September 18, 2018

By Lori Hart, Ph.D., Speaker for The Catalyst Agency

“If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”  -Dr. Abraham Maslow

Fraternities and sororities have problems.  In 2018, most volunteers would agree with this statement.  And in my line of work, even students agree.  Every time I start a training or keynote, the first step is to ensure we are all on the same page and agree about how we approach the discussion.  To do this in a large group format, I simply ask the audience members to simply double clap their hands if they believe “we” have problems.  I always hear a THUNDER of noise in the room.  If we can start with honesty and be on the same page in life, we can move mountains.

For several decades, I have had the privilege of speaking on college campuses and at regional/national conferences for sororities and fraternities.  In fact, I think the first time I ever spoke was at the ripe age of 23 was at the Southeastern Panhellenic Conference – or SEPC as we called it – which is now CCWL.  My speaking, thinking and passion have always been around the topics of leadership, risk management, relationships, and the overall fraternity/sorority experience.  However, this past year, I went on the road to talk about SAFETY.

I’m not sure if Dr. Abraham Maslow was in a fraternity during his undergraduate collegiate years at City College of New York, Cornell University or the University of Wisconsin (he transferred four times to three universities in order to receive his bachelor’s degree); however, he has a lot to teach us about sisterhood.  If you have taken a PSY 101 course you may vaguely remember this name or you might recognize his “Hierarchy of Needs”.

Proposed in 1943, Dr. Maslow believed in a psychological theory of a five-tier model of human needs.  Essentially, you must have the foundation of basic physiological needs met as they are your most important.   Our most basic of needs are to breathe, eat, sleep, etc. and that trumps all other needs.   Once we have met the minimum, we move up the pyramid to safety.  This is our desire to be secure.  It seems pretty basic but until we have faith and trust that we will be safe, we don’t move up to love/belonging.  Now, this is what we are “selling” in the world of fraternity and sorority.  We market this as “brotherhood” and “sisterhood.”

So, here’s the simple truth.  If Dr. Maslow were interpreting this, I believe he would tell us that unless we create environments where our new members and members are SAFE, they will never experience our product of sisterhood.   Safety comes in many forms in our business of sisterhood.   Safety in words and how you speak to people.  Safety on social media… on both the Instagram and the “Finsta.”  Safety in the GroupMe and group texts and in what you say to new members, what you say about other organizations, about ethnicity, religion, and people of the opposite sex.   Safety in your expectations of new members at 6 a.m. or 2 a.m. or anytime in between. Safety in knowing that perhaps I might not understand a drinking song or other “traditions” of the organization but am still accepted and don’t have to “drink” if I can’t recall mindless crap that has nothing to do with the history of the organization.   Safety in themes for mixers/socials to ensure they are not sexist or racist or simply make me feel uncomfortable.  Safety in knowing a member can love whomever they want without judgment.   Safety to know when you ask a new member to come to the house, she can go in the basement without a lineup, a flashlight in the face, people yelling at her or being asked to do physical exercise to the point it harms a person.  Safety to know that if someone passes out or falls down the stairs, you will call 911 versus stepping over the person or waiting for them to sleep it off.   Safety in being at a party and knowing that no one should be sexually assaulted or have something put in a drink.  Safety in knowing my big sister won’t leave me if I have had too much to drink.  And the list goes on and on….   ALL of this impacts safety and IF a person can experience love, belonging and sisterhood (and brotherhood).

If the chapter goal is “to improve sisterhood” then you need to take a step back and start with a safety conversation.  We all crave “sisterhood” (think friendship and blow some glitter!), but to achieve this, it is time for every single chapter and every single individual to ask if we are doing our best to create communities and chapter experiences that are safe. Dr. Maslow would simply tell us until we achieve safety, we will never achieve our true goal of sisterhood.

And, my last thought, if you know of members in your community that aren’t safe, perhaps the new members in another organization, YOU should be part of the community that looks out for everyone’s safety…even if it isn’t your chapter.  I am simply tired of women telling me there is no hazing in the sorority community but can detail hazing in the fraternity chapters.  As a leader, you have knowledge and power and must be part of the safety solution for your entire community.

Perhaps it is time for us to put the “hammer” down and start thinking differently.

To reach Lori:
For a recording of “The Safety Pillar” to learn more about this concept OR to share at an upcoming chapter meeting, please visit