'Telling My Story': Greek Edition

by Victoria Nelsen | 11/13/14 7:26pm

One Psi U. Two Sigma Delts. Two Phi Taus. Two unaffiliated women, one who had de-pledged. One KD. Two Tri-Kaps. And one women’s and gender studies professor. The theme? The Greek system — or rather, breaking down the invisible walls that surround it.

The discussions (and arguments) surrounding the Greek system are widespread on campus, but the conversations that I have had through Pati Hernandez’s “Telling My Story” program over the past term have distinguished themselves among the bunch.

I entered the program only two hours before I went to pref night, unsure of where my own affiliation would lie and even more unsure of whether or not I wanted to be a part of the Greek system at all. As the group sat on the steps of Dartmouth Hall, sharing words, both positive and negative, that they associated with the Greek system, I was more excited about Hernandez’s program than I was about my future sorority.

I first heard about Hernandez last spring, when I was surrounded by people whose lives she had changed through her class, “Telling Stories for Social Change.” A service learning class, “Telling Stories” connects students to inmates at a correctional facility in Windsor, Vermont. From my conversations about Hernandez, I found that she has this strange effect on her students and the way that they think and see the world.

Telling My Story’s foundation is based on another of Hernandez’s past programs, “Adult Literacy and Theater,” which worked with Latin American women in New York City who were learning to read and write in Spanish. When Hernandez moved to Vermont in 1999, she founded “Telling My Story,” though the program originally only worked with inmates. It became a nonprofit organization in 2008 to allow for more funding.

Each program culminates with a show, and when women’s and gender studies professor Ivy Schweitzer saw a final performance of one program, she convinced Hernandez that students needed to be exposed to her work. The program debuted at Dartmouth in 2005.

Initially, Hernandez facilitated the program as an extracurricular activity run through the Tucker Foundation, but in 2007, when involved students complained that it was too much of a time commitment, it became a class co-taught by Hernandez and Schweitzer.

One of the class’s main goals, according to Hernandez, is to demonstrate how theory and practice benefit in the presence of the other. Hernandez said she hopes to put people on equal platforms, whether they are teaching the class, taking the class or experiencing the class as an inmate.

“In working with a population in crisis, you bring together the privileged and the underprivileged,” Hernandez said. “We try to neutralize the platform.”

Hernandez began another sect of “Telling My Story” in spring 2013, when she brought the program to campus to target Dartmouth-specific issues. The current Greek-themed program is her fourth on-campus version. Hernandez said she has wanted to incorporate the Greek system into “Telling My Story” since the Dimensions protest. She believes that while the Greek system has a lot of power, individuals within it do not have much of a voice — she wanted to provide affiliated students with a platform to share their experiences.

Other programs have included class division on campus and the separation between Dartmouth staff and students.

We started the program with conversations. Typically, Hernandez tries to limit these because she said she strongly believes in doing — our conversations, however, lasted weeks. This was okay with Hernandez because she saw them as necessary to build trust with one another.

The conversations often centered around a “bombardment.” In this, the entire group would be given a prompt and some time to reflect on it. We would then take turns sharing our responses. The prompts asked for responses that ranged from one word — “what is positive/negative about the Greek system?” — to sentences to paragraphs — “describe your ideal future for the system.”

After weeks of discussing, we moved on to creating. We used key themes that we had discussed for the first few weeks to create skits, which will be performed at a final show on Nov. 18. The show will also include testimonials and poems.

People said they chose to get involved with the program because they wanted to join campus conversations surrounding the Greek system. Hannah Collman ’15 said she wanted to increase her knowledge on Dartmouth and the rest of the system, as she is a part of a coed fraternity.

Dan Calano ’15 said he realized that he had not really engaged in conversations about the Greek system last year and thought this would be a good starting point.

“I wanted to surround myself with opinions that were different from my own and would challenge me,” he said. “Everyone experiences this school differently and life differently. I don’t think enough listening happens when we have these conversations.”

My own experience in the Greek system has fluctuated during my four terms on Dartmouth’s campus. My opinion last year quickly transformed from accepting to curious to critical. I went from believing that it was wrong to make generalizations on the system as a whole to having no qualms in doing so. I never saw myself as being a part of this system.

Yet now I am a part of it, still feeling slightly hypocritical and still unsure of where I stand on both my own involvement and on the system as a whole. Hernandez’s program did not do much in answering these questions or clarifying my feelings, but she never promised to do so. In fact, she told us the opposite.

As we sat on the steps of Dartmouth Hall during our first meeting, with the dusk light casting shadows over the group, Hernandez told us that the program would not give us any answers. Instead, it would only inspire more questions about my decision to join the Greek system and my role in it.

Shannon Cleary ’16 said that hearing a diverse array of perspectives in the program allowed her to better understand Dartmouth’s campus. She said that she only recently started thinking about Greek issues and her role in them, and the program inspired her to engage her sorority sisters in this dialogue.

Collman said that the program helped her to see new perspectives as well, and she believes that she and the other coed fraternity member were able to diversify the group through their affiliation. She said that she saw “Telling My Story” as a combination of theater and the circus — modern theater provides critiques and the circus proves that anyone can achieve the impossible, which she said helps inspire people.

Through the program, Calano said he realized how much he respects and values his fraternity. He also said it reminded him of the importance of individuals in the system.

“I think the individual is really overlooked in the conversation,” Calano said. “I just want this entire community to move forward.”

But it has given me something too. I have heard firsthand from people to whom I would likely never have spoken candidly about a topic as polarizing as the Greek system. I have begun to understand more sides of the system, and the array of perspectives in the group has allowed me to hear from a deep pool of experiences.

Ironically enough, I have had more open and honest conversations in this group than I feel comfortable having in my new sorority. The program has its flaws. It drew from a highly self-selecting group of people — no one in the group is apathetic or unaware of what is going on. People in the group are often silenced — there are few experiences that everyone can speak to, as insight varies based on gender and type of affiliation. Conversations are often circular, and we tend to dwell on negative aspects of the system, as they are easier to discuss and dissect than anything positive.

But Hernandez has reminded me to see the individuals, not just the system. Though there is definitely a systemic mentality behind Greek life, affiliated people deserve to have voices and deserve understanding. When we seek to listen and to understand, perhaps we will finally tear down invisible walls and walk without the fear of breaking eggshells beneath our feet.