When Ernesto Sirolli was a young man living in his native
Italy, he wanted to help people and to make a difference. As part of delegation
from a charitable organization, Ernesto traveled to Zambia on the continent of
Africa. Their mission was to help the poor in Zambia in transformative and
long-lasting ways. When Ernesto and team arrived to a village, they noticed an
amazing amount of fertile land along the Zambezi River that was not being used
for agriculture. Perplexed by this, and sensing a potential gamechanger, they
told they Zambian people that they should use the land for farming, grow food
that could sustain their people and could also be sold, and forever alter their
destinies. They showed the villagers how to plant and raise tomatoes.
Strangely, the Zambian people did not have much interest in these new
lifesaving plans, but Ernesto and his fellow Italians would even pay them to
help work the fields so that they could see the value in this agriculture. Sure
enough, the fertile land bore tremendous results – large beautiful tomatoes.
One night, when the tomatoes were at their ripest and best
state, 200 hippos emerged from the river and ate them all. The Italians were
taken aback and shocked and told the villagers what had happened. The Zambians
responded that yes, the hippos would do that, and that’s why they had no
agriculture in their village.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” the Italians exclaimed. “You never
asked,” was their reply.
Ernesto relays this tell in a much more eloquent fashion is
his TED Talk and in his book, Ripples from Zambezi. The point he derives from this story, and that I
wish to derive as well, is that too often we force our own solutions on people
instead of listening for the solutions they wish to explore. Human history is fraught with noble-minded but tragic
results of a central controlling force trying to impose structure on an indigenous
Ernesto’s larger point is that if you want to help people
improve their situation, you need to foster entrepreneurship at the local level.
That means showing up to listen, with no agenda and no preconceived ideas. You
then support the entrepreneurs in their own ideas and their own vision.
I feel this is a message we need to hear in fraternity and
sorority life in 2019.
Fraternity started as an entrepreneurial and grassroots
solution to a problem on the campuses of the day: the lack of free expression.
A society of men (or women) wasn’t necessarily revolutionary, but to build it
secretly and cautiously on a heavily-controlled environment, such as a college
in the 1800’s, was as risky and daring as starting a new business or
Somewhere along the line, it flipped from being a grassroots
movement to a top-down one, heavy with requirements, policies, structures, and the
“one right way to do things.” I believe this is based on the fear of losing something all of us love. But in that fear, we have sought to control.
We structure it all. Rush/recruitment. New Member Education.
Officer training. Meeting agendas. What we wear and how we wear it.
Some of this was for the sake of efficiency.But what have we lost in that effort?
In fraternity today, we have a dearth of entrepreneurship.
Our heavily-resourced national offices (seemingly growing in
bloat the way centralized governments do) are inventing programs and
educational resources for their chapters on a daily basis, often relying on the
intelligence of the people in the room but almost no input from the local
level. And thus, we build and brand a fancy program called “How to Grow
Tomatoes” and ship it off to our Zambias. And from there on out, we fight fires
based on the fact our Zambians can’t grow tomatoes like we expect them to.
We talk a lot about campus culture in fraternity and
sorority life. But we do so with an eye towards controlling it, and fitting it
into a package we’ve already designed (from hundreds of miles away). Rarely do
we talk about it in a celebratory fashion. For us it seems that unique cultures
are something to be dealt with, not embraced. Grow these tomatoes, dammit.
When we need to do things like redesign a new member
education program, we bring forward a commission to sit in a room and figure it
out. We rarely listen to our chapters when developing new solutions, or stop to
consider that the different cultures in which they operate could mean a need
for multiple localized solutions.
Ernesto describes two ways Western cultures approach other
societies: we either patronize them, or are paternalistic. To patronize means
to treat them as servants; to be paternalistic is to treat them like they are
your children. How often do we do that to our chapters, and in a world of
increasing innovation, force them to do what that commission decided was best?
