Black greek life returns at Minn. schools

Published 12:20 pm Saturday, February 5, 2011

WINONA (AP) — After his last high school football game, Josh Brandon pulled his blue and white jersey over his head and gave it one last hard look. Wearing those colors had become a part of him, a part that he never wanted to lose.

“I’ve always loved the color blue,” the Winona State University junior said. “It goes with everything. It’s easy on the eyes.”

After officially becoming a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., the first historically black fraternity to be chartered outside of the Twin Cities, the colors blue and white have new meaning for him and the other five Winona students who have become his brothers.

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The new chapter of Phi Beta Sigma was sparked when a group of students realized that the diverse population was underrepresented on their Winona campus and there were limited opportunities to become active in the community as a multicultural student, Brandon said.

For guidance in becoming an official organization, the students looked to the only other Phi Beta Sigma chapter in the state: the Twin Cities chapter, one that includes every college campus within a 20-mile radius of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

For Sam Ndely, the president of the Twin Cities chapter who Brandon said played a big role in the Winona brothers’ pledging process, the journey was all too familiar to him and the other Twin Cities members.

In joining Phi Beta Sigma two years ago, Ndely, a University of Minnesota journalism student, became one of the fraternity’s first undergraduate members on campus in 20 years.

“We’ve only been back for two or three years, and we already added another chapter,” Ndely said. “I hope that they are able to do as we have done and become a support system for multicultural and black students on campus.”

Even with the addition of a new fraternity chapter, black greek life in Minnesota lags behind other Midwestern states, Ndely said, adding that Illinois has 14 Phi Beta Sigma chapters and Ohio has 11.

Despite the excitement surrounding the newfound opportunity for multicultural men in these two Minnesota chapters, the growth has also worked to highlight the inequality in female representation, said Joycelyn Oppong, a member of the Twin Cities’ graduate chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc.

Oppong, who spent her undergraduate years in New Jersey, said she can see a significant difference between her greek experience and that of undergraduate students in the area.

“I come from a very different culture of black greek life,” the St. Mary’s University of Minnesota graduate student said. “It’s huge where I come from, and I think it’s a huge disadvantage for students in this area.”

She said that despite connotations that correlate greek life with partying, black greek life is centered on service and “being part of something bigger than you.” She fears young women are missing this on Minnesota campuses.

Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta are two of the historically African-American greek organizations that make up what is called the “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities and the National Pan-Hellenic Council Inc., Ndely said.

Though four of the fraternities — Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Omega Psi Phi and Phi Beta Sigma — have an undergraduate presence on the University campus, there is not a single member of an undergraduate historically black sorority on the University campus after the last member of Zeta Phi Beta graduated last year, Oppong said.

Zeta Phi Beta hopes to follow in the footsteps of Phi Beta Sigma by scouting a chapter in Winona this spring, Oppong said, something that Brandon said he would like. However, he also said that doing so would be more of a challenge than it had been for his group.

“There haven’t been a lot of opportunities or exposure for females to experience black greek life,” he said. “Part of that is because it takes a whole different approach to get girls’ interest. It’s a little more delicate, but as we keep expanding as fraternities, we hope our female partners will get on board, too.”

Oppong agreed with the delicate nature of the process of attracting women to sororities. Though she said that the group is actively seeking membership at the University and around the Twin Cities, she insisted the group “picks quality over quantity women,” which include prospects with a strong risumi of community work.

In the end, Ndely said he is hopeful that University women will soon be able to experience the black greek lifestyle he has come to love.

“I don’t feel like we just need a black sorority; we need all of the black sororities on campus,” he said. “There is definitely a lot of interest here, and I think it will add a sense of sisterhood on campus, not just for black women but for all women.”