Disillusion in Black Greek Life communities

The Divine Nine Plaza, located next to the John Lewis Student Center, opened last semester. Its use is restricted to NPHC fraternity and sorority members, as it is a vital community space for them. // Photo by Alex Dubé Student Publications

The National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), commonly called the Divine Nine, is a collaborative council connecting the nine historically African American sororities and fraternities across college campuses. 

These organizations allow African American students to join a brotherhood or sisterhood, forming a network of support and developing interpersonal connections with their classmates and Tech alumni.

During Black History Month, the Technique spoke to representatives of some of the sororities and fraternity members of NPHC to better understand the challenges these organizations face as part of campus life at Tech. Representatives of the organizations told a story of a widespread lack of knowledge and understanding of what their organizations do for the community and the ideals they represent.

One concerning topic that every representative agreed upon was the number of people disrespecting the recently completed Divine Nine Plaza by sitting on one of the benches designated for a particular fraternity or sorority. 

While representing the Lambda Delta chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Justin Buckles, fourth-year ME, described an interaction he had with a member of the public who was sitting on one of the benches at the Divine Nine Plaza.

“I saw a student sitting on the [Alpha Kappa Alpha] plot and spoke to him. I explained what the plot was and why we typically don’t want people to be sitting there. [The student] said, ‘Oh, I didn’t, I didn’t know anything about that,’ and he got up to sit in a different place,” Buckles said.

Buckles said this was one of the more innocent interactions, but he had heard of other people doing a similar thing with worse results. Representatives described a Reddit post on r/gatech that questioned the bench seating.

Adaliah Dunya, fourth-year BMED, represented the Xi Alpha chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. Dunya read some of the comments on the Reddit post, which included remarks such as “Blacks only benches. I thought we moved on from Jim Crow laws,” and “some of you need to learn more about history before we have to relive it.”

Buckles explained that the benches are not about a particular race or ethnicity being allowed to gather there. Only members of the designated Greek organization are expected to use the space and benches on their plots regardless of their race or ethnicity.

“To us, it is about respecting the plots placed there for us. To other people, they see it as just another seating place. But to us, this is our fraternity house or sorority house — this is where we can be and should feel safe,” Buckles said.

Alyssa Wright, fourth-year BMED, also represented the Xi Alpha chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She further explained that she views the benches and plaques on the Divine Nine Plaza like a monument.

“I feel like the importance of the plots for me is to honor what my organization’s members have done for this country. It is a monument. When I joined the organization, I felt like it was my turn to continue the work that my founders have done, and I want to showcase this with the plot,” Wright said.

The group said that the benches were not the only area on campus where they felt a lack of respect for spaces meant to help Black students. They cite the cramped Black Student Organization space in the newly renovated John Lewis Student Center and the use of the space by non-Black people as another example of the disrespect of Black spaces on campus.

Chase Pettiford, third-year BIOS, also came to the group discussion on behalf of the Xi Alpha chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She described another example of disrespect towards an organization designed to help Black students at the Office of Minority Educational Development (OMED).

“That space is so special in a way that I can’t even describe. When we are looking for a spot to study on campus, and there isn’t anywhere to go, we know there will be the OMED building. There will be people there who look like us and understand the unique struggle that being a Georgia Tech student is as a Black person,” Pettiford said.

Pettiford continued to describe times when community events at the OMED building have been promoted to a group chat that promotes free food on campus, even though the office designed the event to serve their specific community.

“There’s been times when non-Black people have come into the OMED building and seen free food and texted in the group chat. And then the food is gone. That’s a small thing, but still, things like that are meant for us and are very important and special … because of the problems that Black students face on campus,” she said.

The Divine Nine representatives said they have also seen a lack of understanding outside of the disrespecting of Black spaces.

All NPHC sororities and fraternities have a new member presentation show called a probate. The probate ceremony involves dances, strolls and chants that incorporate the sorority’s or fraternity’s history. At the end of the probate, the organization’s new members are revealed and celebrated.

To perform a probate, the existing sorority or fraternity members must prepare choreography and speaking engagements before the event and rehearse the show so that it runs smoothly on probate day. 

According to the representatives, their organizations must practice for the probate away from their houses to keep the names of the new members secret until revealed at the probate. These requirements mean that sororities and fraternities often hold rehearsals in a reserved or public space; however, representatives told the Technique that their practices and rehearsals for probate have been viewed unfavorably by the public and even reported to the Georgia Tech Police Department (GTPD).

Buckles described an incident before his probate in which a member of the public started recording their rehearsal without permission.

