Before LSA senior Ashley Soto entered the University of Michigan, she knew she wanted to join a culturally-based sorority on campus. Soto, who is now president of the University’s Alpha chapter of Delta Tau Lambda Sorority, Inc., had an opportunity to visit the University through the sorority’s high school outreach program. After her first year, she decided to join the sorority.
“I didn’t want to join a Panhel (Panhellenic) organization, just because I didn’t feel comfortable as a Black Latina doing that,” Soto said. “That's kind of the reality of things for some students of color. But, once I found out that there was a way of joining multicultural Greek life, I knew that I had seen a lot of people in my community be a part of it, and I wanted to be a part of that community.”
Engineering senior Spencer Chen had a similar experience to Soto, saying though he did not intend to join Greek life before coming to the University, he was able to find a community in the Iota chapter of Asian-American interest fraternity Pi Alpha Phi, which helped him open up to his identity.
“I originally joined because I first met a few of the brothers, and they were very warm and welcoming,” Chen said. “And before I came to college … I wasn’t very accepting of my culture. They helped guide me to not only accept myself, but embrace it.”
The National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Council oversee culturally based fraternal organizations (CBFOs). NPHC, also known as the “Divine Nine,” is made up of historically African-American sororities and fraternities founded during the early 1900s, when Black students were not permitted to join historically white fraternal organizations. MGC was founded in 2002 with the mission of embracing multiculturalism and providing a space for communities of color in Greek life.
“We were founded based on the idea of inclusivity,” Chen said. “Our founding fathers, they were the first group of men to found an Asian-American fraternity because they wanted to join a traditional IFC fraternity but they weren’t allowed. This was back in 1929.”
Like the Interfraternity Council and the National Panhellenic Conference, NPHC and MGC are supported primarily by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. In addition to helping organizations with operations and events, FSL has been trying to help raise awareness about CBFOs on campus and within the Greek life community.
“FSL staff works with the councils and chapters to affirm the cultural significance and unique histories of their fraternities and sororities, and support their inter/national and campus initiatives,” FSL wrote in a statement to The Daily. “The staff also helps to provide context and education about CBFOs to other campus partners who may interact with NPHC and MGC chapters during any of their various campus events and projects. Additionally, FSL consults with national speakers and experts to work with NPHC and MGC on topics through the specific lens of culturally-based fraternal organizations including recruiting and community-building strategies at predominantly white institutions, and risk management education.”
LSA senior Chyanne Laldee, who is president of NPHC and a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority Inc.’s Iota Psi chapter said the council is grateful for the support they have received from FSL.
“They have been a constant support system to help voice concerns of our communities and provide the efficient amount of support to help our community as well,” Laldee wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “They have been a constant advocate for the NPHC and we wouldn’t have gained a lot of the things we have without them advocating for us in different ways.”
LSA senior Silan Fadlallah agreed, saying FSL offered a welcoming and encouraging support system during the founding of the Zeta chapter of sorority Epsilon Alpha Sigma, the first and only Arab sorority in the country, which started its chapter at the University in 2018.
“MGC does a great job of supporting us, and especially our advisor, Courtney, and the larger MGC community,” Fadlallah said. “I could not have asked for more, especially from the organizations themselves.”
According to some CBFO representatives, while support from FSL and fellow council members has been excellent and open-minded, support from the University’s administration has been lacking in areas like recognition. Additionally, CBFO representatives said they don’t have as much money as other Greek organizations.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald clarified that no fraternal organizations receive funding from the University.
“No fraternities or sororities in any of the councils receive any U-M funding,’ Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily. ‘The four councils all receive comprehensive advising and support from the U-M Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life.”
LSA junior Dipita Das, a member of the Beta chapter of Sigma Lambda Gamma, said that because MGC and NPHC organizations were founded more recently, they lack the donors and funds many IFC and Panhel organizations have. Often, she said, MGC organizations will run small fundraisers or apply for grants to put on cultural events. She said financial restrictions and the limitations on grant applications make it even more difficult to put on these events.
“The University claims, ‘Oh we’re so diverse,’” Das said. “Well, if you’re so diverse, why aren’t you allowing us to hold different events to express our cultures and identities? Why are there all these guidelines on how to be cultured?”
One key issue CBFO representatives brought up was the publicity of their organizations. According to Soto, some students might not join CBFOs simply because they do not know of the organizations or that they are present at the University.
“I would really love to see multicultural Greek life and the Divine Nine promoted more on campus. … A lot of people don’t know we exist,” Soto said. “So, they end up either pushing off Greek life and not thinking about it, or joining Panhel and maybe realizing later that there are multicultural orgs and wishing they had known sooner. I think promotion is a big thing, because we do a lot of great things for the community, but with the smaller councils, not everyone gets to know about what we do.”
Engineering senior Cryserica Jeter said the Nu chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, Inc., of which she is a member, also receives less recognition for their community work from the University administration than IFC and Panhel organizations do.
“If you asked the president if he knew about MGC and NPHC organizations, he probably doesn'’,” Jeter said. “But he probably knows a good amount of IFC and Panhel organizations, just because it takes an extra effort to get to know minority groups on campus and to actually figure out what they stand for. … I don’t feel like other people that don’t identify as minorities are actually trying to do that, or trying to fight for us to get space on campus, or even remember us as leaders.”
Within Greek life, collaboration between the four councils has not always been the norm, not only because of their differing sizes but also because NPHC and MGC serve different purposes as CBFOs. But with a larger push for diversity, equity and inclusion within Greek life, some MGC and NPHC leaders have been noticing improved efforts for collaboration and understanding between the four councils. In addition to all prospective Greek life members having to complete a training module about each council’s history, Jeter said IFC and Panhel organizations are often open to hearing NPHC’s own concerns.
“We have a lot of meetings as leaders with Panhel and IFC,” Jeter said. “So throughout those meetings we’re able to express our concerns, and they're open to things that they probably didn't even know about because they’re not a part of our communities. And within that we can collaborate more and invite them to more of our events so they can get to know more about what we're struggling with, to help us in any way possible, and vice versa.”
Soto, however, said it was sometimes difficult to bring up these concerns because of the difference in membership size in CBFO councils versus IFC and Panhel.
“I know that our needs and our wants are very different from IFC and Panhel, and being much smaller — both of us are — it can be difficult to voice our concerns whenever we’re in spaces with all four councils, just because of the number of them when it comes to IFC and Panhel,” Soto said. “I know that we do things among the councils that are equal, but I don’t think they’re always equitable, because our needs are very different.”
Das said similarly NPHC and MGC mainly collaborate with each other because of their shared experiences and their emphasis on multiculturalism. The organizations invite each other to their events and often share similar goals and values.
“Just being people of color in both organizations, we have that bond, like, ‘Oh, I understand where you’re coming from, here is some support,’” Das said. “We hold a lot of cultural events together and meet each other in different ways.”
J said though she has noticed continuous improvement in DEI efforts from FSL and the Greek life community, organizations like her sorority continue to fight for more visibility on campus and more recognition from administration as leaders in the community.
“I feel like people just don't know about us and don't know we exist,” Jeter said. “They think whatever they think about Black or minority groups on campus without realizing that our organizations are actually centered and focused on community development involvement, education and community service.”