Rho Epsilon Pi (Rho Ep), formerly the University’s only sorority, announced that the organization would be disaffiliating from Greek life in a statement posted to Instagram on Thursday, Feb. 3. The announcement followed a vote among the organization’s members in December 2021, when the majority voted in favor of disaffiliation.
The sorority was originally formed in 2011 as their own local chapter, and currently has around 30 members. The group’s disaffiliation statement underlined the historical racist, homophobic, and classist characteristics of Greek life as a key factor in choosing to disaffiliate.
“As we researched and discussed the racist, homophobic, and classist history of Greek life, we came to the consensus as an organization that a Greek affiliation does not reflect on the true goals and mission of Rho Ep,” the statement reads. “Thus, we voted as a chapter to disaffiliate from Greek life altogether, taking one more step towards making Rho Ep a safer and more inclusive place for all its members as well as lessening the often negative impact that Greek life makes on the Wesleyan campus and campuses across the country.”
Rho Ep President Caroline Churney ’23 explained that the events leading to the disaffiliation began when the organization decided to place a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion during the 2020–2021 academic year, which led to the creation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee on Rho Ep’s General Board in the spring of 2021.
“Over the past few years, the Black Lives Matter movement has definitely grown a lot of strength and definitely expanded its influence a lot, and I think with the death of George Floyd and with other deaths as well, I think a lot more people are aware of a lot of the issues that have been happening and it’s at the forefront of people’s minds, finally,” Churney said. “So…we decided that it would be a good idea to implement a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion [Committee].”
R*, a member of the class of 2022 who asked to remain anonymous, and who left Rho Ep before the start of the fall 2021 semester, described her perception of the committee’s creation.
“I think a lot of what was being done as an organization was super superficial, so a lot of—especially in the wake of George Floyd, we tried to come up with ideas and things to do and ways to be proactive and create some sort of social change,” she said. “But it’s hard to do that when you’re a majority white-identifying group with few people of color there in the first place.”
E*, a second student who wished to remain anonymous and left the organization around the same time, noted that the Committee was mainly composed of women of color in Rho Ep who would lead the group’s discussions on anti-racism, equity, and inclusion, which some members saw as placing the responsibility of educating the organization on Rho Ep’s sisters of color.
“It was just the women of color in the sorority, running this committee, just trying to get people to understand their perspective [on] joining [Rho Ep] and barriers that are often formed in Greek life for women of color, especially in predominantly white institutions like Wesleyan,” she said.
Churney explained that these discussions illuminated some of the concerns that women of color in Rho Ep face for the other sisters.
“We finally saw some of the deeper-seated issues that Rho Ep had been experiencing and why a lot of the women of color in Rho Ep had been feeling kind of alienated and not entirely comfortable at some times,” Churney said. “People finally saw these things come to the surface that had been on the shoulders of our women of color, and now the whole organization was kind of having it thrust in their face and it alarmed a lot of people.”
According to Rho Ep Social Justice Chair Allie Green ’23, some members pushed back against these presentations.
“It began with simple presentations that [were] like, ‘Everyone has inherent racial biases, let’s talk about that,’” Green said. “‘How are you using your privilege? What is your privilege? Please acknowledge your privilege.’ And there was some pushback because some of the sisters who have de-sistered thought that it was kind of—it put them on the defensive, basically. They felt like they were being personally attacked, which was a big hint of, ‘Okay, why are you feeling personally attacked?’”
R emphasized that she felt the discussions placed an intense burden on the women of color in Rho Ep.
“People were like, ‘I feel uncomfortable when you talk about race,’ and a lot of these sisters just did not know how to deal with their own white guilt, and I…really hated that we couldn’t have those conversations,” she said. “And the women leading the charge and trying to have these conversations were women of color, so the emotional pressure that was placed on the very few women of color that we had…was insurmountable and so incredibly unfair to educate these white sisters.”
Churney similarly underscored how these discussions placed a significant weight on Rho Ep’s members of color.
“The women of color [in Rho Ep] really had to bear a burden [in] spring 2021,” Churney said. “I mean, it was uncomfortable for all of us, but definitely they bore in ways that white members did not.”
Members of Rho Ep pointed toward one comment submitted in an anonymous survey about diversity in the sorority as a major source of tension for the organization. E described the comment as using questionable and racist language, and members originally assumed it had been submitted by a white woman. The organization later discovered that the comment had been written by a member of color.
“[The] comment…made women of color in the organization feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and everyone assumed it was a white woman,” Churney said. “But it actually wasn’t. And so it took a lot of discussion and kind of delving into that to kind of wrap our heads around that.”
E explained that the initial reaction from other Rho Ep members felt performative to her after the group learned that a woman of color had submitted the comment.
“Before people knew that [the comment was written by a woman of color], there [were] a lot of very performative dramatic cries for, ‘If this person doesn’t de-sister right now, I’m dropping out, I don’t wanna be a part of this group,’” she said. “And then I think just the weird irony of it, having it be a woman of color [who] wrote that letter, everything was just really messy after that point, where I think people started to acknowledge just how performative a lot of Rho Ep’s efforts are…. People just don’t know what to do in that scenario where they realized that the person they were screaming about and threatening de-sistering about was in fact a woman of color.”
