JGW Power To Make Change

A Message for Fraternity/Sorority Professionals Before #AFAAM

by Jessica Gendron Williams

Several weeks ago (and for a while now) I’ve felt pretty funky.  Not in the “I’m coming down with some illness,” but in the “I’m having a hard time finding the joy in my work right now” kind of “FUNKY”.  I was getting the sense that most of my team, most of my colleagues, many of the professionals – and even some of the students we were encountering on a daily basis were feeling pretty funky too.

We all know it’s been a hard year for everyone.  This thing called fraternity and sorority that we all love and fight for everyday has been called into question so many times I’ve lost count.  People look at us with cross-eyes when we tell them what our professional careers are; They don’t understand how we can commit our life’s work to something most people believe should be exploded like a nuclear bomb.  Yet here we are – slogging away – amidst the chaos and questions.  It’s easy to forget what we’re fighting for when all we see is the stuff we fight against everyday – slathered all over the front page of papers, new stations, and the internet.

It’s no wonder I feel funky – and if you’ve been feeling funky – I don’t blame you.

That funky feeling was this huge weight I was carrying around – something I needed to get off my chest.  I needed to say – out loud – what was weighing me down.  I needed to say out loud what was “pissing me off”.  I figured, “Hey, my team probably needs to get it off their chest too.  They probably has some stuff to get off their chest.”  Honestly I wanted to hear it.  I wanted to know what was eating at them – as much as I wanted to tell them what was eating at me.

The task was simple, “In 500 words, tell me what pisses you off – right now – about fraternity and sorority.”

The responses rolled in almost immediately.  What I read in those responses was truly inspiring.  I found in front of me – a team of people who were fired up about our failures (no pun intended), pissed off about our mistakes, but with a genuine belief that we can and should do much, much better – that it was our responsibility to do better.  That we have to do better for the people before us – and that we most certainly MUST do better for the people that will hopefully come after us.

I’d love to share with you everything that our team wrote. It’s beautiful. There are passages filled with lofty idealism, and there are sections scorched with rage. Truthfully, some of it is colored with such emotional intensity that it is difficult to digest. For the sake of brevity, let me pull out five small excerpts that spoke to me, that inspired me, that moved me, and that made me nod my head ferociously in agreement.  I do this because I am proud of these words that we collectively wrote, and that I want others to catch a glimpse at the level to which our team cares about fraternity and sorority – like you do…

These five excerpts might not make much sense out of context, but I’m guessing they’ll strike you like they’ve stuck me.

“I’m angry that people are dying and the industry is not responding with outrage.”

“Fraternities and sororities are full of sh*t. We are box-checkers. ‘Let’s check off service and philanthropy so we can be self-serving, raging-party monsters.’”

“What would it feel like to be another male student on that campus, looking at those guys, seeing their power and popularity, and wondering if I have to be like them in order to obtain any sort of success in college?”

“We have a duty, a responsibility, to turn our future world leaders into better people – our organizations are better than that.”

“It’s one of the reasons I got into this work in the first place. I genuinely believe that by working with the most privileged students on a campus I might be able to help make the world better.”

In these words are the feelings of frustration, desperation, and near defeat that I’m sure many of you have experienced this year. These excerpts come from pages upon pages of heartfelt, caring, vulnerable words that our staff wrote. Pages that all dripped with pain, but at the edges is a hopefulness and clarity about what we must do next.

I love that our staff is pissed off. I love it because that’s what pushes us into action.

Where’s the revolution?  Why are we watching our life’s work, our passion, our cause swirl the drain – and responding with nothing more than throwing our hands in the air at a loss for words?  Let’s stop making excuses.  Let’s stop trying to justify the bad stuff that’s happened.

We’re failing the legacy of our founders.  But more importantly, we’re failing the members who have yet to come.  College students NEED fraternity and sorority.  They NEED a place to belong.  They NEED a place that allows them to figure out who they really are.  They NEED US!

Let’s stop pointing and deferring the blame – and let’s start collective action.  Let’s stop saying, “That’s not us, that’s them.” and “We’re not like that.” and “It was an isolated incident.”  and start saying “I have a plan to fix this.”  Let’s stop pretending we don’t know what to do – and start making the VERY HARD changes we know we HAVE to make.  We know what we need to do.  We know that what we need to do is VERY hard.  We know that there are a lot of hard choices with significant financial consequences that we have to make to fix fraternity and sorority.  Let’s stop pretending they’re impossible.  Let’s stop asking how – and start asking when.

As we are all gearing up for the AFA Annual Meeting in a little over a week – let’s remember that we are about to gather together the people in the industry who should be outraged.  We are also the people who have the most power to make change.  Let’s not waste it.  Let’s not rehash the year we’ve had.  Let’s not waste any more time sharing war stories and comparing each other’s “bad year”.  Let’s start having authentic, honest, and open conversations about how and when we start making the changes we need.

Agree with the words of our team or not – I’m proud of them.   I’m proud of them for caring so much they are outraged.  I’m inspired by their words – because it means they care.  They care enough about fraternity and sorority to be dissatisfied with where we are.  We know we can do better as Phired Up.  We know we can do better as a profession.  We know we can do better as fraternity and sorority.  We’re committed to be a part of the solution – and solving the problems.  We’re ready to talk about solutions at AFA and hope you are too.