Campuses are quick to do this as well. Consider the growing
movement to rate chapters based on a campus scorecard, with often arbitrary
measures. That’s us telling an indigenous group that we know best how they
should do fraternity and if they don’t fit within that structure, they deserve
the fate of an outcast. Consider how arrogant (albeit well-intentioned) that
What if we tried something different. Take for example new
member education programs. Instead of that commission or committee, what if
instead we told our chapters that for one year, they could do anything they
want for new member education. In the end, the goal is for the new members to
be adequately prepared for membership, but the process is entirely up to them.
Of course, hazing is illegal and can’t be utilized, but otherwise have at it!
Does that make your palms sweat? I admit, mine too.
But think about what creativity might emerge if 100+
chapters were empowered to customize new member education. At the end of that
year, you invite the chapters to share what really worked and what didn’t. You
listen, and then you share back the best ideas you heard.
Is it risky? Yes. But could yield a high reward. Think about
all the other functions of fraternity life we dictate from the top, and what
could happen if we unleashed entrepreneurship.
Is the role of the fraternity/sorority national office to
create solutions to make fraternity chapters as strong as possible, or to
empower chapters to discover their own strength? Patronize or Serve?
I guess it comes down to you answering a fundamental
question for yourself: are you willing to let exist different ways to
experience and do fraternity, or is there only one right way?
Respect the undergraduates for the entrepreneurial spirit
they can possess. And listen to them, for they will tell you about the hippos
in the river.
The chaos of August is about to set in on college
campuses across the land.And you, Mr./Ms. Chapter President, are about to lead your troops for another few months.Don’t make it a weak finish!The following ideas can make the difference
between your year being just another ordinary one or a truly impactful
one.It’s all about paying attention to
the details and how you start a new semester. Here are some tips to help you start right:
1. Prepare a chapter retreat.
World-class athletes get themselves “into the zone”
before they take the field.That’s what
a retreat can do for your chapter.Retreats are not just all fun and games.Good ones have a purpose, and I suggest the purpose be twofold: (1)
assess the previous year and (2) set goals for the coming year.Did you attend your organization’s convention
or leadership conference this past summer?Here is a good chance to summarize some of the best of what you
learned.See this post for more ideas to
help you prepare a successful retreat.
Power tip: Invite your advisors and campus staff to help
facilitate this retreat.They have the
skillset to do this and would be honored to take part in something that’s so
positive and forward-thinking.
2. Get the team back together.
Huddle up with your officer team as soon as you can to
review early plans for the year.Likely
there are some immediate needs in terms of finance and recruitment.It’s also a way to make sure they are as
invested in the remainder of this year as you are.
Power tip: If you have the means, treat them to dinner
(or coffee or ice cream) as part of this meeting.Show them how much you value their commitment
3. Visit with your Greek Advisor.
Schedule a time early on to reconnect with your Greek
Advisor in person.They remain your
greatest supporter and advocate on campus.Besides just catching up, use this meeting as a way to update him/her on
how you assessed the previous year and the goals you have for the coming year
(great way to pass along the retreat output if you had that first).Be sure to thank the Greek advisor and ask
him/her for any thoughts on how your chapter can perform strongly this year.Listen as much as you speak.
along a small token of appreciation.Maybe a food product from your hometown – nothing too elaborate or
expensive.It’s just a nice courtesy
that your advisor will appreciate.Also
– be sure to compliment him/her on how tan and well-rested he/she looks!
4. Greet your brothers/sisters.
This one may be a challenge for the very large chapters,
but it’s not impossible.Can you stretch
yourself to personally say hello and shake the hand of every single member
within the first two weeks of returning to campus?There is no greater show of leadership than
personal interaction.It trumps any
speech you can give or any decision you make.Perhaps tie this to an invitation to the first chapter meeting of the
year, so that you can get some brothers/sisters reconnected who have drifted
away.It’s easy to dismiss an email or
phone message.It’s difficult to dismiss
a personal greeting and invitation.Plus, it shows that you care about the most important thing any chapter
president should care about – the members.
