I will read it later (on my way to work)
Here is the article
The Sisterhood, Taking On the Old Boy Network
For Black Women, Sororities Are More About Politics Than Parties
By Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2003; Page C01
Do not be distracted by the pink-and-green sneakers. Oh, they're cute all right, especially on Diane Johnson, who also is sporting a lime green pantsuit. She is surrounded by about 100 women wearing variations of the color theme: hot pink, pale pink, bubble gum, sea green, olive, emerald.
But the living bouquet posing on the steps of Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon is here for business. They're all members of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest black sorority in the country. Once the group picture is taken, they spread into the offices of their senators and representatives, gently but firmly reminding them who they are (college-educated professionals), what they do (organize, network and raise lots of money) and what they care about (education, health, equal and civil rights).
"As women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, it's our responsibility to say, 'You can't fool us with this smoke-and-mirrors game,' " says Phyllis Young, president of the local Xi Omega chapter. "You can't play us."
The AKAs are in Washington for their Public Policy Conference, which coincides with this weekend's Congressional Black Caucus conference. Thursday was "pink and green" (the AKA colors) day on the Hill. Friday they were invited for a briefing at the White House.
And they aren't the only sisters in town. The ladies in red are Delta Sigma Thetas. Those in royal blue and white are from Zeta Phi Beta, and the ones in blue and gold -- they're from Sigma Gamma Rho. These historic black sororities -- three founded at Howard University -- boast an impressive network of professional women who run companies, campaigns, families and much more. They represent about 500,000 women known and trusted on the grass-roots level who stay active and involved for a lifetime. If you've never heard of them . . . well, you haven't been paying attention.
"People at work kid me because I wear a lot of pink and green," says Doxie McCoy, communications director for Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Then there's her gold-and-diamond AKA bracelet. "I wear it all the time."
She's not alone. Texas Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson are AKAs. Civil rights leader Dorothy Height, former labor secretary Alexis Herman and presidential candidate Carol Moseley Braun are Deltas. And that's just the start.
"I'm with Senator Clinton's office -- but I'm a soror, too!" Leecia Roberta Eve tells the ladies assembled on the Capitol steps. A collective cheer goes up, and Eve, counsel to Hillary Rodham Clinton, jumps into the picture with her AKA sorors.
Then the AKAs who aren't twisting the arms of lawmakers troop over to the Russell Office Building, where the junior senator from New York takes time from a packed day to meet and greet and pose with the AKAs because. . . . well, because there are a lot of votes and green in all that pink and green.
Tapping Into the Network
Growing up in Alabama, Herman never thought of herself as sorority material. That was for the "other Mobile," she says; for the middle-class, educated black women. Not for a girl from a poor family.
But in 1977, just after she moved to Washington to work for President Jimmy Carter's administration, Herman got some advice from her friend and mentor, Dorothy Height: Join a graduate chapter of Delta Sigma Theta. "She really talked to me about this notion of network, of needing the support -- particularly when you are in public office," Herman says. "She said, 'Everyone will claim you. The Delta sisterhood will be with you for a lifetime.' "
The Deltas were smart, educated women who would quietly advise and help her, Height says. They were largely professional and upper class, and saw themselves as agents of change on a variety of social and political issues. They were connected to the local power structure all around the country; they tracked legislation, and they knew who was taking what position. "It was a trust network, and an informed network," Herman says. "These were women I could talk to about public policy issues."
Herman was inducted at the Delta national convention in 1978, and she happily embraced her new sisters. They, in turn, not only embraced Herman but were tireless advocates for her confirmation when President Bill Clinton nominated her to become his secretary of labor. Herman still remembers the senator who said to her, "Who are these Deltas? Tell them to stop calling! You've got my vote."
Think of it as a calling card: Membership in any of these sororities confers an instant acceptance within the sisterhood. You can be a stranger -- but there's a bond based on shared values, experience and expectations.
"It changes the dynamics right way," says Cora Masters Barry, former first lady of Washington and a member of the Delta National Social Action Commission. "There's an openness. If someone says 'I'm a soror,' whatever needs to happen, happens."
Increasingly, that means getting African American women into positions of power: political, business and economic.
"Deltas are a huge part of my base of support," says Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio), the first black woman named to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.
Jones joined a graduate chapter of the sorority 20 years ago, when she first ran for office in Cleveland. (Her campaign manager was a Delta.) It was something she had always wanted, but it also proved to be a career boost. Although the sororities are nonpartisan, individual sorors were instrumental in electing Jones to Congress in 1998. "They helped not only in terms of volunteer time, but in terms of money," she says. This year alone, Jones has spoken at more than a dozen Delta events about mandatory sentencing, teen pregnancy and education issues.
"No matter where I go in this country, there are members of my sorority," she says. "If they learn I'm in town, they make it their business to greet me and present me with a little token."
Sorors used to communicate by newsletters and telephones. Now they have e-mail and the Internet. It's a new-fashioned old girls network.
Making Change Happen
The sororities were founded at the turn of the last century, based on the radical notion that black women could benefit from a liberal arts education, says Paula Giddings, a professor of African American history at Smith College and author of "In Search of Sisterhood," a history of the Deltas.
Some social leaders, led by Booker T. Washington, thought blacks (especially black women) should concentrate on vocational education and training. The female students at historically black universities -- the fortunate few able to afford college -- had bigger dreams for themselves, and sororities gave them a collective voice and purpose.
