A movement to establish the first historically Black Greek sorority on campus in four decades is underway at Illinois Wesleyan University, in Bloomington.
Behind an effort by IWU Assistant Professor of Theater Dr. Michelle Cowin Gibbs to strengthen the university’s connection with the National Pan-Hellenic Council of Black Fraternities and Sororities, students have the opportunity to join Zeta Phi Beta, one of the oldest historically Black sororities in the country (founded in 1920).
Following the sorority mission of “raising people’s consciousness, encouraging the highest standards of scholastic achievement, and fostering a greater sense of unity among our Black communities,” Gibbs formed an immersion team through a partnership with the IWU Office of Student Involvement to bring Zeta Phi Beta to the Bloomington campus.
“We believe that Zeta Phi Beta will inspire and encourage generations of IWU women to make service and scholarship the center of their lives,” said Gibbs, who serves as vice president for the Bloomington-Normal chapter of Zeta Phi Beta.
Gibbs said that Zeta Phi Beta began with five undergraduate students, “who were strong, courageous and intelligent Black women. Those ‘five pearls’ envisioned an organization that would directly effect positive change, and chart a course of action for the 1920s and beyond. Our goal for establishing a chapter at IWU is to foster that same energy of strength, unity and goodness that our communities need today.”
In conjunction with Phi Beta Sigma, a graduate sorority chapter that supports undergraduate chapters, along with the office of Tyler Manning, IWU’s Director of Student Involvement, several events have been held to drum up interest in Zeta Phi Beta. Since 2021, Manning’s office has partnered with the Black Student Union to host an annual NPHC event, held to celebrate the culture of NPHC organizations through partnering with local chapters.
Gibbs said recent events have included an informational meeting, a theater outing, and an arts and crafts project to design bracelets for homecoming.
“We also did a clean-up-the-streets service project, and our next event is a community event to make gingerbread houses together for the holidays,” she said. “But it has been slow to recruit as many students as we wanted. Across universities, in general, there has been a decline in Greek life. It takes time for students to get to know us, so we’ll continue to have events on campus and engage the community — and live up to our principles, the ‘five pearls,’ that set of principles.
“Patience will definitely be key. We don’t want to rush into it. Folks have to trust us, and we have to build that trust. But it takes time to build a presence on campus. We’ve done a lot of on-the-ground work and we’re moving forward with the process. Students are going through a lot right now. We want to build a community where we believe in each other, infusing good will and giving back.”
Gibbs said that although Zeta Phi Beta includes a predominance of Black women, it does not exclude others seeking to join.
“Diversity, equity and inclusion — that’s what maintains us and extends past any boundaries,” she said. “No college is perfect, but we can be a beacon of building inclusionary practices. Having a variety of race and ethnicity involved, that brings a lot of different voices to the table to find common ground.
“If you want to be part of a community that strives to serve, and believe in each other, that’s what we’re about — giving back and lifting up and supporting our values. Zeta Phi Beta is a foundation built on service and education, and preparing you for adulthood in a more well-rounded way.”
Students interested in membership can contact Gibbs at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Zeta Phi Beta website at www.zphib1920.org for more information.