Power tip: If you have a chapter house, move in early so you can be there (and your other officers too) to help move in your brothers/sisters. Plus you can say hello to the parents and make sure they know who you are.
5. Hug your house manager.
He/she may need it this time of year. Power tip: Don't let it linger.
6. Meet your chapter advisor for coffee.
For many of the same reasons you want to connect with your
Greek advisor, now’s a great time to build the relationship with your chapter
advisor.The reason I suggest coffee or
some other way that feels less procedural is because it immediately makes it a
more relational conversation.It also
shows maturity because that’s how many modern meetings are conducted between
colleagues these days.
Power tip: If you don’t already have a system in place,
be sure to use this meeting as a way to establish a regular communication
pattern with your advisor.And then stay
strict to that – another sign of leadership maturity (don’t let your advisor
ever wonder if you’ve vanished).
7. Prepare extra hard for the first chapter meeting.
Many times, this first meeting of the semester is the one
of the most well-attended.Spend time
preparing so that it comes off as professional, efficient, and effective.Don’t shy away from a little humor and fun in
this meeting as well.If you want
members to come back, they need to see value to the experience.
Power tip: Start the meeting with an open forum for
members to share the best thing that happened to them over the summer.Don’t be too cautious with what’s shared and
how – let the personality of the group take over.You’re likely to find laughs and applause as
Best wishes to a great start to the year, and thank you
for accepting the role of chapter president.If you spend the time to do those things above, and be rigorous in your
preparation and planning, then you will find yourself more relaxed and able to
enjoy this experience.Ready, set, go!
Please answer the questions honestly with either "YES" or "NO."
1. Was the name you wrote above your fraternity nickname? YES /NO 2. Is your working theory of dealing with college students centered on command and control? YES / NO
3. Are you in this for the free dinners and travel to convention? YES / NO
4. Do you think you can do the Executive Director's job? YES / NO
5. Do you want to do the Executive Director's job? YES / NO
6. Do you have a pet project that will become your singular answer to every challenge the fraternity faces? YES / NO
7. Do you have Roberts Rules of Order memorized and/or an autographed copy? YES / NO
8. Are you excited to answer every big-picture strategic question with the words, "Well, in my chapter..." YES / NO 9. Do you think every undergraduate should have the same exact fraternity experience you had? YES / NO
10. Strategic plans are stupid, right? YES / NO
11. Do you approach boardroom debates like King Leonidas fighting the Persians at Thermopylae? YES / NO 12. Do you feel it's best if the staff's reaction to you is based on fear? YES / NO 13. Does your fraternity resume include “Hell Week Chair?” YES / NO
14. Do you believe you are the only one who can save the fraternity and all of fraternity-kind? YES / NO
15. Do you love to "play politics?" YES / NO
16. Do you like to share your opinions via 3-page email rants, to which you have copied every person in the fraternity directory? YES / NO
17. DO YOU WRITE YOUR EMAILS IN ALL CAPS? YES / NO
18. Are you still thinking about your pet project? YES / NO
19. Does the word "micromanage" make you smile and/or giggle? YES / NO
20. Do you plan to buy undergraduates drinks in order to get their votes? YES / NO 21. Is your home chapter untouchable? YES / NO 22. Is any chapter untouchable? YES / NO
23. Do you consider any of the following to be the devil incarnate: email, Instagram, Twitter, or text messages? YES / NO
24. Do you plan to ignore the financial reports because numbers make you tired? YES / NO
25. Do you believe that the hallway or the parking lot after the meeting is where the real business gets done? YES / NO 26. Will nothing stand in your way of having The Rock or Taylor Swift be the keynote speaker at convention? YES / NO
27. Would a colleague describe you as someone who likes to raise his/her voice in order to make a point? YES / NO
you think it’s a fun challenge to walk into the board meeting
completely unprepared and see how long you can fly by the seat of your
pants? YES / NO
29. Can your motivations for completing this application best be summed up by the words "ego trip?" YES / NO
Thank you. Please be aware that if you answered YES to any of the questions above, we will promptly dispose of your application. We have plenty of those board members already. Have a great day.
