At least 17 women have said they will or might disaffiliate from the Phi Sigma Sigma sorority after the organization’s former president posted a racist Snapchat post over the summer.
Former Phi Sigma Sigma President Alison Janega posted an image featuring the front of a plantation gift shop with the caption ‘“I wonder if they sell slaves’” to her Snapchat story over the summer, but the post was not brought to officials’ attention until Sept. 4. The image set off several student organizations, Phi Sigma Sigma alumnae and chapter members alike, and Janega resigned from her post one day later.
Five women – who spoke anonymously because they are not allowed to speak on behalf of the sorority – said they will disaffiliate or are considering leaving the sorority because their advisers and Phi Sigma Sigma’s national headquarters took too long to address the incident. But some members said they cannot disaffiliate because they already signed housing agreements to live in the sorority’s on-campus townhouse for at least this semester.
One current member said Phi Sigma Sigma Executive Director Michelle Arden told members during a meeting Sunday that they will have the next 48 hours to decide whether they want to stay in the sorority, disaffiliate or be put on suspension. Arden told members that they will vote on an interim president and vice president until the permanent positions are filled during general elections in November, the member said.
If a sister suspends her membership, the member will not be considered “active” while at GW but will receive alumnae status after graduating and can still benefit from networking or work for the sorority in the future. Arden told members they will receive all the dues they have paid for the year back if they decide to disaffiliate or suspend their membership, the member said.
“I think the way nationals has come to us with this solution is very beneficial,” she said. “They did a good job in presenting us with the option for suspension.”
The member, who lives in the sorority’s townhouse, said Arden told the women at the meeting that nationals is working with GW Housing to see whether any women who want to suspend their memberships can find alternative housing. She said she is unsure what she will do about her status in the sorority.
“My ideal situation is that I would go on suspension and still live in the house if housing will let us do that,” she said. “So if they come back tomorrow and say, ‘You can suspend and we’ll just let you keep your housing for the year or whatever,’ that would be ideal for me,” she said.
Arden, the executive director, was not immediately available for comment.
One member, who has submitted her intention to disaffiliate, said she will still leave the sorority despite the national organization announcing options to stay. She said she found out about the post a few days before school started, but the whole chapter received no official information about how Phi Sigma Sigma leadership was handling the situation until Wednesday evening, when the post reached University President Thomas LeBlanc.
She said when the sorority’s advisers learned that The Hatchet planned to publish an article about the Snapchat, the advisers reached out to the chapter members for the first time about the incident.
The member said the chapter’s advisers sent a “kind of half-assed” email Thursday morning explaining why the chapter was not notified before Wednesday. But she said the advisers seemed like they were trying to “cover their tracks” with the email after the campus community learned about the post, and her chapter had no time to process the incident before it was made public.
“I can’t morally continue to be associated with a chapter whose advisers and headquarters are trying to protect the feelings of a 20-year-old, college-educated white girl from the Midwest who made a really fucked up comment on a public forum,” the former member said.
Janega – who appears to have deactivated her social media handles since the post turned up – did not return multiple requests for comment. Six chapter leaders did not return multiple requests for comment.
Officials declined to comment further on with whom they have spoken about the post and what their conversations with the parties involved have entailed. The University also declined to say how the sorority chapter will handle the incident with officials.
Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Cissy Petty emailed the Panhellenic Association and chapter presidents Saturday to notify them that sororities are prohibited from participating in social events or informally recruiting during the fall semester amid the incident.
Two women said they will stay in the sorority, and two women declined to comment on whether they will remain in the chapter. Sixty-four women did not return requests to comment on their status in the sorority.
Another former member said she disaffiliated because many of her friends have left the sorority since the post emerged, and she does not want to remain in the chapter with people who don’t share her values. She said the chapter’s advisers and the sorority’s headquarters handled the post “poorly.”
She said if officials had handled the situation quickly and if Janega had apologized for the Snapchat soon after it was posted, she believes not as many women would want to leave the chapter.
“It’s four weeks later and most of this has been done in an effort, or so it seems, to save face, and protect one sister,” she said. “Everyone’s pretty disappointed about it.”
The member did not return a request to comment on if she would change her disaffiliation status based off of the new options that Phi Sigma Sigma nationals proposed.
The instance is not the first time sorority life has come under fire for racist remarks. A Snapchat post featuring two women in Alpha Phi with a racist caption came under scrutiny in February 2018, prompting student groups to call for the sorority’s removal from campus and officials to implement several diversity initiatives that went into effect during the last academic year.
Another current member said she wants to disaffiliate from the chapter because of the “sheer lack of transparency” by the sorority leadership to both the chapter and officials, but she cannot leave the sorority because she lives in the sorority’s townhouse. She said she has contacted housing about finding another place to live.
Since the chapter was presented with the new options, the member said she is still waiting to hear back from housing, but she will likely suspend her membership if the University can guarantee her housing.
“It was just a completely messed up situation where everything was completely covered up,” she said. “I just don’t think I can be part of an organization that covers up such a sheer act of racism that should be condemned.”
Katie Vlietstra Wonnenberg, the grand archon of Phi Sigma Sigma International Inc., declined to say how many members have left the chapter as a result of the incident.
Vlietstra Wonnenberg declined to say what steps the chapter and the national headquarters are taking to address the incident and prevent a similar event from occurring again. She also declined to say what the chapter must do to elect a new president and when the election will take place.
More than 100 GW Phi Sigma Sigma alumnae signed a letter Friday calling on the sorority’s headquarters to “publicly address and atone for its poor handling of the incident.”
The letter outlines steps the alumnae believe the Phi Sigma Sigma headquarters should take, like making a public announcement condemning Janega’s actions, requiring the former president to “conduct a diversity and cultural competency project” and mandate Janega to apologize to the chapter and the GW community.
“We are sure you agree that the Ms. Janega’s Snapchat was inappropriate, offensive and undercuts Phi Sigma Sigma’s commitment to inclusivity and equality,” the letter states. “Her intentions are irrelevant; whether this was meant as a joke does not discount or absolve the Snapchat of its racism.”
Jared Gans, Shannon Mallard and Sarah Roach contributed reporting.