The furor caused by a CNN iReport social media post assuming that the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Capt. Ron Johnson, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, is a gang member is beyond understandable. At the same time, it shows that we Black Greeks must never assume that our story is understood. I am not saying that we have to walk around with signs declaring that we come in peace or that we are infallible, but we are responsible for our own public relations.
Let’s face it. A big part of the problem is that racism is real and it will not go away anytime soon. We can argue that black people, of many shades and nationalities, are the most susceptible group to racism in many nations, particularly in America. That is why the very existence of Black Greek-Letter Organizations (BGLOs) is important. More importantly, those of us in these proud fraternities and sororities, particularly the “Divine Nine”, have to remain wise to the ways of PR.
Allow me, a former PR director, to help by suggesting five important points:
1. The Influence on Leadership Diversity in America
Every major step toward increasing diversity in American leadership has seen significant involvement from members of BGLOs. From Carter G. Woodson’s (Omega Psi Phi) creating “Negro History Week” to Martin Luther King, Jr. (Alpha Phi Alpha) and Ralph Abernathy’s (Kappa Alpha Psi) forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference the very same year that Dorothy Height (Delta Sigma Theta) became president of the National Council of Negro Women to Louis Sullivan (Alpha), Hazel O’Leary (Alpha Kappa Alpha), Alexis Herman (Delta), and Rod Paige’s (Phi Beta Sigma) becoming the first African Americans to serve at their respective U.S. Cabinet posts, Black Greeks have helped smooth the path to leadership for other people of color.
2. BGLOs Are a Source of Social Capital
Historically, African Americans and people from modest socioeconomic backgrounds have not felt entitled to a piece of the American dream even if they work hard. Everybody say it with me, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” Ninety-nine percent of the time this is true and most of the time it starts in college.
That said, Black Greeks have the ability to make seamless social transitions from hip hop barber shops to exclusive country clubs. Black Greek life is not the only way for people of color and those of modest means to get plugged into great social networks but it is definitely one of the best ways.
3. BGLOs Inspire Diversity
I graduated from a small, predominantly white Catholic liberal arts university; and I knew we created great PR when men of other cultures fearlessly approached my chapter about membership. Why? Repeatedly, they told us that they wanted to belong to an organization to which service and social awareness were important. Although BGLOs primarily exist to uplift Black America, students of diverse cultures respond to three themes that run throughout Divine Nine organizations’ aims and ideals—scholarship, service, and fellowship with mankind.
4. Black Greeks Are International
Oh, so people think BGLO chapters are limited to the United States? That’s funny. Let’s start with one of the most recent BGLO chapters to be chartered abroad—Zeta Phi Beta’s chapter in the United Arab Emirates. So, it should make sense that Divine Nine organizations have chapters in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
5. Research Proves BGLOs Enhance Leadership Skills
Ground-breaking research about BGLOs accelerated nearly 20 years ago. Drs. Walter Kimbrough and Philo Hutcheson wrote in a 1998 study that “Black Greeks showed significantly more involvement in campus life than did the non-Greeks, and appeared to benefit from their involvement in terms of leadership skill development. Thus, membership in a Black Greek-letter organization is at least one factor in increased student involvement and leadership skill development.”
In my Black Greek Success Survey, 59 percent of the respondents strongly agree that leadership positions in their organizations helped them prepare for their careers and 61 percent strongly agree that chapter meetings helped prepare them to deal with diverse personalities in the workplace.
When co-workers of other cultures notice a group of us gathering and showing our gang…uh…fraternity and sorority signs, it is not a weird coincidence that we all wound up in that place. We are there because our organizations, PR machines for black achievement, helped us develop the skills and intellect to get there.