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In the previous post, I argued that fraternity can be a force for social change, especially around some key social epidemics that we may be primed to solve. I want to explore some of these topics in more depth and argue why fraternity can be an answer. Let’s start with the social epidemic of loneliness.
Look at this alarming data from 2018 study by Cigna:
Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent).
One in four Americans (27 percent) rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
Two in five Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful (43 percent) and that they are isolated from others (43 percent).
One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people (20 percent) or feel like there are people they can talk to (18 percent).
Only around half of Americans (53 percent) have meaningful in-person social interactions, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending quality time with family, on a daily basis.
The same study found that Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation. These are the young men and women you may have just talked with at formal rush.
Loneliness is a major issue that has huge health implications. Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says loneliness can be fatal. As quoted in a CBS news story. Dr. Murthy says that "The increased mortality associated with loneliness is equal to the increased mortality we see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It's in fact greater than the mortality associated with obesity."
Dr. Frank McAndrew in Psychology Today argues that “Rejection by others psychologically wounds us more deeply than almost anything else, and research by neuroscientists reveals that ostracism can lead to feeling actual physical pain.” In addition, the amount of stress that loneliness creates can have serious mental health implications.
But here is an important point: just being in proximity with people does not mean one is not lonely. Dr. Murthy notes that it’s about the quality of “authentic relationships” one has, which may be only a handful. The number of social media followers, for example, does not indicate if someone does or doesn’t experience loneliness.
So what does this mean for fraternity? How can we be an answer to this epidemic of loneliness?
The easy answer (and wrong one) is that we simply are clubs made of people and thus we are an easy place to gather and escape loneliness. Remember, it’s about the quality and authenticity of relationships that matter. By all means, we should be as open as possible to individuals who are seeking connection and wanting to live in community with others. But, what matters most is how we foster those connections once our rosters are full.
Fraternities and sororities are unique on college campuses because we seek to create brotherhood and sisterhood, which TRULY are the types of relationships that fight feelings of isolation and loneliness. Brotherhood and sisterhood is rooted in shared values that we speak and live together. It isn’t based on the fact we occupy the same house, or wear the same letters. It’s based on what we pledged to do together, often while standing shoulder to shoulder.
It’s those deeper connections that make fraternity and sorority an absolutely relevant institution in modern times. Many clubs based on shared values in our society are fading away (see Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis). And thus, connections outside of your family unit that aren’t rooted in networking or happy hours or other thin experiences are in short supply.
So, your work is to determine if you would qualify your undergraduate brotherhood or sisterhood experience as a thick and consequential one. Do you observe that members benefit from their connections with each other in social and emotional ways? Here are some questions you could use as you investigate that question:
Do members seem more fulfilled by their daily lives and act with purpose and energy?
Are they able to fight through stress in a positive way and don’t let difficulties linger?
Do members seek out opportunities to interact with each other?
Can you observe true moments of connection, such as outreach in times of pain or authentic reactions to positive events?
Is your organization free from cliques and bullying that would cause some members to feel isolated?
Beyond undergraduate experiences, could fraternities and sororities help solve the epidemic of loneliness by putting increased emphasis on alumni and how they can reconnect with the values and the brotherhood/sisterhood they once experienced daily? Alumni-focused efforts are largely to support the undergraduate “product” or for fundraising but what about a product just for alumni and just for the purpose of building human connections at a time when we all need it? Things to consider at the national office as you plan for an alumni engagement program.
Loneliness cannot be eliminated from our society. There are too many contributing factors. But the nature of our organizations - fraternities and sororities - gives us a unique opportunity (I daresay obligation) to do what we can.
An important point: part of the beauty of the fraternity/sorority experience is the closeness it can provide. And thus, we may be more aware than anyone else about someone’s mental and emotional state. We need to stay observant to signs of struggle (which may look like loneliness, or anger, or stress) and be willing to talk with each other. If you emerge from your fraternity/sorority experience with an increased comfort in talking with a friend about their struggles, then you will have earned a critical skill many people spend a lifetime chasing.
