The racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s killing in May 2020 was the tipping point for dozens of Emory Panhellenic Council (EPC) members to drop. Citing discrimination against minority communities, economic barriers and internal resistance to change, former sorority members told the Wheel that last summer’s revelations follow years of “cognitive dissonance” about being part of Emory’s Greek Life.
“I just felt pretty isolated in the sorority because nobody really knew how I was feeling and nobody seemed to really care,” said Krista Delany (23C), a former Black member of Alpha Delta Pi (ADPi) who dropped earlier this month. “ADPi would pride itself a lot on being the most diverse sorority on campus but then you’d look around, and there were multiple times where I couldn’t find a brown face in the room.”
On Jan. 9, EPC began its first round of 2021 recruitment and experienced a 23% drop in participants: compared to 2020’s 357 potential new members (PNMs), only 274 individuals rushed in 2021. Associate Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Laura Diamond noted that this drop could have occurred for a number of reasons, including “concerns related to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).”
As of 2019, 24% of Emory students participated in Greek Life organizations.
Discussions about Emory’s Greek Life’s issues spiked after Instagram accounts @blackatemory, @greeklifeatemory and @abolishemorygreeklife featured anonymous accounts criticizing predominantly white fraternities and sororities. The stories involved a myriad of incidents ranging from discriminatory clothing requirements to tokenizing Black members.
This rise in students’ disaffiliation from Emory Greek Life organizations wasn’t an anomaly. Multiple prestigious institutions across the country such as Northwestern University (Ill.) and Duke University (N.C.) experienced similar movements as members reconciled with the racist and sexist origins of the groups with which they were affiliated.
At Vanderbilt University (Tenn.), where the most prominent anti-Greek Life movement took place, over 400 students dropped and called to abolish the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Greek life on campus.
As Emory sororities grappled with structural inequalities, Diamond said the Office for Sorority and Fraternity Life (OSFL) implemented initiatives aimed at improving DEI like distributing a climate survey to “assess students’ experiences” and requiring inclusivity training for chapter recruitment chairs and membership coordinators ahead of recruitment.
Despite OSFL’s efforts, former members believe attempts to remedy a system built on racism and sexism are futile, saying instead that Emory Greek Life should be abolished.
“There are really valuable parts of sororities, but I do believe the whole system — if you have to pay for it, if certain people are excluded — I think that automatically, it’s something that shouldn’t belong on campus ‘cause you’re going to see inequalities,” said Hannah Risman (20Ox, 22C), a former Pi Beta Phi (Pi Phi) member who disaffiliated over the summer.
As current Greek Life members continue to question their affiliations, the belief among students that Emory Greek Life is less pervasive or harmful than other schools no longer holds true in the Emory community.
“I got wrapped up in this idea of like, ‘Emory is not like a state school,’” said Gabriella Lewis (23C), a former Pi Phi member. “Every single person during the rush process said, ‘If I went to [University of Georgia] or any big state school, I would never be rushing.’ And in my opinion, that’s bulls—.”
Pi Beta Phi
Though nearly every Panhellenic sorority faced criticism on social media, no sorority came under more scrutiny than Pi Phi, who faced backlash after allegations of racism and sexual assault cover-ups against former Chapter President Jessie Michael (20C) surfaced.
Following heavy criticism, the sorority took down their Instagram account for part of the summer as members dropped.
Former Pi Phi member Tania Trejo-Mendez (20C) said the sorority’s alumnae network, the executive board and her sisters discriminated against her, causing her to eventually drop.
“For recruitment events, I was just really held up [as] someone to show off and someone to talk about how good of an experience I had being a minority woman coming from ‘X’ background or whatever,” Trejo-Mendez said. “Then behind the scenes, … I got really hurtful commentary from alumni, and it was really confusing.”
Shortly after joining in the fall of her sophomore year, an older sorority member reported one of Trejo-Mendez’s Instagram posts to Pi Phi’s conduct committee for being too revealing, despite her saying that white sisters posted similar photos. In a subsequent meeting with an alumna member, Trejo-Mendez said the member “formally harassed” her.
“I left the meeting crying,” Trejo-Mendez said. “She interrogated me about my values. She said that alumni of years past were ashamed of me for that photo; they were ashamed to be associated with that particular chapter because of that photo. That whole meeting made me feel really awful.”
Trejo-Mendez’s story was one of many detailed in a 37-page document obtained by the Wheel that listed grievances and demands for change and received 100 signatures from current and former Pi Phi members. The authors alleged that Pi Phi covered up cases of sexual assault, allowed homophobic comments to go unpunished and called for the revocation of Michael’s alumna status for her “foul actions and words.”
Michael did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Current Pi Phi president Emily Kerness (21C) wrote in a statement to the Wheel that the sorority prioritizes “ensuring a more diverse, equitable and inclusive membership and member experience.”
“While our chapter over the last year has engaged in difficult conversations and even seen members resign, I am confident the members and leaders of the chapter today are positioned to strengthen our organization,” Kerness wrote.
Risman, a signatory of the document, described her experience in Pi Phi as “materialistic,” recalling that members of the sorority prioritized the cosmetics of their social media feed over posting an apology for past racism in a timely manner.
“That was the last straw for me because I was so upset,” Risman said. “I was like, ‘You care more about your aesthetics and matching the colors to the filter of the feed than you care about the women of color.’”
The recruitment process
Coming to Emory, Iris Chen (23C) did not see herself joining Greek Life. However, since many of her friends were, Chen decided to rush out of fear of losing her social life — a decision she said caused her mental health to “crumble” in subsequent months. After multiple sororities dropped her, Chen ultimately quit the recruitment process.
