There are no simple answers for complex issues and social justice is complex. To see a good portrayal of social justice’s complexities, I recommend the HBO movie “All the Way”. Although the film focuses on Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office as president of the United States, the movie brilliantly lays out the socio-political acrobatics that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders performed to push the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through. One scene puts King, Ralph Abernathy, Jr., Roy Wilkinson, Bob Moses, and Stokely Carmichael in the same room as a social justice brain trust.
Turning social justice movements into public policy is a long, arduous process. They require strategic use of emotional, intellectual, relational, political, and material resources. History teaches us that we have to find ways to follow the anger in our voices with the serenity of our thoughts to gain power and influence. Moreover, every participant has to have respect for the roles that others play. That is why it is counterproductive for protesters throw shade at those who don’t join them in the streets and for strategists to belittle the important role that protesters play.
For more than a century Black Greeks’ roles in social justice movements have spanned from standing on the front lines of protests to experiencing the invisible torture of treacherous public policy negotiations. Divine Nine organizations were founded in the spirit of movement so our collective obligation is reflected in how we have served Black America as individuals, chapters, and organizations. Black Greeks are positioned, through our diverse education and social capital, to engage in discourse across color lines. Here are three areas where we can build on our contribution to social justice.
Education is where it all begins and has always been a cornerstone of our contribution to Black America. As I pointed out in one Black History Month Greek life blog entry, at least 50 percent of all of the Divine Nine founders were educators. Many of us can look back to Black Greek teachers, administrators, coaches and mentors who opened our minds to endless life possibilities. An even bigger stage where Black Greeks have worked for social justice reform is education policy.
Dr. Rod Paige is a great example. A few years back, I had the pleasure of interviewing the former U.S. Secretary of Education and member of Phi Beta Sigma on a radio show. Dr. Paige spoke about recognizing education as “one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.” In the book The Black-White Achievement Gap—co-authored by Dr. Elaine Witty, dean emerita of Norfolk State’s School of Education—the scholars wrote:
The African American journey to racial equality and social justice is jeopardized by a different kind of barrier…Today’s barrier appears much more innocuous and much more subtle…Today’s primary barrier is the black-white achievement gap.
The book goes on to suggest resources and organizations where we can all investigate how the education achievement gap looks and how each one of us can play a part in closing it. More than an “X’s and O’s” approach to achieving justice in education, Black Greeks should continue to use our spirit of dignity to help students understand their value as learners, achievers, and the world’s future knowledge creators.
Major news organizations need more thoughtful coverage of Black America. That is why it is imperative that we have our own voices in the media. Black Greeks play a role as curators of history and social observation inspired by how we are socialized to communicate the narratives of our organizations.
Probably the most noted social justice voice is that of Roland Martin’s (Alpha Phi Alpha) who uses TV One (founded by Alpha Kappa Alpha member Cathy Hughes) as a platform to present a more robust picture of Black America to the public. Also in the thick of today’s social justice debates are Marc Lamont Hill (Kappa Alpha Psi) and Melissa Harris-Perry (Delta Sigma Theta) who provide scholarly perspectives on major news networks. There are also Black Greeks who are active members of the National Association of Black Journalists and other professional media organizations working to ensure that black journalists are heard in news rooms across the country.
Not to be ignored are the online voices. A significant part of Black America’s story is HBCU media. HBCU Lifestyle co-founder Richard Gibson is a member of Phi Beta Sigma while HBCU Digest’s Jarrett Carter (Alpha), HBCUStory’s Crystal deGregory’s (Delta), and HBCU Buzz editor-in-chief Tommy Meade, Jr. (Iota Phi Theta) also serve as critical voices. Finally, two visible social justice contributors are Black Greeks Speak and D9 for Real Change.
When one of the country’s most well-known Omega Psi Phi members, Michael Jordan, announced he would distribute $7 million among the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Institute for Community-Police Relations, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, many questioned why he chose to donate to those institutions. We should pay more attention to what his intentions seem to be. Based on these organizations’ purposes, Jordan intends to help strengthen resources to provide legal counsel for victims of social injustice, to help tighten the relationship between law enforcement their communities, and to contribute the cultural preservation of Black America on the country’s biggest stage.
Philanthropy can be a serious game-changer. Halima Leak Francis, a charitable giving professional and member of Zeta Phi Beta, tells an interesting story about a philanthropist who gives to a university where people of his culture were once not allowed. During a speech, the philanthropist said that his family started giving to the institution to open doors for others. Beyond opening doors, however, the family’s philanthropy also gave them a seat at the table as major institutional decisions have been made over the years. In a Black Enterprise piece, Halima wrote, “How do we best leverage our collective wealth and philanthropic resources to address the systemic issues that support the cycle of damaging conditions that lead to such tragic outcomes?” In other words, how can we use giving to help advance social justice movements?
There are obviously many more areas where Black Greeks are of use to Black America such as the justice system, financial education, business, politics, housing, and environmental justice. Consider this a call to action. Let every single one of us who proudly wears his or her letters figure out how we can use what our organizations taught us to be social justice servants.
Halima Leak Francis, who contributed to this blog, is a charitable giving professional and sociology instructor. She graduated from Hampton University where she was initiated into Zeta Phi Beta and earned her master’s in Educational Sociology from New York University. Halima is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the NYU Steinhardt School of Education where her research focuses on organizational capacity building and fundraising.