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Vying for visibilty and unity

Correction appended




These are the calls of the black sororities on campus. And they are calling for GW to take notice.

The three black sororities at GW are known for being discreet. They do not hold formal recruitment like traditional sororities. They do not have townhouses on 23rd Street. They do not seek out members; interested women actively find them, members said.

But that’s all starting to change.

Once an alternative for black women at GW who felt excluded by traditional sororities in the 1960s, chapters are now trying to blend more with traditional Greek-letter organizations.

There is a movement toward increasing their visibility on campus, said Tura Woods, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. membership chair and president of the Multicultural Greek Council.

“We want to let people know that, yes, MGC is here. Yes, AKAs are here. Yes, Deltas are here. And this is what we’re doing,” said Woods, a junior.

On Saturday, Woods screamed with her “sorors” in University Yard during Multicultural Greek Week’s final event, a step show. Throughout the week, events like the step show, a political discussion and Multicultural Greek Jeopardy night exemplified that desire to be more involved in the larger GW community. This was the second time MGC has held the program since the organization was started in 2002.

In 1968, a group of black students was deliberately misinformed about the spring recruitment schedule. That segregation led to the founding of the GW chapters of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in 1975, Alpha Kappa Alpha in 1978 and Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. in 2006.

“The issues in the past needed time to heal,” said Kelley Stokes, Delta Sigma Theta historian. “It’s stupid to have these differences and keep ourselves separated, because what good does that do?”

But being visible on campus is a two-way street, the junior said.

“People say, ‘I never see black sororities on campus,'” Stokes said. “Well, are you looking for us? Are you listening to us? There’s only so much we can do on our side.”

Although last week’s events were open to everyone and advertised throughout campus, the majority of attendees were multicultural students. Vanessa White, president of Zeta Phi Beta said this was because “a lot of people at GW have never met black people like this before. It can be intimidating, but we’re working towards breaking that.”

“We always think, ‘Oh, this is a black Greek-life thing and nobody wants to come out.’ It’s intimidating for us too,” said White, a senior. “There’s a switch we got to flip to get people to feel comfortable around us and we’re doing that on a personal, face-to-face basis.”

The Inter-Greek Council, which includes MGC, Panhellenic Association and the Interfraternity Council, the Greek umbrella organizations, started last spring to increase communication and equality between all three councils, said Claire Low, Panhellenic Association president.

“At GW there is a push for everyone to be included,” Low said. “When we say Greek, we mean all Greek.”

MGC plans to participate in traditional Greek Week later this year, but besides this event, each individual group is responsible for the blending process, Teiko Akufo of Delta Sigma Theta said. To do this, her sorority and Pi Kappa Alpha, a traditional social fraternity, plan to have a joint team for the D.C. Aids Walk in October, she said.

Although black sorority members want to be more visible, their core values and purpose won’t change, members said.

“I have friends who are white, Arab, Jewish, everything under the sun, but you can’t explain to someone how to be black,” said Stokes, who has a long line of Deltas in her family.

The GW black community, which makes up about six percent of students on campus, is very close-knit, Stokes said.

“It’s not so much trying to keep it secret. It’s just that we really value personal connection,” she said. “I don’t really want an automated process to decide who are my sisters.”

The sororities are less than a tenth of the size of traditional sororities, which make up about 18 percent of GW’s population, according to the College Board. Alpha Kappa Alpha has 11 members, Delta Sigma Theta has 10 and Zeta Phi Beta has four. At nearby Howard, black fraternities and sororities have a much larger presence.

“Here it’s difficult being the minority within a minority,” said White, whose sorority has struggled to survive at GW because of school restrictions.

It used to be that a recognized student group must have at least five members. Under those rules a small sorority like Zeta could not exist. Last year the rules changed to a minimum of two. Black Greek groups also established a better relationship with the Greek Life Office and received special advisers, White said.

“We have to work a little harder here to get noticed,” she said. “We don’t hold power here. We’re not the focus. At Howard there’ll be lines of 100. Here we get a line of 10 and we’re like, ‘Wow!'”

Instead of pledge classes, black Greeks have lines, members who “crossed over” into the sorority at the same time.

Each focuses on sisterhood for life, scholarship and service. Zeta has a fourth focus on finer womanhood. Stepping, which is a combination of signing, dancing and rhythm, is often associated with the black Greeks, but sorority members said this is just one small part of what it means to be in a black sorority. It would be “shameful” and “disrespectful” to the founders to be known just for stepping and strolling, White said.

Although there is more of an effort to blend with traditional Greeks, there will always be a need for black Greek life on campus, members said. The original need has changed, but a need still exists.

“You’re always going to mix with people that don’t look like you, don’t eat like you,” White said. “But having us here and MGC week, we can say, ‘Here’s a common ground. Here we can learn to live together.'”

This article has been changed to reflect the following correction: (September 16, 2008)

The Multicultural Greek Council started in 2002, not “last year.”

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