Earlier this year there was an article regarding “5 Challenges Black Sororities Must Address in 2014”. The author brought up great points for us to consider and ponder. There was much debate and conversation around this piece, some persons even going to the extent of questioning the current relevancy of Black Sororities in our society. The Black Sorority movement that started over 100 years ago was not in vain nor has it reached the end of its life cycle. There are still many reasons why these illustrious organizations are still relevant and still necessary. I will provide you with five that we should keep in mind.
1. The Celebration of the Black Woman
Between calls to include curly haired, non Black women into the natural hair movement and longing for more diverse representations of Black women in media than hypersexualized or hyperviolent depictions on reality shows, there is a desperate need to have spaces to unabashedly, unapologetically, publicly celebrate Black women and Black womanhood exist. Black sororities provide that space. Though their membership may contain woman of various hues and backgrounds, there is an understanding that in these spaces Black women are bright gleams of intelligence, innovation, compassion, wisdom, strength, beauty, and brilliance. They do not have to justify themselves. They do not have to justify the celebration of themselves. Black sororities provide the counterspaces so very necessary in a society that is dense with both explicit and subliminal messages that silence Black women’s voices, trivializes their narratives, and diminishes their presence. Is that to say that every moment in a Black sorority is full of warm fuzzies and “kum by ya” circles? No, Black women are people and people have disagreements and conflicts. But bonds of sisterhood bring us back to a place where even the diversity of Black womanhood and its expressions can be worked through and heralded. Black women may find happiness in the membership of multicultural sororities and that is great for them. But these spaces will not be places where their unique experiences and identity as a Black woman will be central. Black sororities allow Black woman to love themselves wholly, passionately, and free. They provide a place we can call our own when society aims to erase our diverse narratives and images from its consciousness or relegate us to the margins. Black sororities provide a place where the foundation of sisterhood serves as a platform to see the greatness in ourselves reflected in each other.
2. Leadership Development
While the rest of the world is talking about “leaning in” and providing leadership opportunities for young women, Black sororities have been shaping and building Black women leaders for over 100 years. For many years, Black sororities were one of few spaces Black women could have formalized leadership positions. In these organizations we were not relegated to being secretaries or simply a supportive role to the Black man. Rather we were presidents, treasurers, community organizers, advocates, liaisons, and more. Black sororities often boast of their membership the top women leaders on college campuses, regardless of institutional type. This is no coincidence. These organizations do more than just attract academically talented women—they call to leaders. Black sororities push these talented young women to be more than the average. They strengthen talents and skills and they expose areas of needed improvement. They teach time management and work-life balance. They teach being creative with limited resources. They teach how to lead, how to follow, how to plan, and how to delegate and all before you graduate from your undergraduate institution. The uniqueness of the Black sorority is that its lives beyond the undergraduate years. It is due to this unique characteristic that the leadership development of Black women stretches across the vast stages of life for their members. Whether an undergrad planning a campus job fair, a recent college graduate positioning for a career promotion, or a college president running a complex organization with hundreds of employees and multimillion dollar budget there is a strong chance that the very skills used were harvested and honed in the chapters of their respective organizations.
3. The Great Equalizer
There have been arguments that Black sororities are bastions for elitism. And though there may be members who hold elitist attitudes as there are within any organization, I would argue that Black sororities have actually served as the great equalizer for many who join. It is in these organizations that young Black women who may have never crossed paths find themselves deeply interacting and making meaningful connections. A first generation, low income college student may find herself working closely with a fourth generation, upper class soror. A young undergraduate from a rural, predominately White populated area finds a mentor in a chapter advisor who is the first Black woman professor on which she’s ever laid eyes. A devout, church going Christian serves the community alongside her soror who may consider herself spiritual but does not subscribe to a particular dogma. A bright eyed millennial finds herself in conversation with a mature soror who remembers living through segregation. Some may argue that persons can find this diversity in any other space, but there is a difference between sitting in class with people you may never actually speak or interact with and working alongside that person and calling her your sister. Regardless of background, academic pedigree, class status, job title, etc. the core beliefs and principles of these sororities bring women together. When they fall under these auspices, the differences begin to fade to the background and the similarities become more apparent. Women from very different worlds move from being strangers to sisters.
