Embracing Our Messiness

by Nicole DeFeo

Early in my tenure at Delta Phi Epsilon, I was lamenting my position of having to navigate a great deal of conflict between many people who wanted different things from our organization. A strong mentor of mine quoted Tim Keller, “People are messy; therefore relationships will be messy. Don’t be surprised by the messiness.”  I repeat this sentiment regularly at my office to my staff and our members. Those of us working in the fraternal industry work with people, so we need to prepare for the messiness.

“People are messy; therefore relationships will be messy. Don’t be surprised by the messiness.”

As I was contemplating what to write for this article, I started digging into the weeds of our experience. I reflected on what  I have heard and seen that do not work well in today’s National Panhellenic Conference experience. I reviewed the policies and procedures. I talked to colleagues about their opinions and thoughts. The more I learned, the more I realized the things most people complain about are symptoms of a much larger issue. Things like challenging the norms and practices of recruitment, focusing on that which we can control like setting total/quota, or as some would say “fiddling while Rome burns” are all fronts for what needs addressing. I believe there is a future for the fraternity/sorority community, but only if we tackle the root cause of all these issues—the acceptance of the “messiness” of people with non-judgment.

In order to get to correct the root cause of acceptance without judgment, we must agree upon a shared understanding of where we are today in our messiness. According to Psychology Today, “Judgments are expectations based on pre-programmed mindsets or scripts…”. It is human nature to judge. For example, sororities that have fewer members judge those with many members as large and impersonal, while larger-sized chapters may think smaller-sized groups are strugglers or unpopular. Philosophies, policies, and procedures of some organizations conflict with those of others. In all cases, the outlier is judged for their position by the in-crowd. If we can agree that “messiness” equals difference, then we can begin the fundamental conversation around acceptance of others from the base of our community pyramid or the individual level all the way to the top, where leadership exists. This pyramid consists of thousands of members in this experience together with their unique approaches, ideas, thoughts, and baggage. Yikes, that is messy!

Now that we have our baseline understanding, it is helpful to look at specific examples. Delta Phi Epsilon (DPhiE), is often the outlier. We do things differently. Many would say we have the benefit of being “younger” at just over 100 years old, more nimble with less engrained social mores. They might be correct. The obvious example of our difference surfaces in our policies around membership selection and chapter self-governance. DPhiE is leading conversations around non-binary membership in women’s spaces. In 2017, when the dialogue began, we were met with a great deal of resistance. Here comes the messiness. Fear, anger, and mistrust of motives were the fuel that escalated the mess into a straight dumpster fire. Thank goodness for fire extinguishers.

As time has gone by, our community members have had the chance to digest the evolving gender norms and the embers of fear have faded out for others. A healthy dialogue is happening and needed change is coming. So many things could have derailed our progress. DPhiE could have sat at the table silently or we could have succumbed to fatigue and walked away entirely. Instead, we stood our ground for something different, an evolution for the current generation of undergraduate members became a revolution for us. We used the governance system to start a dialogue through the proper channels within the system of which we voluntarily agreed to be a part. We put forth motions to change the policy that we believe needed a change.

There are two lessons learned along our journey. The most important lesson is that bravery with an open heart can clear the “messiness.” It took courage to speak up for what we believed was right. It was also brave of those with differing opinions to share their fear. The second lesson is more complex. Understanding the governance and leadership systems within your organization and then within the greater community is critical. Navigating which governing body serves which constituency and in which ways is sometimes like solving the Rubik’s Cube. That last part was a subtle nod to my GenX friends. Change in a complicated society is difficult and takes work, but it is coming.  Though, some would say it’s not coming fast enough.

Evolution and innovation require integrity and trust. Recently, I heard a colleague from another sorority say that trust is built through repetition. Relationships take time to foster. After 15 years of sitting at many tables of leadership in this arena, I can say with confidence that “messiness” is often the enemy of the aforementioned evolution. Building an understanding that everyone here wants the experience to pass down to the next generation is critical in moving the needle, and it takes time and patience. Trust is important in building the social clout to make a change, but it does not stand alone in the formula for evolution and innovation. Integrity is needed in equal measure. Integrity generates trust. They go hand in hand. At DPhiE, integrity is aligned with our value of love. We have a desire to “fix the world” or innovate in our communities to be more inclusive of diversity of thought.

Our mission is to create a sisterhood experience rich in tradition, innovation, and opportunities for growth. Many of our members question the juxtaposition of tradition and innovation. You also may be wondering, how can you innovate if you are tied to traditions, some that may not have a place in society any longer? The answer is through integrity. Acting with transparency in situations where traditions need to be unpacked is critical. It allows us to keep what is important and discard what is unnecessary or no longer acceptable, like doing away with hazing or policies that create barriers to this very valuable experience for those seeking to forward women’s issues.

Many people approach DPhiE with questions about our fundamental philosophies and values. They ask why we stay in a system in which we perhaps no longer “fit”. The answer is complex, but the simple breakdown is we believe we can shepherd change from within. We believe difficult conversations can be held and differences can be celebrated rather than judged. If you want to shepherd change from within your organization, within the your campus system, or even the larger fraternal world, I would encourage you to follow these steps: Ask questions to seek true understanding of what is happening from as many perspectives as you can garner, educate yourself on the system governing policy, as well as, those of the National Panhellenic, encourage opposing dialogue and take action to make a change.

As the world, students’ interests, and our organizations evolve, I hope you will reflect on what is best for your organization, your campus, and the fraternal industry, be courageous, and lead with an open and non-judgemental heart. If you want to be a part of the evolution and revolution, we ask you to join us, and let’s get messy together.

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