Originally written on March 15, 2020
The world has stopped. This time a week ago, most of us would not have imagined that our lives would literally be shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 7, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) re-defined social distancing to mean “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” From there, we saw events and conferences cancelled, even staple conferences like SXSW. We also began to see colleges and universities suspend in-person classes and transition to online learning. Then, the NBA cancelled the remainder of its season, followed by the NCAA, MLB, MHL, and many more sports organizations cancelling or postponing in various ways. Mayors and governors of various cities and states also began to mandate that no “large gatherings” be held, with the primary goal of preventing COVID-19 from spreading rapidly, and the biggest fear being an overwhelmed healthcare system.
So, on Wednesday March 11, the night before my sorority’s regional conference was scheduled to begin, I didn’t worry about packing. I was certain that I would receive an email any minute saying that …out of care for our sorors and greater society, we have made the decision to cancel/postpone our regional conferences. While this is disappointing to us all, this is the right and necessary decision. But, that email never came (prior to the conference starting).
This specific regional conference, as well as multiple other Black Greek-Letter Organization (BGLO) regional conferences (with two being held in the same city) moved forward according to schedule. Thousands of sorority and fraternity members traveled to the respective hosting cities, despite social distancing being urged from government organizations and leaders; despite the precedent that had been set by many other organizations prior to the start of the regional conferences.
So why didn’t BGLO leaders cancel? What made us think we were exempt from taking the same precautions?
I am not certain of the ultimate answer but I can’t help but wonder if BGLO leadership was more concerned about money (loss) than the safety of our members and fellow citizens. Various actions taken by the organization leaders lead me to this thought. For example, prior to one of the conferences being cancelled, allegedly, undergraduate members were told they would not receive registration refunds, even though they could no longer attend due to their university prohibiting all student organization travel. Additionally, one organization sent out an email to its members postponing an upcoming national service initiative due to COVID-19, but did not postpone their regional conference that was happening at that exact moment. And, after ending their conference early, one organization (that I am aware of) kept the vendor area open for members to patronize. Maybe it’s just me but the theme seems clear and consistent.
While I appreciate that some of the conferences were cancelled on the second day, the cancellation was too late. By this point, thousands of members had come in contact with thousands of other people through travel, restaurants, shopping, hotels, conference luncheons, conference meetings/receptions, hugs, handshakes, coughs, and so much more. These interactions and points of contact impacted not only the conference attendees but also the citizens of the hosting cities. So even though the conferences were eventually cancelled, the damage was already done. The risk that would have been mitigated by social distancing was already activated, and even though the thousands of members (possibly) headed home early, they were already exponentially more likely to carry the virus as they dispersed to cities all over the country, putting themselves, as well as their loved ones, co-workers, friends, neighbors, and community members more at risk. And for the BGLOs that did not cancel and executed their regional conferences in their entirety…well…that could be an entirely separate op ed.
This social distancing thing is no joke. If we look to other countries, we can see what happens if we don’t practice it. Italy experienced a 20 percent increase of new virus cases in one day, and “they cited irresponsible behavior by many citizens, who despite the earlier warnings not to gather in large numbers, headed to beaches or ski resorts, and hung out together in town squares, especially after the closure of schools.” Gathering in large numbers exponentially increases the risk of the virus not only spreading, but spreading quickly. So, it was completely irresponsible for our organizations to move forward with hosting regional conferences. If someone who attended any of these regional conferences ends up testing positive for COVID-19, trying to pinpoint all who that person has come in contact with (and all who those individuals have come in contact with, and so on) would be essentially impossible; and the responsibility of the virus spreading at a faster rate, and any health complications that those people experience from the virus, would be on us.
It is disappointing and upsetting to see our BGLO leadership miss the mark here. We pride ourselves on being leaders in our communities; people who show others the way. Instead, of leading the way and modeling a commitment to social distancing, we contributed to the idea that social distancing and the spread of COVID-19 are not to be taken seriously. Instead of modeling decision making for the greater good of our society, we modeled selfish decision making, and we may now be part of the reason that the virus continues to spread rapidly.
People making selfish decisions like ours will lead to us essentially being on complete lock down. Social distancing recommendations have been made but like us, many are ignoring the recommendations, still hosting large events and gatherings; still going out to clubs and other social venues; still traveling. This has caused the recommended number of people gathered to continue to decrease, with the CDC now recommending no events over 50 people for the next 8 weeks. If we do not voluntarily consent to these recommendations, we will be forced to follow mandates that are even more strict than the initial recommendations, causing us to sacrifice and lose even more than we already have.
We are organizations with a mission to serve our communities. It is important that we center that value at all times and above all else. There will never be a welcome reception, luncheon, business meeting, gala, step show, chapter member selfie, conference bag, vendor exhibit, or registration fee that is more important than the safety and well-being of our society; more important than us doing our part to be responsible citizens. Unfortunately, it looks like this may only be the beginning of this pandemic in the US, and I am hopeful that naming this misstep now will help us to be the servant leaders that our communities will need us to be as we continue to combat this pandemic.
Aleidra Allen is a social entrepreneur and founder of Purpose In Everything (PIE), an online retailer of ethically made products that adds purpose to purchases by donating 5 percent of the net sales to social change work. She is also the creator of Black Greek for Black Lives, an initiative that promotes black Greek commitment to uplifting the black community through social change work. Aleidra has a background in diversity education and facilitates diversity workshops and trainings, and gives keynotes. Learn more and shop products at http://www.piemovement.com and http://www.blackgreeksforblacklives.com, or follow @piemovement and @blackgreeksforblacklives.