“It was just a very clear, public rebuke on someone, and I think that was definitely hard for a lot of people,” Chen said. “I think a lot about what other people think about me, and sorority recruitment was the most insane like, ‘Wow, you do not belong here.’”
The rush process consists of several days during which PNMs visit the lodge and have short conversations with members from each organization. As the days progress, each sorority determines which members to keep or drop.
Alice Goddard (22C) left ADPi after helping recruit during the 2021 cycle. She said she felt “really awful” judging PNMs off of brief conversations and physical appearances.
“I really thought I was going to hell for it,” Goddard said. “There’s something really twisted about spending all this time trying to make girls want to be in your house for the sake of saying no. … Sororities were supposed to be about supporting women, and it just was the opposite.”
Risman called the secretive practices of sororities during recruitment “culty,” saying, “You really just set up a system where you can do anything and not get in trouble for it.”
One former Gamma Phi Beta (Gamma Phi) member noted she felt pressured to pursue a certain sorority because it was high-ranking, stating, “I was sad, but thinking back now, I didn’t have a good conversation with anyone in there. It was just my favorite because it was the ‘right one.’”
Multiple former members said a sorority’s desirability amid fraternities contributed to the EPC hierarchy, criticizing that some sororities often mixed with fraternities known for treating women of color poorly.
Many also reported that wealth played a role in participating in sororities, considering the cost of items such as purchasing clothes, attending parties and paying dues. While Avilés noted that sororities offer scholarships to help offset the costs of participating, current and former members say eliminating economic barriers altogether is not feasible, given that national organizations mandate dues.
“It just has to cost money,” a current member of Delta Delta Delta said. “That’s the way it’s built, so I’m honestly not sure how you can change that aspect.”
Despite feeling “welcomed” by other members upon joining ADPi, Jamie Villalobos (23C), a Black woman, said the lack of diversity was clear.
“Being a visibly Black woman, a Hispanic woman, you notice it instantly when … there aren’t that many people that look like you,” Villalobos said. “I remember the first time walking into chapter, and I looked around and was like, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s only like five.’”
Delany echoed Villalobos, noting the lack of representation contributed to pressure to physically conform.
“This pressure to appear as Eurocentric as possible … is especially heavily felt when associating with fraternities which are predominantly white,” Delany said. “A lot of women of color in Greek Life aren’t paid attention to in the same way because they don’t meet the standard of what is stereotypically desirable.”
Barriers to change
Responding to criticism, sororities strove to increase inclusion and accountability. Some, like ADPi, established diversity committees that organized events centering DEI initiatives. Others, like Kappa Alpha Theta (Theta), removed the legacy policy from their recruitment process, which favored women with relatives in sororities and historically hindered women of color.
Theta’s recently appointed Chief DEI Officer Wendy Avilés (22C), a Hispanic international student, expressed pride in her chapter’s inclusion efforts, noting the recruitment team worked to ensure inclusivity by collecting and discussing diversity numbers after each recruitment round. Avilés reported that 24% of their first-year class were women of color.
“We wanted transparency and we didn’t have the structure to talk about these things or to even engage in these conversations really,” Avilés said. “I was impressed by how engaged the girls were.”
Villalobos, a former member of ADPi’s DEI task force, applauded her chapter’s efforts to “acknowledge and address that Greek Life is literally inherently racist.” She cited the committee’s role in planning events at which sisters discussed not mixing with certain fraternities or hosted speakers discussing DEI efforts.
But despite these changes, Delany, who also served on the committee, was comparatively disappointed by the lack of effort from white sorority members. She explained that “the people who needed to be doing the least amount of work were putting in the most.”
“Everyone was posting on social media saying that they want to take action and make a change,” Delany said. “Then we created this council, and no one really applied. That was just disappointing because it was the perfect opportunity for people to put their words into action, and that didn’t really happen.”
Some structural changes attempted by Emory chapters, such as efforts to redirect sorority dues, met resistance from national organizations. These groups hold considerable control over local chapters in procedures ranging from recruitment proceedings to probation periods.
A portion of sorority and fraternity dues collected by the national organizations go towards the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (PAC), a super PAC that has historically donated more to Republican candidates than Democratic ones. The PAC donated $10,000 each to former Senators David Perdue (R-Ga.) and Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) during the 2020 election cycle, according to Open Secrets.
Villalobos and Goddard both said they were incentivized to drop ADPi upon learning that their money went toward political groups and figures they opposed.
“Your chapter can be a great chapter and do all the work to try and break down these systems, but then your money is still going towards oppression in a different way,” Villalobos said.
Subsequently, some Emory sororities like Kappa Kappa Gamma and ADPi considered disbanding altogether but were deterred after conversations with national organizations.
Grace Church (23C), a member of Theta who considered dropping last summer, noted the movement reminded her how “problematic these organizations can be” and that more needs to be done to increase inclusivity on campus. This, she said, might not be possible within Greek Life.
“There’s only so much that can be done within Greek Life organizations to promote diversity and inclusion,” Church said. “At the end of the day, Greek Life was made to favor wealthier and whiter groups of students.”
Editor’s note: Editor-in-Chief Madison Bober, Executive Editor Isaiah Poritz and Multimedia Editor Gabriella Lewis are former members of Greek Life organizations. Managing Editors Ryan Callahan and Caroline Silva are current members of Greek Life organizations. None were involved in the writing or editing of this story.
Correction (1/27/2020 at 12 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified former Senators Loeffler and Perdue as members of the Democratic Party. They are in fact members of the Republican Party.
Correction (1/27/2020 at 12:10 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote about disappointment in diversity initiatives to Wendy Avilés. The story has been corrected to attribute the quote to Krista Delany.
Correction (1/27/2020 at 6:00 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the start of 2021 Panhellenic recruitment as Jan. 14. It in fact began on Jan. 9.