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Want to Build a Better World? Go Greek

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In a few short weeks, tens of thousands of college students will undertake the ritual of fraternity and sorority recruitment at America's colleges and universities. This will provoke hand-wringing and eye-rolling among many jaded faculty, cynical social activists and concerned parents.

Yet how we see fraternities and sororities may say more about us than about the actual Greek system. In truth, the college Greek system may be one of the healthiest forms of community in our nation, and any student who refuses to consider entering the community may be doing himself or herself a disservice.

"For all the negative press about fraternities and sororities, no one else does as much as they do to raise awareness about issues that matter," says T.J. Sullivan, a nationally prominent campus speaker. "No other community on a campus comes close in learning about issues."

As a developer of innovative educational programs for college audiences, Sullivan has studied college life up close for the past two decades. A number of his observations are quite instructive. For instance, Sullivan noticed years ago that if a college women's center organizes a progressive program addressing sexual health, they may draw 20 people and the sounds of chirping crickets on a typical evening; yet that same college's fraternity and sorority system can gather 2,000 actively engaged attendees if the program is well-designed.

A college programming board can draw such a crowd only if it drops $40,000 on a national celebrity promoting a new book. But Greeks "know how to get butts in the seats," Sullivan says. Indeed, this is the case on a weekly basis, as fraternity brothers and sorority sisters are brought regularly into compelling discussions about community service, women's safety, career planning and the whole host of college concerns.

Sullivan is passionate about the ability of college Greeks to build better college communities and a better society. As the co-founder and CEO of CAMPUSPEAK, he oversees a stable of some 50 speakers and a small army of interactive workshop leaders. The college Greek system provides the most enthusiastic demand for the educational programming, and results have been profound.

Stacy Nadeau, one of Sullivan's colleagues, is a former star of Dove's "real women with real curves" advertising campaigns, who has opened up discussions at sororities around America regarding body image and "embracing real beauty." Nadeau helped Delta Delta Delta, a large national sorority, develop a "Fat-Talk"-Free Week, for which she has served as a national spokesperson.

While skeptics see the college Greek system as a few magnitudes short of enlightenment, Sullivan has seen far more positive trends. After entering Indiana University at the age of 16 and becoming active in the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, he graduated and moved on to work with the Bacchus Network, focusing on alcohol awareness and responsible decision-making.

In the early 1990s, Sullivan teamed with a friend, Joel Goldman, to develop an educational program titled "Friendship in the Age of AIDS." Goldman discussed his experiences with HIV, while Sullivan discussed oral sex and orgasms.

The program became a national sensation, and Sullivan attributes the success to the Greek system. "Who'd have thought that fraternity students would embrace it the way we did? We ended up speaking to a million students nationally, because fraternities took the lead."

More recently, Shane Windmeyer, the founder of Campus Pride and a member of Phi Delta Theta Fraternity, has been a champion of LGBT issues within the college Greek system, developing programs such as "Out and Greek" to transform the tone of Greek community.

Yet what about that common complaint about the American fraternity and sorority system -- that it is troublingly segregated, and mostly rich and white?

Here we need some context: All close communities, from every era and every nation, have tended to self-segregate. As Bill Bishop observed in his landmark book, "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart," the modern Christian church growth movement took off when missionaries realized that humans have a deep proclivity for homogeneous community.

In that light, the college Greeks have actually been heroic in their attempts to move beyond conformity in order to achieve diversity. Brian Johnson, an African-American professor at Bloomsburg University and Director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for Academic Excellence, is a sought-after speaker and consultant on multicultural issues among Greeks and other college audiences.

Johnson views diversity not as a bitter medicine to be forced upon others but as an opportunity to be harnessed. And he exposes the untruths about racial stereotypes as readily as he exposes untruths about college Greek stereotypes.

"As I travel the country speaking to student leaders about stereotypes," he says, "I find a great number of students who, with their national organizations, are pressing for a return to the true mission of fraternal organizations -- those being service and philanthropy, academic excellence and being good stewards to the campus community."

Like it or not, the college Greek system is not going away. But there is far more there to like than some may want to admit. A student affairs administrator told me recently that for all the growing pains that he associated with Greek life, members tend to have higher grade point averages, higher graduation rates, higher starting salaries than their less-connected counterparts, more enduring college friendships and a higher rate of giving to their alma maters.

And it goes even beyond that. When not discussing body image, Delta Delta Delta was busy raising $3.4 million dollars in the past year alone for a children's hospital in Memphis. I recently met a recent USC graduate, a Delta Gamma member, who stood every Greek stereotype on its ear, as a magna cum laude student who served blind children in her free time and who now works at the brainy Googleplex in Silicon Valley.

The stereotypes about Greeks are wrongheaded in spirit and wrong in fact, says Johnson. "They have cleaned up highways, cooked meals for the homeless, raised countless charitable dollars, and so much more." An ordained minister, he adds proudly, "Now that is what true brotherhood and sisterhood looks like!"

The genuine challenges that fraternities and sororities face are hardly unique to their communities. What may be unique is their collective commitment to addressing their challenges head on.

Can you build a better world by going Greek? There's no reason to think otherwise.

(Disclosure: I was at one time affiliated with the CAMPUSPEAK organization.)

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