Green recalled that the survey comment and subsequent reaction to it led the organization to see the necessity of reflecting on how it had been treating its members of color.
“It sparked [a] big discussion about what is our organization and…about who we are and how we have hurt even just the women in our organization,” Green said. “So that’s kind of how it started and then we just took a step back and [were] like, ‘We need to reevaluate. We need to see and check ourselves and start talking to someone professional, ’cause maybe we shouldn’t be leading these discussions. Maybe we should have an outside source for now come in and talk to us.’”
Churney added that the comment submitted to the anonymous survey was not the only instance of discriminatory comments made by members of Rho Ep.
“There were definitely other remarks that were not necessarily the best worded—nothing that was outright intended to be hurtful or intended to be in any way damaging, but some people were at different levels with their education around diversity, equity, and inclusion and racism in general,” Churney said. “And you know, we had to acknowledge that and think about: ‘Okay, so what do we do when somebody makes a comment like that, where we feel like that wasn’t a necessarily informed statement that they were making?’”
As a result of these events, a number of sisters left Rho Ep, particularly some of the members of color. R identified the survey comment and the reaction to it from Rho Ep members as the motive for her decision to leave.
“I just could not reconcile with being affiliated with an organization like that,” she said. “And if [other members] could, I’m not gonna judge them for it, but it’s just for me personally, studying, looking into the history of sororities and fraternities…. I walked in with ignorance as well, the fact that I even bothered to join a sorority in the first place, without knowing the context of it, was ignorant of me. So yeah, that’s what drove me [to leave].”
According to Public Relations Chair Sabine Geary ’23, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic also impacted how members reacted to the discussions, prompting some to leave the organization.
“Obviously, we weren’t allowed to have nearly the amount of events that used to be held,” Geary said. “And I think for a lot of the seniors who saw how much fun it was to be in the organization before, [they] were like, ‘Okay, this is not it,’ because now all we can really do is like have discussions and a lot of it was obviously on Zoom.”
E explained that the pandemic led Rho Ep to hold more reflection-based discussions about diversity, equity, and inclusion, because the organization was unable to hold typical, in-person events.
“We couldn’t do a lot of the activities that we did before, and…they needed things to fill the space with…the only things you could do were these sort of introspective activities where you’re talking about what Rho Ep is and talking about the history of Greek life and these sorts of things,” she said. “And I think it sort of just created an environment where people started to realize Rho Ep is really lacking in diversity and has a lot of other problems outside of that.”
Around 10 sisters left Rho Ep between these discussions in the spring and the fall semester, including R and E, with some sisters choosing to leave because they wanted a more typical sorority experience.
“A lot of the girls who had pushed back [against the discussions] de-sistered, and a lot of girls de-sistered because they wanted a sorority in the sense of like it’s partying instead of…doing more critical thinking about what we are as an organization,” Green said. “Which is totally fine because having that term ‘sorority’ is also people who really want that environment, the partying and the fun stuff all the time, you’re not getting that if you just come in…. It’s a mislabel.”
E reflected that the organization’s reaction to the events surrounding the anonymous survey was a major turning point for Rho Ep.
“It was a very slow downfall and then one very big moment where I think everybody kind of freaked out, and then they couldn’t really salvage the pieces at that point, and a lot of people left,” she said.
E attributed her decision to leave to a combination of the effects of the pandemic and Rho Ep’s handling of the diversity, equity, and inclusion discussions.
“I think I realized pretty quickly, the role that I thought Rho Ep was gonna serve in my life, it wasn’t gonna do that, just more as a result of COVID than anything else, but then I think with all of the [diversity, equity, and inclusion] stuff that was going on, that for me was a moment where I was like, ‘Not only am I [not] getting anything out of this group, I don’t wanna be affiliated with a group that has like all of these problems,’” she said.
Rho Ep chose to take a step back in fall 2021 from the anti-racism discussions, after hearing from members of color about how they felt about the events of the spring. Churney explained that sisters of color expressed that they felt Rho Ep should focus on reforming itself before returning to the diversity committee’s discussions.
“Last semester we decided to take a break [from anti-racism discussions] because we…asked our sisters of color first and we were like, ‘How do you feel about engaging in these discussions again and continuing this work?’” Churney said. “And it was just a big load for them the previous semester, and they felt like we needed to focus on kind of solidifying the organization and reuniting before we delved into that again.”
This shift in focus prompted Rho Ep to examine what it meant to be a sorority.
“We went to getting articles and talking to sororities nationwide about their history and what that means,” Green said. “We know that being a sorority historically is—it belongs to a racist history. And so we were like, ‘Okay, first things first, are we a sorority?…What does that mean if we wanna redefine it?…. Are we actually doing that? Do we feel comfortable doing that and excluding a lot of women just by [using] the term ‘sorority?’”
These concerns about the history of Greek life led Rho Ep to consider whether to disaffiliate.
