At Stanford, philanthropy is not a reason to save Greek life. It is a reason to end it.

Opinion by Maya Lorey
Sept. 10, 2020, 7:04 p.m.

Although the Stanford community has a habit of lauding its own exceptionalism, Inter-Fraternity and Inter-Sorority Council (IFC/ISC) Greek life on the Farm cannot be called an exception. Stanford Greek life actively perpetuates racist, classist, homophobic, sexist and ableist systems of discrimination on campus, as so many Greek organizations do on campuses across the country. Recently, a group of alumni and students organized to demand that the Stanford administration abolish the IFC/ISC Greek system and re-imagine anti-racist, equitable and just community and housing options for students. One of the most common arguments we, Abolish Stanford Greek Life members, have heard in support of Stanford Greek life is that the chapters engage in philanthropic activities and therefore must do more good than harm. Although this commitment to community service is nominally true, IFC/ISC philanthropy fails to address systems of inequality and injustice while furthering a white savior complex amongst students.

As most charitable foundations admit, throwing money at the symptoms of a problem does little to address the unjust social and economic systems that created it. Organizations like Pi Beta Phi’s Read Lead Achieve, for example, donate books to “children in need” without addressing the barriers that prevent some children from reading at age level or even finding a safe place to read. If a child is not supported socially, emotionally and academically, a book donation likely won’t catalyze meaningful change in their relationship to academic achievement. Furthermore, Read Lead Achieve and other IFC/ISC organization-specific foundations offer little to no information about leadership or executive compensation, let alone their philanthropic strategy. Leading U.S. foundations would never donate to organizations with so little transparency and expertise. Other Stanford Greek philanthropic causes, which include “breakfast feeds” for the homeless in Palo Alto and donations to large medical research centers, also fail to meaningfully address the faultlines of oppression, poverty and discrimination that permeate our local community. Admittedly, certain beneficiaries do reap short-term benefits from receiving a book or a hot meal. And even if the grant amounts are small, every dollar towards medical research does count. This marginal positive impact is not necessarily present for other Greek philanthropies. 

Kappa Alpha Theta raises money for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) — a large nonprofit organization with offices in all fifty U.S. states. Volunteer child advocates, or “CASAs,” are layperson volunteers appointed by family court to represent children who enter child welfare. As a recent journal article on structural racism and CASA queries, “why does the legal system assume that a group of volunteers—mostly middle-class white women—will make better decisions for a low-income child of color than her own family, community, or the child herself could make?” This question speaks to white saviorism that runs rampant in misguided philanthropic efforts that center and validate the experiences of the white volunteer/fundraiser, particularly in the criminal justice and legal sectors.

In the case of CASA, laypersons with no professional training in social work or child trauma are deemed adequate representatives of children’s best interests. Even in instances where a child does not have a family or community member able to vouch for them, “the ability of white women to speak for the best interests of poor children of color, to advocate for their removal from their families, and to receive deference and praise from legal systems, comes to our modern legal system with deep roots” of racism. As the article explicates, “when that power … is distributed away from poor families and children of color and given to a group of middle-class white volunteers, the racial bias in the system—the structural racism—is not just clearly visible, but is actually given a seat at the table in court for all to see.” Ultimately, Kappa Alpha Theta’s fundraisers for CASA serve as an illustrative example of a critical problem with philanthropy across Stanford Greek organizations: Members fail to interrogate the practices and track records of the organizations they raise money for. 

Of course, the assumption that the philanthropic beneficiaries of sorority and fraternity fundraisers do good (rather than harm) stems from implicit trust in the Greek organizations themselves: their leadership, their values and their history. Such trust is typically misplaced, however, given that the majority of fraternities and sororities were founded on explicit or implicit values of white supremacy. If Stanford Greek life really wants to engage in philanthropy that matters, it should begin with interrogating the ideals of racist oppression it was founded upon, the violence it wrought around the country and harm it continues to inflict on Stanford’s campus. 

Stanford Greek organizations’ commitment to raising money for pre-determined philanthropic organizations also contributes to the immense distance that the majority of members have from community-based service. Indeed, Greek “community service” does not typically involve entering any community that is not at a Greek house on Stanford’s campus. It often consists of Greek students engaging in activities together that make for very good social media content and sorority-fraternity bonding. This performative philanthropy — and the posts that ensue — does nothing to address the inequality and injustice on Stanford’s doorstep and beyond. But the pictures of volleyball tournaments, races and pancake sales do look good on Greek members’ resumes and on Instagram. The evidence points to what many have always assumed was true: Greek chapters tack philanthropy on as an afterthought so they can justify organizations that are otherwise difficult to defend. Indeed, the approximately $7,000,000 that goes to charity from Greek organizations nationally pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions charged in dues. 

Ultimately, at Stanford, philanthropy is not a reason to save Greek life. It may actually be another reason to end it.

Contact Maya Lorey at mayaraelorey ‘at’

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