Marsicano: A Call to Inaction

Activists should abstain from Greek leadership.

by Kalie Marsicano | 9/27/16 12:15am

I’m writing this to the activists who are considering joining a Greek house or holding Greek leadership positions to promote “change from within” the system. My advice to you: don’t.

I’m a member of the Class of 2017, a former sorority member and the former president of the Panhellenic Council. After serving as president during sophomore summer and junior spring, I resigned from the council and de-pledged from my sorority. This is why I walked away and why I think you should abandon efforts to make change from within.

By creating and carrying out solutions to fill in the gaps in our education, students send the message to the College that the institution is not responsible for mandating sexual respect, diversity and violence training for all students, faculty and staff. It is not our job as students to donate our labor toward creating policies and trainings that counteract hazing, sexual violence, racism, classism, access to resources and other issues of justice. When we act as if it is our job, we make it our job. Efforts like a four-year sexual respect curriculum and the intent to “explore the development of an undergraduate requirement on human difference” are now underway and represent a positive shift in the student-administration relationship. Still, these actions are only the first steps of a long process. We need to keep the College accountable to these initiatives — not pick up its slack.

Second, even if students were obligated to leave Dartmouth better than we found it, the Greek system still would not be the most effective medium. A 30- or 90-minute session will not put an end to rape culture; it will not empower survivors to report assaults; it will not address the victim-blaming and trauma that survivors will experience during and after the fact. Nor will a brief pre-rush hazing information session challenge the social structures and norms that breed and reinforce regular binge drinking, hazing rituals and groupthink. These sessions are not harmful, but they’re certainly not sufficient.

What is harmful is that existence of these sessions enables us to check off our “good citizenship education” boxes without ever questioning power and violence or challenging the broader systems that permit and perpetuate oppression in the first place. Not to mention that these Greek-based education programs are clearly limited in scope, as they exclude students who are not affiliated or planning to join.

You might be wondering, what if we drop the quick fixes and turn to radical institutional overhaul? It’s the right idea, but as a house executive or council leader, you are tasked to serve all constituents. Some will get behind the notion of structural change, but most who do won’t have the time to develop and implement the idea on top of their daily leadership commitments. Besides which, most of your constituents will be indifferent, if not outright resistant, to such transformation, and to even begin considering serious change, you will need active lobbying from everyone.

Even if you did get all students on board with a structural revolution, you’d then have to confront bigger interests: national Greek associations, wealthy and loyal alumni, trustees, administrators. I can’t say it’s impossible, but I found that the harder we looked to attack the fundamental roots of the Greek structure, the more logistical hurdles and ideological resistance we encountered.

When the same happens to you, you’ll inevitably return to the idea of the instantly actionable projects that I discussed earlier. These “changes from within,” though, will ultimately counter your long-term progress. Think of it like this: we know the system exacerbates dangerous power dynamics and perpetuates violent norms, yet we use the same system to counteract issues it produces. The system dispenses “solutions” to combat inequality and violence and thereby gains real and imagined legitimacy. This positive reputation sustains the system and helps it to maintain its size, influence and ability to produce harms.

We typically criticize these programs as surface-level fixes that don’t go far enough, but they’re much more insidious than that — they’re taking us backwards.

Besides, what exactly is the ultimate goal here? Are we trying to make it so that every single Dartmouth student is affiliated or is invited to join a house? To get all houses to go local? To get all locals to disassociate from Greek labels and become undergraduate societies? To get all societies to become gender-inclusive?

We have taken the system as a given. We’re working within the framework of its existence and prominence instead of investing that same energy in an alternate social sphere in which it doesn’t exist, or in which it is one of a number of equally viable options.

If you’re on the verge of rush and you’re doing it to be an agent of change, just don’t. Throw yourself into something better. Not only will it be more intrinsically rewarding, but the long-term ramifications of your work will actually align with your objectives and values. By producing quick fixes for instant gratification and settling on marginal change, we save the system from itself. It cannot receive scorn and pressure until we stop using this oppressive power structure to promote equality. Without adequate scorn — collective action from students and staff, scathing media critiques, a measurable impact on admissions yield — the institution will not react or commit to the overhaul we need.

Not joining a Greek house does not mean denying yourself the power to make change; it means denying the Greek system its power to inhibit revolution. When we resist giving it our membership, our voices and our activism, we chip away at its strength, legitimacy and presumed dominance.

We set out with four years as students and can only dedicate some of that to student life, and even less to leadership. We are limited; we are powerful. Let’s turn our attention to the groups and structures that are ingrained with flexibility and radicalism. They’re not perfect, but they’re self-reflective, critical and action-oriented. If they don’t exist, let’s make them. Let’s make more. Let’s not donate our time and labor to improving a system built to exclude, oppress and divide. Let’s imagine something better, and act on that instead.