4. Economic & Political Power
The popular narrative constructed around Black sororities focuses on their social aspect, yet these organizations wield some strong economic and political power. Aside from the various elected and appointed government offices many of their members hold, their sheer strength in numbers, ability to mobilize, and interconnectedness has the power to shift policies and shine light on policies and legislation that could prove harmful to these Black women and the communities to which they are connected. All four of the NPHC organizations also have NGO status with the United Nations, allowing them the ability to perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political participation. From student government, to local government, to national and even international affairs, Black sororities have created spaces for Black women to speak our truth to power and to have a seat at the table. Black sororities also have the ability to be a great economic force for Black women and communities. With some organizations having as many as more than 200,000 members, Black sorority leadership can pull its membership together and fund research foundations and initiatives, hospitals, maternity wings in Kenya, give great contributions to organizations such as March of Dimes or St. Jude’s Hospital, and the Alzheimer’s Foundation, and restore over 1,000 playgrounds across the country. Black sororities begin teaching the power of philanthropy and economic power while women are still in college and continue to reinforce the message post graduation and beyond. These organizations give Black women the opportunity to collectively use their money to push, fund, and kickstart initiatives, organizations, and research, scholarships that speak directly to the concerns and issues close to them. It is undeniable, the influence and opportunity for the good of the Black community and for women that the collective financial capability of these organizations hold.
5. Community Impact/Service
No matter what colors you rock or what letters you hold dear to your heart there is one thing that lies at the very core of each of these organizations—service. Now many may say that there are numerous opportunities for Black women to serve so that can’t be a reason why we still need Black sororities. But there is a level of impact, a span of reach that a group of connected, focused, intelligent, well-resourced Black women can have on their communities that is just not the same as individuals. It is not that these women come to these organizations looking for opportunities simply to serve. Most of them, if not all, are already serving in their respective communities when they seek membership in these sisterhoods. The sororities don’t teach them service, they should already have that in their heart upon seeking. What these sisterhoods do teach them though is that they don’t have to be superwoman alone. That there are other women out there that believe what they believe, that have the spirit of service in their DNA, and have the desire to act on that spirit of giving, helping, and uplifting. In connecting with women who not only value service but also share core principles and beliefs connected to that service, Black women in sororities find the ability to further the reach of their good deeds. This can turn an individual volunteer tutor at an elementary school to a formalized relationship between a college and a nearby elementary school. It can turn taking in a woman aiming to escape an abusive relationship into your home for refuge to the establishing of a battered women’s and children’s shelter and counseling center. It can take helping a young college girl purchase books she can’t afford for class into a renewable scholarship to help with tuition. This is not to downplay the importance of individual acts of service and community engagement. But, there is something to be said about the exponential increase of impact and effect a group of service minded individuals, connected by a common bond, can have on their campuses, surrounding community, country, and the world.
Are there challenges that lie at the door steps of Black sororities? Absolutely, but challenges can be met and overcome. Often it is overcoming challenges that develops our character and unearths the best of who we are, producing potential of which we were unaware. Black sororities were birthed out of a desire for sisterhood, a desire for social action, a desire for sincere community engagement, a desire for superior service. They have overcome some of the greatest challenges in Black American life, from suffrage rights to ending segregation. They have been enclaves for Black women to wrestle with competing philosophies surrounding womanhood, leadership, class, lifestyles, and tradition. They have aided in building great women and they have had to nurse wounded women back to wholeness, even if those wounds were from their own hands. Through all those tides of change and challenges, they have stood the test of time. And each year women still seek out their ranks as places to call home. To believe that the motivation is merely vanity and laud is to discredit these organizations. Black sororities are still necessary if for no other reason than they provide the platform and the permission to say to each other and to the world, Black women are lovely, to be loved, and to love. Every time a young woman dons her letters for the first time, or a sister at the peak of her career mentors a sister just starting out in the field, or a seasoned soror retells of her legacy passing through this earth, sisterhood is fostered and a sanctuary we can call home is fortified. Black sororities not only give those seeking their embrace a home, but they challenge them to go out and be the light and the love that makes every community feel the same way for those therein. And in a world full of growing darkness, we can always use a little more light.
About the Author
Felecia Commodore is a fourth year PhD student in Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She has a background working as an admissions counselor and academic advisor at Trinity University, Washington, D.C. and University of Maryland, College Park respectively. Felecia obtained an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and a B.S. in Marketing with a minor in Sociology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. Felecia was recently a 2013 intern for the Southern Education Foundation. Felecia’s research focus area is HBCU leadership, governance, and administrative practices.