Band of Brothers: Bridging the gap between WU and St. Louis’ NPHC fraternities

and | Staff Reporters

Band of Brothers is an investigative series that examines the experiences of black men in Washington University’s historically white fraternities. In Part One, we examined the role of personal connections in influencing pledging, the impact of the decision to rush a white fraternity and how race did—or did not—impact the brothers’ current experiences. Part Two explored the factors preventing brothers from engaging with black Greek organizations and the cultural differences between black and white fraternities in St. Louis. In our third and final installment, we will discuss the relationship between Washington University and St. Louis’ National Pan-Hellenic Council organizations, as well as ways to bridge the gap between black students and black fraternities.

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Reuben Hogan is unique. The 2018 Washington University graduate was not only a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. as an undergraduate, but he also went through the rush process for Beta Theta Pi. When he arrived at Washington University, he and a fellow black male student had an idea of the type of Greek life experience they were looking for.

“Originally, when we first came, we’re like…‘We’re definitely looking for black Greek life,’” Hogan said.

While Hogan was interested in black fraternities, he was used to a mostly white educational environment. Hogan was nervous about how he well he would fit in a predominately black space.

For Hogan, it was simple; in joining an on-campus fraternity, he wanted to make friends and have a good time. He struggled with reconciling his racial identity with his engagement in a white fraternity.

“I would have denied that it was ever about race, because I was specifically trying to make it not about race,” Hogan said.

Hogan found himself in the final part of the rush process for Beta Theta Pi when he began to further contemplate his involvement in a white fraternity as a result of race relations in St. Louis at the time of his arrival at the University. The shooting of Michael Brown just a semester before, on Aug. 9, 2014, forced Hogan to reexamine his own racial identity and how he operated within the Greek community at the University.

“I was really kind of on the fringes of the black community, but all these things happened and it sort of had two effects. I think the first was that it really forced me to start asking a lot of question about this. And I think the second part was that it forced a lot of other people to start asking these questions,” Hogan said.

While he still views the members of Beta Theta Pi positively, the conversations he had with some of the brothers about Michael Brown’s death and the subsequent outrage in Ferguson that sparked national attention did not sit well with him. Hogan felt that the events in Ferguson impacted him differently than his peers.

“There were a couple of guys I would have conversations with, even guys in my pledge class that were essentially like, ‘I don’t understand why this is exactly an issue. He had robbed the store right beforehand; so, I don’t understand why this needs to be talked about right now?’” Hogan said. “It was in moments like those where I would hear someone within Beta say that [and] it really made me go, ‘Wait a minute, that could’ve been me. That could have been any other black student on campus.’”

Hogan wanted social justice work and service to be central parts of his Greek experience. He found that some brothers within his chapter were less enthusiastic about his passions and joined an on-campus fraternity for the social scene.

“‘Our job is not to do anything in the service realm; our job is not to ask all these questions about social justice. We’re just here to have fun.’ It was this sentiment that was expressed by one perfect person singly, but was echoed by several people within the fraternity,” Hogan said, about attempting to bring the ideals he wanted to the organization.

What helped him make the decision to leave the rush process and begin his path to becoming a member of a historically black fraternity was the encouragement of black upperclassmen who let him know that he had other options for engaging in Greek life.

“Black women usually run Wash. U.’s black community and they were the first ones to reach out to me when I was starting the process with Beta to let me know I could do something else,” Hogan said.

Realizing that Beta Theta Pi was not the right fit for his interests, Hogan shared these sentiments with some of the men in his pledge class. They were understanding and encouraged him to pursue other options, since he would “probably be dissatisfied joining this group.”

“One of them put it perfectly…‘If you want to do that, I’m not going to take that away from you. It sounds like you really are driven by that, but I don’t want to do that. That’s not why I joined this organization,’” Hogan quoted the pledge as saying.

With the support of those both within and outside of the University Greek community, Hogan decided to decommit from the pledge process. In the fall of his junior year, Hogan crossed into the Alpha Eta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

In retrospect, Hogan says the culture of black Greek organizations was also a pull factor in his decision to leave Beta Theta Pi during the pledge process.

“Black Greek life is a forever-type commitment. Traditional Greek life [is] a four-year-type commitment,” Hogan said.

The lifelong commitment to joining a National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) organization was a source of pride for Hogan. As a current Alpha, he and his brothers take the importance of continuous engagement very seriously.

“We actually have a protocol for when brothers die, how we’re supposed to handle it. Unfortunately, one of the guys in our chapter passed away; and we had to use that, that sort of ritual that we did,” Hogan said. “It’s that serious. It can be that far-reaching of an opportunity.”

In addition to growing as a man, a student, and community member, Hogan has also experienced the professional benefits that come with engaging in a NPHC organization. The personal connections extend beyond the bounds of the Alpha Eta chapter.

“It’s still nice to see somebody else because you know, your organizations have similar values, you know, probably that you share a lot in common because you saw value in the same sort of lifestyle. So, it’s likely to then produce friends in the future.”

“When an organization extends past four years when you’re in graduate school and you happen to meet another black Greek, that’s a networking opportunity—and there are so few black individuals in upper academia that…[it doesn’t] even matter what organization you joined,” Hogan said. “Black Greek recognizes black Greek.”

While his engagement in both white and black Greek communities is unique, his ability to navigate Washington University and St. Louis is not. Hogan’s story represents just one of many Washington University students who overcame the barriers introduced in Part Two: logistics and lack of awareness.

Hogan was a student who was heavily involved both on and off-campus; he served as the president of the Association of Black Students, a Resident Advisor, and the vice president of the Alpha Eta chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Hogan was also the student speaker at the College of Arts & Sciences graduation ceremony this spring and is currently interviewing for medical school. His successes at and beyond Washington University indicate that there is a well-worn path for black men who wish to engage in NPHC chapters in St. Louis.