“We didn’t feel like Rho Ep really reflected a lot of the aspects of Greek life,” Churney said. “We don’t have a national chapter, and our rush process and pledging process are very different…. [We] just felt that that label was ultimately keeping people out who we wanted to provide that community for on campus.”
Churney explained that the notion of disaffiliating was generally well-received by members.
“I think the majority of people were either immediately on board or, you know, excited to learn more about what that meant,” Churney said. “There were a few individuals that were a little more hesitant about that because, you know, they joined a sorority, so…if the organization is totally changing, it’s like, ‘Oh, whoa, slow down,’ which is totally understandable. And that’s why we wanted everyone to engage in these discussions and really talk about it…before we voted to move forward.”
During these discussions, Rho Ep found that most members had not been looking to get involved in Greek life when they came to the University.
“As we were engaging in all these discussions and kind of talking about Greek life as a larger institution…and also the history of Rho Ep on campus, I think a lot of us were coming to the conclusion that…[we] weren’t looking for a sorority when we joined here; we were looking for the community that Rho Ep gave,” Churney said.
For Geary, the choice to disaffiliate from Greek life reflects a desire to open up Rho Ep to possible members who may have been put off by the sorority label.
“I just care a lot about the organization, and seeing that it continues to exist at Wesleyan,” Geary said. “And I think the more that we held onto this title that didn’t even really fit us, the more members we were losing and not gaining as a result of holding onto something that wasn’t even benefiting us.”
Following the vote to disaffiliate from Greek life, Green explained that the organization is figuring out how to move forward, and said that Rho Ep aims to bring back discussions regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion this semester, with plans to bring in speakers starting in March.
“We’re talking to [Resource Center Director] Demetrius [Colvin] to see who we should reach out to because these discussions are super important, but some of them I don’t feel comfortable leading, as a white woman,” Green said. “And I also do not want to put the emotional labor or the safety, in case that there’s somehow backlash or just having to discuss things as a woman of color, like that is heavy stuff that affects you…. So we’re going to have outside speakers and discussions about that for a while before we start having sisters back in that position.”
Disaffiliation will bring more immediate changes to the terms that Rho Ep used that were tied directly to Greek life. Starting this semester, the group is changing the traditional Greek life terms they previously used: the rush process is now called “Orientation,” “Bid Day” is now “Welcome Day,” and “dues” are now called “contributions.”
“Although labels aren’t everything…[they] can potentially keep out people and bring people in,” Churney said.
Rho Ep is currently in the process of Orientation for the spring, and Orientation Chair Gabriella Wilkerson ’24 estimated that the organization expects to see around 20 new members joining when Welcome Day happens on Saturday, March 5. Another disaffiliation change implemented this semester is that current Rho Ep members will no longer be voting on whether or not to allow new sisters to join.
As the organization continues to process the decision to disaffiliate, the newly formed Disaffiliation Committee—of which Churney, Green, Geary, and Wilkerson are members—will work on the ongoing changes to Rho Ep, including considering whether or not to retain the name “Rho Ep.”
“Do we change that and take away the Greek letters?” Churney said. “Because it’s Greek letters, people assume it’s a Greek organization. And that’s a little bit of a bigger change, so just in terms of the name…we’re gonna continue talking about that, and what we would think would be a potential name change.”
Throughout this process, though, Churney believes that the organization’s mission of creating a community for women on campus has not changed.
“I think the mission of Rho Ep is to create an inviting and safe and welcoming community on campus for female-identifying students…but then also trying to extend that to the campus and also beyond with our work in Middletown and…with other organizations on campus,” Churney said. “It’s always been like that, and that’s what we’re gonna continue to stick by.”
Wilkerson agreed, saying that the continuation of a community dedicated to women on campus was important to her.
“That idea of a women-supporting-women community for anybody who identifies as female has always been a big part of my life,” Wilkerson said. “And I think kind of something integral to that supportive community actually working is accepting anybody. And so it’s really exciting to kind of be officially not rewriting, but maybe explaining to other people what we stand for and why we’ve made these changes.”
For E, Rho Ep’s disaffiliation does not seem to bring many real changes.
“The main thing for me in talking with other students about it…is the fact that I think Rho Ep is treating disaffiliation like it’s a lot bigger of a deal than it actually is,” she said. “It seems, anyways, that it’s more of a move to remove scrutiny from the organization in the eye of the greater Wesleyan community than it is to actually change some of the things that are wrong with the organization…. But yeah, I think that’s the big takeaway for me is just knowing that it seems like it’s a big deal; realistically, it probably won’t be.”
On the other hand, Churney believes that Rho Ep’s disaffiliation will prove to be an important step in opening the organization up to other women on campus.
“I think ultimately, our attachment to Greek life was preventing people from finding it a safe and welcoming space and other people on campus from seeking it out,” Churney said. “We hope that disaffiliation will make it more approachable by other people on campus, and also [make] the members themselves [feel] more comfortable being in the organization.”
*Names have been changed.
Jem Shin can be reached at email@example.com.