternity world as well, with national organizations, associations, campuses, and chapters trying to conceive of the next big idea that will put them on the map. 

This is often a good thing, because it can create competition, which can yield creativity.  Competition can fuel a marketplace of innovation in how to improve the fraternity experience.  There are chapter meetings, board rooms and staff meetings throughout the country in which groups are trying to figure out how to out-do and out-perform their peers.  To be considered the next big thing.

They have a  4-year member development plan?  Well, we need one of those!  They had their convention where?  Well let’s go here instead.   They took a group of students to a different country?  Well, our next leadership conference will be on the moon!

Apart from competition, or trying to keep up with the Joneses, groups will actively try to develop to brand new shiny initiatives simply to become the envy of the industry.  That’s just the nature of a crowded marketplace in which it’s difficult to stand out.  And again, this is not a bad thing, and can have great benefits. 

But I still witness some of these projects and programs, and wonder if they are purpose-driven, or publicity-driven?  It’s the macro version of the student who does service in a developing country.  Are they there for the service or just to get a new Facebook cover photo?

Sometimes, organizations look like they have A.D.D.  They are pushing out a different idea or approach each month, each quarter, each year.  They can’t seem to focus.  Jeff Cufaude described a concept in his TED talk called “Intention Deficit Disorder” or I.D.D. , which may more accurately describe what is going on.  When we don’t make choices based upon our intended purpose as an organization – when we aren’t intentionally focused on mission - then we can look like a mad scientist just trying to do whatever comes into our scattered mind. 

In crowded and noisy world, our desire to stand out as organizations seems more important sometimes than our desire to be intentional.  And why is this an issue?  It can take us further and further away from what we should be focusing on, and what really matters.  Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should.

Have you heard of mission drift?  It’s the dangerous practice of some organizations who start to believe that they can do things they weren’t meant to do.  They drift away from their mission like an untethered raft.

For chapter leaders - if you want to be or build the next big thing – then at least make sure it fits your intended purpose as an organization.  Instead of striving to have the party that everyone talks about, have the service project that they’ll be talking about for decades.  Instead of creating a buzz with catchy or borderline-offensive T-shirts, create a buzz by being the members who showed up in force for the Take Back the Night rally.  Instead of being noteworthy for your YouTube video, become noteworthy for your actions.  Instead of creating the homecoming float with the wow factor, well, go ahead and do that one.  You gotta have some fun too.

For those at the national staff or board level, where can we spot some mission drift as well?  Are all of our programs intentionally serving our purpose?  For example, if the purpose of a fraternity headquarters is to build chapters and serve chapters, is that what you’re truly doing?  Is that how staff resources are being deployed? 

Just something I’ve noticed: a lot of national organizations seem to have shifted to planning events and experiences that are focused on a small cohort doing some really exceptional adventurous experience.  Sounds great, and I’m sure those members’ lives are changed forever.    But, how many more members’ lives would be changed by a laser-focus on building higher quality chapter experiences?  Maybe both can happen, but we ought to be asking these questions.

The national organization that quietly focuses on the core – the chapters – probably doesn’t get the benefit of buzz that another organization gets from their “mind-blowing experience” events. 

For those at the IFC or Panhellenic level – you have to be careful to avoid getting swept up in the notion that your intended purpose is to do big splashy events (like an All-Greek BBQ).  You tend to want to find the next big thing in an event.  Your intended purpose is to govern the Greek community and to advocate for it.  Maybe the next big thing for you is to focus on those things and regain relevance as a council.

Overall, it’s interesting for me as someone now indirectly connected to the infrastructure of the fraternity/sorority movement to see the race for “the next big thing.”  Maybe we should all take a breath and remember that maybe it’s not our job to be or build the next big thing.  Our founders kinda did that already.  How might that realization clarify our work?