However, Hogan was also exposed to Greek life prior to his arrival at Washington University. Various family members, including his older sister—who is in Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. —are members of NPHC organizations, and he was in step team in high school. Hogan’s experiences, along with those of junior Malik Stewart, who is the president of the Omicron Sigma chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., lead us to consider how individuals without prior exposure to NPHC organizations can engage in the St. Louis Greek community.

Bridging the connection

Nearly every brother we interviewed expressed strong interest in joining a black fraternity, and would have strongly considered doing so, if not for barriers-to-entry such as the logistics of a city-wide chapter and the lack of knowledge about the membership selection process for black fraternities. Prior family connections to black fraternities were sometimes determining factors in whether a brother will continue to pursue a black Greek in spite of these aforementioned barriers. As Mike Jones, an Omega and Saint Louis University alumnus, stated in Part Two, “The city-wide thing is a foreign concept.”

Hana Johnson, program coordinator for fraternity and sorority life, advises students in NPHC chapters. She supports individual chapters and works with the NPHC council’s executive board which plans initiatives and programs for the university community. Johnson also sits on the St. Louis Coalition, a group of university professionals who advise NPHC chapters at St. Louis-area academic institutions.

Awareness is one of the most significant barriers to engaging in the St. Louis Greek community. According to Johnson, this barrier is centered on how both students and the administration talk about Greek life.

“Another barrier regarding interactions is the dominant narrative or assumption on our campus that, when the words ‘fraternities’ and ‘sororities’ are spoken, the first thing people think of is [Interfraternity Council] and [Women’s Panhellenic Association] organizations,” Johnson said.

Jones acknowledges that the different membership intake process for Divine Nines may serve as a barrier to those who are unfamiliar with how to approach black fraternities.

“When you talk about the intake process in terms of how fraternities as a whole sell their fraternity, it’s more of you come and seek me,” Jones said. “And that can be a barrier within itself, especially being on a PWI [campus] where we all need each other.”

Johnson recognizes the importance of each chapter’s membership intake process, and believes a solution must preserve the culture of NPHC organizations.

“I believe it is important to preserve the integrity and individuality of each NPHC organization’s membership intake processes, but widening the scope and platform these organizations have created a better opportunity for learning and growth, both in terms of membership size and awareness about NPHC,” Johnson said in a statement to Student Life.

Recruitment for city-wide chapters can be more difficult for an on-campus chapter, because brothers must visit multiple campuses in order to reach students, according to Jones. Washington University lacks the history of consistent involvement in NPHC fraternities, which may impact how much time NPHC fraternities spend on campus, according to Jones.

“What oftentimes happens is you go to the places where you’re going to get the most return. Oftentimes, Wash. U. is not that place,” Jones said.

Jones believes that it’s necessary for NPHC chapters in St. Louis to reconsider how they approach Washington University students.

“You’re going to have to have different approaches even to how black Greeks sell themselves to potential members,” Jones said.

Both Jones and Johnson have considered potential solutions that may help increase Washington University students’ awareness of city-wide NPHC chapters.

“We can be more intentional to use chapter- and council-specific language and engage in more conversations around ensuring the stories and experiences of all fraternities and sororities are told,” Johnson said.

Jones proposed utilizing the existing network of Washington University students who are current members of NPHC organizations to bring in more students who have an interest in joining. Existing spaces such as the Hamsini Living Learning Community, also known as the Black House, may help facilitate connections between black Greek and interested students, according to Jones.

Johnson sits on the STL Coalition, a group of professionals who advice NPHC chapters at various institutions in St. Louis. The coalition works to ensure that each campus is as consistent as possible when it comes to advisement, support, accountability and development for these chapters, according to Johnson.

Because student involvement is inconsistent, the presence of support staff, like Johnson, is key in ensuring that students are aware of all options available to them in the Greek communities on and off campus.

“From my perspective, we must work to place a strong emphasis on the importance of providing NPHC chapters, as well as other culturally-based fraternities and sororities, a wide and visible platform to make their organizations, missions and values known on our campus,” Johnson said.

“I think in this environment, in a city-wide environment where presence is always going to be up and down. So, you may have some years of consistency but it’s not always like that. I think you have to have consistent presence in terms of faculty and staff,” Jones said.

Johnson noted that the Division of Student Affairs Strategic Plan, commissioned by Dr. Lori White, emphasizes continued support for NPHC and other culturally-based fraternities and sororities.

One strategy outlined to enhancing support for “targeted groups” on campus is to “benchmark best practices in student activities with a particular focus on fraternity and sorority life.” One specific outcome of the 2017 Fraternity and Sorority Life Task Force was to “identify ways to ensure the fraternity/sorority community is accessible and open to all students in the Washington University community,” according to Johnson.

None of the brothers we spoke to in Part One regret their experience in joining a white fraternity. All expressed pride in their relationships with brothers, and in their personal growth that stemmed from their involvement in their respective fraternities. However, the interest expressed indicates that there is potential for growth of engagement with NPHC chapters in St. Louis. With the support of campus partners, such as Campus Life, and more outreach from black Greeks in St. Louis, experiencing a stronger presence of black fraternities on campus is within the realm of possibility.

Ultimately, finding community, wherever it may be, is an important aspect of the college experience. Whether in an NPHC organization or an IFC organization, finding a sense of brotherhood and belonging is a sentiment expressed by brothers in both types of Greek organizations. Having support is important, especially for black men at the University.

“I think that people should ultimately go wherever they find a community that makes them happy because being black at Wash. U., man, it’s hard,” Hogan said.