I used to love The Monkees.

So tonight, a fellow Alpha Phi Omega brother and I were talking shop as we often do.  He is also a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc., so we often discuss Greek life as a whole.  He’s been a Kappa for longer than I have been an Alpha, but we both crossed APO within about a year of each other.  (As a brief side note, a member of his APO chapter at Florida State came to Georgetown and gave birth to our chapter, so there’s a connect there, too.)

We’ve seen a lot in APO over the years, including a sharp increase in the numbers of African Americans who pledge and are initiated.  We think this is a good thing, obviously, because we believe more people of color would enjoy our Brotherhood if they gave it a chance.  But they can’t give it a chance without the proper introduction, and it’s tough for a majority culture to expose APO to a minority culture without coming across as pandering.

With a large increase in African American membership comes an increase in the numbers of APO members who are also in Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs).  There are some, like my buddy, who pledged NPHC first and then APO.  The majority, however, pledge APO first and then become members of NPHC orgs, whether as undergraduates or through alumni chapters, as I did.

This, too, is a good thing.  I believe that if someone has truly been an active member of Alpha Phi Omega and utilized all the resources it has to offer, then they come to BGLOs with a deeper sense of service to humanity than the average prospect.  They should also already know how to run a meeting, how to plan a campus program, and how to coordinate a service project.  Basically, Alpha Phi Omega membership should refine you and prime you for the next logical step after service:  social justice.

Most BGLOs don’t just do service, they actually take an active interest in the uplift of people of color beyond Band-Aid solutions.  As Jamie M. Grant says in her article “Concept of Social Justice Goes Beyond Service:”

Many of us have heard the old saying — give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime. Some say, well giving a fish is charity, while teaching someone to fish is service.
Social justice leaders react to this proverb differently. We wonder:
Who owns these fish?
Why don't we all have access to them?
Is eating fish sustainable?
Who is this hungry man and what does he have to say about his situation?
And finally, where are the women?

Alpha Phi Omega (sadly, if you ask me) doesn’t often ask these questions in the average course of undergraduate membership.  Those members who are ready to answer those questions as alumni most likely find another avenue, whether it’s through BGLO as I have chosen, or whether it’s through their faith communities, or some other means like donating to an organization who has social justice values.

African Americans who perform service often have an uncommon sense of devotion to social justice.  We are not far removed from Jim Crow; our grandparents not that far removed from slavery.  It makes sense that African American APO members would be interested in BGLOs, and if they weren’t before, APO is often the starting point and connector.

BUT.

Let’s be clear.

Alpha Phi Omega is not a stepping stone toward membership in a BGLO.

Typically, an Alpha Phi Omega chapter will have a service requirement to maintain membership in a collegiate chapter.  Sure, you have to pledge and get service hours (or a certain number of projects) in order to cross.  But you also usually have to pay semesterly dues and maintain ten, twenty, or even thirty hours of service in a semester to maintain active status.

You probably already know that many BGLOs require letters of recommendation as part of the application package.  Not all, but some.  And of those organizations, some require a letter verifying that you have performed community service.

This is the crux of my problem.  An Alpha Phi Omega member may feel empowered to ask their Vice President of Service or project coordinator for a letter of recommendation based on their service in the chapter.  I don’t agree with this.

I don’t believe that service you had to perform as a condition of maintaining your membership in one organization should count toward your membership in another organization, particularly one which may take time away from your APO commitments in the long run.

Can you see how that’s a conflict?  I can’t ethically turn in a paper I wrote in one class for another class and get the same credit.  (Well, maybe I could, but I shouldn’t – the professor has an expectation that the work will be original.)

It also poses a conflict when you actually ask your own brother for the recommendation.  What if the quality of your service actually isn’t all that good?  Then your brother is forced to write a bad recommendation (I have seen this happen) or tell you they won’t write you one at all.  Then it spirals out of control, causes a rift in the chapter, and then it’s freakin’ anarchy.

And let’s not talk about the number of men I’ve met in APO who send me that private message or phone call about wanting to become an Alpha.  How do I know your zeal for APO was genuine?  How do I know you really wanted to get to know me because I am your APO brother alone, and not because you wanted to know if I will sponsor you for membership?

Your pursuit in a BGLO should be discreet.  Not necessarily totally secret, but I think it opens a world of problems when you involve your APO chapter in your pursuit by expecting that they will recommend your for membership.

Keep them separate.  It will make your experience even more special.

So then, you may be asking me what a prospect should do if all their service is through APO.  How can they get a good, personal recommendation any other way?

Well, firstly, all of your service should not be through just APO.  If you want to be an Alpha, for example, and presuming we need that sort of recommendation, then I need to see you transcending the realm of service to approach a philosophy of social justice that is similar to our own.  Cleaning up garbage on the highway is not Alpha.  Cleaning up the garbage from a poor, mostly minority community, setting up a recycling program for kids, teaching their moms and dads about jobs in the green sector – now that’s Alpha.

Your service should be through organizations you’re passionate about.  Yes, you can be passionate about APO, but in that case, APO itself is the endgame.

By passion, I mean a cause you care about enough to devote your time to by yourself, if you have to.  You reach out to that organization, you schedule time to volunteer, and you do it over a period of time.  THEN you ask for a letter of recommendation.

And yes, you might discover that an APO program you already do will suffice.  If that happens, don’t ask a brother to write your recommendation.  Your service should be so profound, so meaningful and impacting, that the executive director or volunteer coordinator of that nonprofit should be glad to write your letter of recommendation.  That is far more impressive than your peer writing your letter.  And it means a potential contact for you professionally, whether you make it or not.

And won’t you be glad that your entire chapter won’t then be in your business?  Discretion will be intact.

These are just my opinions.  Most may not have that strong an opinion because it affects such a small segment of their chapter’s population.  But for me, I will always be an African American brother of APO and an Alpha, so this will probably be something I experience for the rest of my life.

I’m just saying that if you try your pursuit my way, you will maximize your total package and minimize the total drama.  Hopefully.

Alpha Phi Omega is not your steppin’ stone.  But it is there to help you serve and to begin the conversation of social justice.

If you’re searching, then good luck to you!

Edited to add: 

I forgot to mention that there are several notable members of Alpha Phi Omega who are also members of BGLOs:

  • Bill Clinton is an honorary member of Phi Beta Sigma and pledged APO as an undergraduate at Georgetown
  • Melody Barnes was the Director of the Domestic Policy Council under Barack Obama.  She pledged APO and Alpha Kappa Alpha while at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
  • Former President of Howard University H. Patrick Swygert and former Secretary of the Army Togo West, Jr. are both initiates of Omega Psi Phi, Alpha Chapter and Kappa Psi Chapter, respectively.
  • Current candidate for General President of Alpha Phi Alpha Roderick Smothers pledged APO at Louisiana State.