Black Greek-letter organizations struggle to gain membership

Last week GW welcomed its fourth traditionally black Greek-letter organization to campus. Zeta Phi Beta became an officially recognized chapter in GW’s black Greek-letter community after having members on campus since 1997.

While GW’s Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council are the governing bodies for the more than 1,400 GW students who comprise the school’s most populous fraternities and sororities, the National Pan-Hellenic Council exists to oversee the 23 undergraduate students in GW’s four traditionally black fraternities and sororities.

Zeta Phi Beta members at the local and national level were happy to become officially recognized by GW Jan. 28.

“The alumni that came before us started a journey, and we are happy to be able to continue that journey,” said senior Loryn Wilson, president of GW’s Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., Xi Sigma chapter.

Each of the four traditionally black Greek-letter organizations has an alumni chapter organization that oversees nearby undergraduate chapters. Cheri Griffen, a GW alumna, is the president of Zeta Phi Beta’s parent group, the Omicron Phi Zeta chapter, and helped Zeta Phi Beta become recognized by the University.

For a group to be recognized by its national organization, it must have five members. When the national organization recognizes the colony as a chapter, GW also officially recognizes the chapter.

“Sometimes people look at an organization’s small numbers and think that the organization has no impact, but this is not the case with Zeta’s hard-working, commendable members,” Griffen said.

The greatest challenge black Greek-letter organizations face when forming a chapter is the number of minority students on campus.

“There is such a small black minority population at GW, that it’s a different ballgame,” Griffen said. Griffen added that “even if every black woman on campus was involved in a historically black Greek organization, we would still be smaller than traditional sorority organizations.”

As of fall 2005, there were 625 black undergraduate students enrolled on GW’s campus – 415 women and 210 men – said Michael Tapscott, director of the Multicultural Student Services Center.

The number constitutes about 6 percent of GW’s 2005 undergraduate population and reflects the difficult task of forming and maintaining a historically black Greek-letter organization.

“Diversity at GW is quite good; however, policy is not always mindful of students of color,” Tapscott said. “Historically black Greek organizations give students a place to work together if they feel their cultural needs are not being met.”

Groups that make up the NPHC are also known as the “Divine Nine,” said junior Whitney West, co-president of GW’s NPHC chapter. Six of the nine have had members on campus at some point.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.; Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.; Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. are the four NPHC organizations currently active on GW’s campus.

“Our hope is that one day we will have all ‘Divine Nine’ organizations active on GW’s campus,” West said.

This is the first year NPHC has been on campus because of the increased participation of black sororities and fraternities. Before, black Greek-letter organizations have been under the governance of the Multicultural Greek Council, which still acts as an umbrella for the seven historically Asian and Latino Greek-letter organizations.

NPHC has its own rules and traditions, unique from the groups in the Panhellenic Association and the IFC. NPHC fraternities and sororities do not hold annual or biannual recruitment, West said. Instead, NPHC organizations will periodically hold information sessions or invite interested students to attend service projects.

Another difference is that NPHC organizations have alumni as well as undergraduate chapters, since “joining an NPHC fraternity or sorority is considered a lifetime commitment,” West said.

It’s also a tradition of the NPHC organizations to include the word “incorporated” in their names.

West said NPHC organizations are committed to community service and fulfilling their civic duty, citing the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s donation of $3,500 to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund.

Perhaps the biggest of the events held by the NPHC groups is the annual Alpha Phi Alpha “Step Your Game Up” step show. The event, which took place Friday night in Lisner Auditorium, welcomed 800 guests from across the East Coast.

Stepping is an art form traditional to black culture in which hands and feet are used to make rhythms that coincide with African dances and beats, said sophomore Eric Woodard, president of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. received the competition’s grand prize, while Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. won the best sorority and fraternity categories. Five teams competed, and all proceeds from the event will go to the Black Genius Scholarship Fund and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Fund.

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