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Continuing the conversation: compassionate leadership and paths to change in Greek life

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Like so many of us, I was absolutely heartbroken reading Lizzie’s account of her time in her sorority. The comments and treatment she endured and her recounting of the hurt that the experience left her with made me feel a range of emotions — but unfortunately, shock was not one of them. 

To explain, we must acknowledge what makes Greek life so conducive to the experiences that Lizzie has outlined. Her article strikes a chord with so many of us because it’s true. The Greek system is antiquated, built on problematic foundations and discriminative principles that still linger today. These organizations were mostly established in the late 19th century and featured policies of racial segregation and socioeconomic elitism; these were white, privileged women’s organizations. Sororities nominally ‘desegregated’ as schools desegregated (although multicultural organizations continue to serve as spaces of solidarity for women of different cultural backgrounds) but were still bound to the same racist undercurrents, financial systems and social elitism. In practice, not much has really changed; these problematic concepts are still at the heart of the Greek experience.

Today you’ll find a continuation of these “traditions”: our organizations continue to be mostly white and privileged; sororities and fraternities mix at fraternity houses and many sororities are banned from hosting parties and serving alcohol. Not to mention, these mixers completely neglect LGBTQ+ women in that they rarely, if ever, include inter-sorority parties and often reinforce toxic, heteronormative approaches to sex. Dues cause distress and occasionally act as barriers to entry for women looking for community, disproportionately affecting FLI women of color. And what’s more, there’s a social component that turbo-charges these simmering tensions. A fictional social “hierarchy” based on chapter affiliation, pressures of party culture and the perceived relevance of “image” and “reputation” push out so many women who want to benefit from these communities. These largely remain because of their origins. In Greek life, “tradition” is essential, and our centuries-old, out-of-touch histories remain central to the activities of our chapters that initiate us and supposedly bring us together for life. Here at Stanford, we often take pride in declaring that our Greek life is ‘different’ because of its less central role on campus, but we must acknowledge that these issues are still very present and very harmful.

I want to be clear in commending Lizzie; her efforts took place in the context of an incredible uphill battle. Year after year, we find at Stanford that these issues go unspoken of and worse still, so do any efforts to address these issues. I often asked myself over the past three years what chapter leadership was doing when a number of appalling events occurred and they remained completely silent — these issues always seem to explode into campus conversations and then, discouragingly, fade away with little to no acknowledgement or change. In light of all of this, it not only makes sense but is completely understandable that Lizzie chose to leave the system. The behavior she endured is appalling and not reflective of the values that I, and many others in Greek life, stand for. It deserves our support and commendation that amidst all this, she made the best choice for herself in stepping down. 

I had a similar experience to Lizzie’s in that I, too, entered this system and wanted to make change in diversity programming. While I was the Vice President of my own chapter, I researched and ran diversity programming, led discussions during our chapter meetings and incorporated diversity training into our recruitment preparation. In the spring, when we welcomed our new class, I facilitated scholarship applications for women to receive assistance for paying dues. But unfortunately, my program ended with my time in the executive role. I felt I had gotten nothing meaningful done. With relative indifference to the program expressed by national advisors, who did not want to make the role a permanent part of our executive board, I was dejected and, frankly, disappointed. I entertained leaving my sorority very seriously for months; most of my friends knew I was on the way out. It was devastating. 

This effect was heightened because I actually joined an organization of relative diversity compared to others on campus; ours was more representative and seemed genuinely open to inclusive, compassionate leadership. I was furthermore inspired by so many amazing women in my chapter whom I look up to greatly for their efforts raising money for philanthropic causes, rallying behind other women and speaking up on issues like mental health, relationship violence and a range of personal journeys and struggles. 