It’s beyond time to change the way we talk and think about fraternities and sororities and their role in our modern times.
Ever since fraternities were founded, their relevance and purpose has been questioned. Because they started as secret societies, formed in opposition to the institutions their members belonged to, fraternities have been under attack and constantly criticized. This causes us to have a reactionary posture in our DNA. To often wait for the incoming fire before we build a shield.
And it also causes us to look internally and be protective. Our question too often is “how do we protect what fraternity is from these forces acting against us” whereas it could be “how do envision what fraternity should be in light of the world we inhabit.”
The calls to shutter our doors and abolish Greek Life will keep coming, especially when the only apparent contributions to society that the public sees are networking to get jobs and the occasional low-level service project. We can be so much more, and it's time to show it.
I have been in the fraternity movement for 25 years, and I have lost count of the number of committees, commissions, blue ribbon panels, studies, and conferences focused on reacting to our greatest ills: hazing, sexual assault, alcohol consumption, inclusiveness, and more. I don’t question the need for such work, and many of the essays in this blog and in my book deal with these same issues. But beware, especially new entrants into this movement, that when you hear someone say that forming a committee or conducting a study to address a longstanding issue is a “bold move,” it’s actually one of the most mundane and redundant things we can undertake.
What would be bold? To go on the offense. To start thinking about and talking about why fraternity matters to our greater society in 2019 and beyond. We need to discuss this and then deliver messages that indicate that we see the world the way it is today, and we want to be part of the solution. There are vast and truly debilitating social epidemics in our culture today; ones that we as fraternities and sororities are primed to solve.
Let’s look at it this way: by sitting in a reactionary posture and thinking that true leadership is only addressing the issues we face internally, we act like a crumbling brick structure. We try to patch, we try to rebuild, but for every brick that we add, 2 or 3 fall to the ground and shatter. We appear to the world like an institution always under fire and thus always trying to shield ourselves from the onslaught, or pretend that we’re not crumbling. But it’s clear to all that our structure is not as tall or sturdy as it once was.
Being proactive means that we need to consider for ourselves what value we want to offer the greater society. Thinking about the value we offer our host colleges and universities is one part of that, but if that's all you think about you aren’t thinking boldly enough. We are a big enough movement to affect life beyond our campus gates.
So let’s appear to the world like an institution that believes it is vitally important to advancing our culture and building stronger communities. Because we are.
While we put some energy towards solving the issues that plague us (such as hazing), we need to run a parallel track that addresses how the fraternity of the 21st century leads in a world that wants and needs cures for catastrophic social epidemics.
What kinds of social epidemics? The list is long and alarming. More Americans indicate they feel lonelier than ever before. Suicide rates are climbing and the rate among teenage girls is the highest it's been in 40 years. 130 people a day die from opioid abuse. People are finding all manners of destructive ways to cope with the lack of connection they feel in their lives.
What else? How about the #metoo movement and the apparent racism that continues to exist in our society? What about sexual violence and gun violence, and violence of all forms? What about the fact that 7000 students drop out of high school each day?
And as a punctuation point, consider that in my home city of Indianapolis, zip codes only 14 miles apart (a 15 minute drive) have differences in life expectancy of 14 years. This isn’t an impoverished or war-torn city. This is a growing Midwestern municipality. This is in America.
Can the fraternity and sorority movement address these social calamities?
HOW can the fraternity and sorority movement address these social calamities?
Let’s work towards that goal and prove ourselves to be a structure that doesn’t crumble, but rather is adding new layers of impact all the time.
Over the next several posts, I plan to take on specific social epidemics and discuss how the fraternity and sorority movement can be a force in their dissolution. I encourage you to join me in this quest and consider this institution you love a bit more boldly.
Let's make fraternity a force for the social change our world most desperately needs.