Three of the four sororities were founded at Howard: AKA in 1908, Delta in 1913 and Zeta in 1920. The fourth, Sigma Gamma Rho, was founded in 1922 at the primarily white Butler University in Indianapolis.
Although all the sororities were committed to the concepts of community service and political rights, each developed a distinct reputation and personality. The AKAs were perceived as the social, privileged and fair-skinned. This caused some of the more politically active members of the sorority to break away and form the Deltas. The Zetas, still regarded as the brainiest, rejected what they saw as "sorority elitism and socializing" and concentrated on social issues. ("We're not as high-profile, but in the earlier days we were more emphatic about grade-point averages," says Lois Sylver, national executive director.) The Sigmas were established by schoolteachers and are still identified primarily with education.
The list of sorors is a who's who of black history: Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Ella Fitzgerald, Coretta Scott King, Toni Morrison and Faye Wattleton (AKA); Mary McLeod Bethune, Barbara Jordan, Johnetta Cole, Camille Cosby and Lena Horne (Delta); Zora Neale Hurston, Minnie Riperton and Sarah Vaughan (Zeta); and Lorraine Hale and Hattie McDaniel (Sigma).
After almost 100 years, the stereotypes linger but the basic mission of all four sororities are essentially the same: health, education and community service. They sponsor hundreds of scholarship, after-school and reading programs for children nationwide. The Washington chapters of AKA handed out school supplies and books at the Black Family Reunion on the Mall earlier this month. The Deltas recently started a science, math and technology program for elementary students. The Zetas just launched their "Z-Hope" education program on preventable diseases and health care. The Sigmas teach young people about money and personal finance.
It's never just about race, and never just about gender. "They're not just blacks and they're not just women -- they're black women," Giddings says. "Black women have a distinct history and distinct needs and distinct identity from either black men or white women."
Sororities, Giddings says, are ideally placed to develop young black women into future leaders. They are self-supporting through dues and don't seek publicity. They allow women who don't want to be associated exclusively with feminist or black advocacy groups to participate in social issues. In short, it's the ideal training ground for future CEOs and politicians.
"It's a wonderful place to learn how to do it," Giddings says. "We don't have that many organizations where you get to be an insider."
Membership and Privilege
Being an insider always has benefits -- and detractors. The black Greek system is an ongoing source of lively debate within the African American community, both from supporters and those who dismiss the sororities and fraternities as elitist, exclusionary and snobbish (that is, "School Daze," Spike Lee's 1988 sendup of the Greeks at an all-black college.) One Internet critic calls them "Those Greek-letter wearin', fancy foot stepping, hand clappin', think they're God's gift to the black race, brothas and sistas."
The most serious criticisms involve hazing, something all Greek organizations have explicitly forbidden in any form. The late-night drowning deaths of two Cal State Los Angeles women last year were initially ruled accidental by police, but the students were at the beach with AKA members, and their families blame the sorority for the deaths. The sorority, which does not have a chapter on the campus, has denied the charge.
Charges of social climbing are harder to prove. It may have been more true in the early years, when there were fewer channels for upward mobility, members say, but today there are far more opportunities. Although some undergraduates might eye the sororities primarily for social reasons, the graduate alumni chapters are far more serious-minded. "To be characterized as someone who's just out for social things is an insult," says AKA chapter president Young.
"A lot of my friends said to me, 'When you become an AKA, don't change,' " says 31-year-old Nkeshi Free, who pledged as a graduate student in Akron, Ohio. "I have to be honest. Some people do use the organization as a reason to display a new persona. . . . I made a life commitment because I believe in community service, and this is the group of women with whom I choose to do it."
There's a lot of mentoring and coaching, a multigenerational network of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, friends, sons and husbands to call upon for advice and leads on internal e-mail groups. Free is trying to break into public relations. Being a soror, she says, won't guarantee her a job but it will probably get her an interview: "You might get the inside track."
Sorority members can tick off all the tangible benefits of their sisterhood, the people they help, the good they do. But the fact is that sorors are sorors because someone or something caught their imagination and never let go.
"It's something I always wanted," says LaFonda Fenwick, 38. Fenwick is a wife, registered nurse and mother of two daughters. She first noticed AKA sorors when she was in high school. "The women of the organization left a lasting impression on me," she says. "They were graceful, professional, ambitious. They instilled values. They motivated me to go to college, get a degree and become as successful as I could possible be."
This May, Fenwick realized the dream when she became an AKA. "For a long time I had this save-the-world mentality. At some point you have to realize you can't save the world by yourself. This gives me the opportunity to work together with other women for change."
'People Helping People'
While the AKAs were finishing up on the Hill on Thursday, the Zetas hosted a reception with the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity and the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund at the City Club of Washington.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele picked up an award, then shrewdly assessed the crowd. "It's not about Republicans or Democrats. It's about people helping people."
He had a good audience: In addition to the Zetas in their royal blue, Sigma's national executive director, Bonita Herring, dropped by, as did Delta president Gwendolyn Boyd.
The sororities, says Zeta president Barbara Moore, are helping to define the issues that affect African American women and their families. "They're service sororities, not social," she says. "It's for women who are truly committed to improving the human condition."
Women who like wearing pink and green or red or blue a lot. And maybe, in the process, becoming president one day.