But my problem wasn’t with my friends: largely, I was frustrated because there seemed to be such a deep disconnect between our chapter’s values and the values of our national organization. I spent my planning meetings with my national advisor largely hearing her disappointment at not being in a house (we’re an unhoused chapter) or disagreeing with her over options for financial accessibility because, as she put it, these efforts would lower the value of being in the chapter. She said, to my shock, that if you couldn’t afford to pay, you didn’t deserve the benefits of membership. I was appalled, and within my organization, I felt helpless. As I reviewed my options and considered deactivating for almost two quarters, I revisited one memory in particular.

It was our “Philan” night at recruitment where chapters traditionally share a video from their national organization’s philanthropy partner. I had just led diversity training before recruitment and was up to that point so proud of some of the honest discussions I was hearing during our parties. But I was immediately unsettled as our chapter, in the same breath, played our philanthropy video: It was 15 white, blonde women dancing, laughing and releasing balloons on a hillside. That image stuck with me, and it put my hesitance to leave into context: I realized that if I don’t do something, nothing would change. For me, letting the system continue this way without a fight was unacceptable. I want and personally need to see women like me — dark-skinned, culturally foreign and extremely proud of their identity — getting a platform to speak. But my next move could not be within my organization; I had to look to higher places to really pursue change and disrupt the system from the inside.

As the Inter-Sorority Council President, I now oversee all seven of our Panhellenic sororities on campus. It was a gamble taking on this role, as I had until then not seen anything particularly promising within the system besides my and my friends’ passion for changing it. But the gift of the inter-sorority community is that it has tapped me into a new group of women from different chapters with whom I have had incredible conversations, shared outrage and worked tirelessly to come up with real, tangible ways to make change. I am invigorated by this group of women, especially our forward-thinking executive board, with whom I am working right now to redesign the recruitment process with compassion and a high value on inclusivity. My philosophy is simple: I don’t delude myself with visions of immediate, transformative change. Instead I believe that, like many women I look up to, I can put out a message of diversity and inclusion as the norm, not a tokenized tool, and put a brown face on a traditionally white, privileged system. I know that this is not a panacea for racism, nor is it to any of the deep fundamental issues in Greek life, but I know that if I can make the process of recruitment or the positive work of even one woman easier, then I will have moved the needle in the right direction. 

To this community’s credit, I have many reasons to believe that we can move this needle: our leadership is not afraid to see this system for what it is, and most importantly, we work to do something about it. We have the resources and the conviction to provide paths to power and for once, recognize the efforts of women like Lizzie and others who work on these issues. There is a wave of solidarity and positivity that makes these communities so special to the women in them and now a voice and a commitment to action that we hope will, with time, reshape the way this system operates. Change doesn’t happen in a year, but we need to take the first steps; we hope to begin and continue a tradition of committed, caring leaders and ample resources for women across our organizations.

Should Greek life exist? That’s a question we’ve been debating for years at this school. Articles on blogs, in The Daily and just about everywhere abound with the proposition; we even eliminated it at Stanford at one point, only for it to crop back later. Through years of scandals, life-threatening incidents, and incredible callousness in responding (or not responding) to these issues, we find to our frustration that these cries fall on deaf ears. Calling for its end, while coming from the right place, is not going to change the fact that there are many who find invaluable communities from this system and many still who are looking for opportunities to use the immense resource capacity of this system for the right reasons. 

Calling for its end will not stop the hurt, either. We must acknowledge that this is not a new discussion; regardless of efforts to end Greek life, barriers of money and institutional power make its immediate abolition hard to predict or control. The reality is that Greek life at Stanford still remains and people are negatively affected by its ills at this moment. I choose to act because I know that incremental change is felt regardless of the magnitude. To me, every moment of bettering this organization — every chance to empower and every prevented feeling of hurt — is doing more in real time for women in this system than would leaving it. Because at the end of the day, the people are the purpose. They are the reason I, and so many others, joined this system; they make up the communities and lasting friendships that keep us in these organizations. They are the reason that, all things considered, I am so glad I joined a sorority on campus.
For all these reasons, the question is not whether Greek life will remain on this campus. Instead, to the hundreds of women who draw their communities from Greek life, the question is whether we will remain and continue to push for change.

— Adithi Iyer ’20

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