“We had a guy sit in his car, and he was trying to record. It made us uncomfortable because, before the probate, you didn’t want to get out who the new members were, and we didn’t know if it was going to get blasted across social media. We didn’t know how it would be perceived by people who weren’t aware of what we were doing because, from what they can tell, it is a bunch of Black people just standing around, chanting and standing in a line,” Buckles said.

Buckles also described one instance in which a Reddit poster questioned a rehearsal they saw on campus without asking any of the rehearsal members. According to the group, GTPD has also shown up at several probate rehearsals. Dunya shared her view about involving the police department.

“I feel like it’s okay to have questions or be curious and ask what’s going on, but to immediately jump to getting the authorities involved or calling attention to it like that is just so odd. There are a lot of weirder things that happen on this campus,” Dunya said.

Additionally, the group described a general need for clarification about the standards for having GTPD officers at their events. They said that they are required to have GTPD officers at convocations and other events even though they are not required at other similar public events.

“Convocations are a really fun event. It’s very positive, like everything typically is for our council, so we wonder why they feel the need to have the police at all of our events. Especially because nothing ever happens. It’s unclear if those same rules apply to other councils,” Buckles said.

Dunya additionally pointed out the difference between a convocation event, where there are generally few problems that require police involvement and other high-volume Greek Life events on campus.

“It’s crazy that it is written in a clause to have the police at NPHC events. I wonder if for things like Wet Weekend, where the entirety of Greek row is in disarray, there are people all over the place and underage drinking, if there’s that same push to have police in the area. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same sort of security nonsense for them,” Dunya said.

The group disagreed about whether they would feel comfortable calling GTPD if someone were to aggressively intervene at a probate rehearsal. Buckles said he would call GTPD rather than let any fraternity members handle the situation, but Pettiford said that her sorority would probably just leave a situation rather than call GTPD if they felt threatened.

Overall, the group did agree that GTPD has done an inadequate job of ensuring fair outcomes after addressing a situation. 

Marvens Cherelus, PSYC ‘23, represented the Delta Kappa chapter of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. He explained his view on the equality of the outcomes after GTPD intervention.

“Even in a case where we called GTPD,  in the best case scenario, when they handle it, they believe that all parties should remove themselves from the area. I feel like that makes us as organizations feel like we are in the wrong since we were asked to leave, even though we weren’t,” Cherelus said.

The lack of action by Tech administration in responding to people occupying the benches and clarifying GTPD policies to the NPHC fraternities and sororities has created a sense of disillusionment among the group. Many of the representatives said that they do not feel like the campus has normalized the idea of  Black Greek Life, and they view some acts by the Institute as performative rather than making real change.

“I also wanted to add that there is this performative look sometimes. The groundbreaking for the [Divine Nine Plaza] was this big event for Homecoming. It did feel special at the time, but at the moment, I worried that it would be performative in a way where they made this big event out of showcasing that it was done but not necessarily upholding what it means to the actual organizations,” Cherelus said.

Everyone in the group of NPHC representatives described a feeling of having to explain their organization to other people who either did not know or did not understand their organization. 

Pettiford works with incoming and prospective students, and she described situations where people would be surprised that Black Greek Life existed on campus. Dunya also explained that there is a need for understanding from other on-campus organizations to bridge the gap.

“Normalization of Black Greek Life is the first step. Specifically, when it comes to the general fraternities and sororities, they are also not aware of what we do. I feel like that gap needs to be closed at some point. They should know about the NPHC — what we do and some of our traditions. It starts there,” Dunya said.

The impact of this gap in understanding has far-reaching impacts, even off campus, and it affects diversity at the Institute. Wright described a time when she was working with middle schoolers, and she asked one of them what they wanted to be when they grew up.

“He said he wanted to be an engineer, so I asked if he wanted to come here. He said no because his mom thought he should attend a school with more Black students. It makes me sad we won’t be able to have these students come in. It’s like they’re discouraging potential Black students by not encouraging Black spaces,” Wright said.

All the representatives agreed that building up understanding and cooperation of the Black Greek Life is the first step towards better campus spaces where Black students feel safe to exercise their culture and express themselves.

Cherelus explained that members of his fraternity and others would be happy to explain the importance of the Black spaces and events, but he feels some people are not interested in change.

“We have students that choose to be ignorant rather than have their questions answered by a preferred first-party source. Nobody is opposed to explaining their case; it’s just that the repetitiveness of it and it’s bringing about no results shows that one side doesn’t even want to change,” Cherelus said.

The group broadly agreed that the more Black students that do not find Tech an attractive option, the worse the problems will get as Black voices are heard less and less on campus and diversity decreases. The representatives said that the first step to moving forward is to spread the word about Black Greek Life to encourage understanding between different cultures. The only problem is that enough people have to be willing to listen and accept something new.