This year (2020) has been interesting, and that may be the understatement of the year. With a majority of the country trying to find a sense of normalcy living with COVID-19 in our daily lives, we are a nation in turmoil as the senseless killings of black and brown bodies continues to shed light on what it truly means to be a black or brown person living in these United States. As I am writing this article, I am now seeing and reading the horrific story of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, who was shot in the back seven times by police officers as he was trying to get into his car to drive his children home. We will say his name and add it to the long list of names that countless individuals have been saying for years. We will continue to say George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amhed Aubry, and others that have lost their lives to violence. In these times, I often wonder, do Black Lives Matter? How can we, as Americans, continue to let this happen? And what are we going to do to change this trajectory?
Honestly, it will take a lot of soul-searching from everyone to address these issues, and I mean everyone. I believe our collegiate members of Omicron Delta Kappa are uniquely positioned to lead and make changes in our communities. Why do I say this? I know our O∆K members are already leaders on our campuses. They exemplify leadership and what leadership should look like in the 21st century. Our members are in the top 35% of their academic class. All members must be leaders in one of the broad phases of collegiate life celebrated by O∆K: scholarship, athletics, service, communications, and the arts.
We were founded with the intention of bringing together a broad range of student leaders representing different aspects of campus involvement. We expect our circles to recruit and offer membership equally. Circles are expected to apply the same standards for grade point averages or levels of leadership requirements in tapping or selecting members. Our recruitment guidelines have been strengthened to clarify Omicron Delta Kappa’s commitment to being inherently fair in selecting new initiates based on our membership standards.
When I was initiated at the University of Georgia Circle in 2002, I remember listening to the initiation ceremony and being surprised at hearing individual references to George Washington and Robert E. Lee. Our Board of Trustees has since learned that beginning in 1957, language about the Society’s origins, which included these references to George Washington and Robert E. Lee as leaders, was added to the history section of our initiation ceremony. However, these personal references were not in the original membership ceremony, and neither man was involved in our organization since they were deceased long before the Society’s founding in 1914.
I know that many of our members from underrepresented populations have questioned why a ceremony, designed to welcome new individuals into our Society, held up only these two men as examples of leadership. While I was not a member of the governing board at the time, having been a circle advisor, I thought it was appropriate when the then Society Board of Directors voted in January 2018 to remove these individual references to Washington and Lee from the initiation ritual.
This revision to the initiation ceremony was an essential step in conveying to current and incoming O∆K members that all types of leaders are welcome. The Society first issued its Diversity Statement more than a decade ago. We expanded our Equal Opportunity Statement in 2015 to clarify that the Society’s programs, activities, and membership selection practices shall be free of bias. Since that same year, our organization has had a volunteer leadership group focused on diversity, equity, and inclusivity.
In spite of our recent progress, I believe that there is much more we need to do. Our National Headquarters staff is not diverse. Since 2013, only one full-time employee has been a person of color. While I know the citizens of Lexington, Virginia (where our headquarters are located), are having the difficult conversations about Lexington’s cultural heritage and its institutions, our address may make it challenging to recruit and retain a diverse staff. Personally, I was surprised and unsettled to see a large Confederate flag flying alongside the interstate leading into Lexington when I came to visit the headquarters in the summer of 2019.
Our Board of Trustees has 29 positions. At present, there are six open trustee-at-large positions on the board. Of the current board members, there are ten women and 13 men. There are seven individuals from under-represented populations (30% of the sitting 23 board members); however, when one looks at the current 13 at-large trustees (those individuals representing the more than 330,000-lifetime members of the Society), only two trustees are people of color (15%). We can do more to actively recruit a governing board that reflects the diversity found in our membership.
Our Board of Trustees also approved several structural changes in response to the survey recommendations and other feedback received throughout the earlier part of this year. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Committee was made a governing committee (meaning that it is now identified as part of the National Bylaws and tied to the Board of Trustees). All of the other governing committees of the Board (Executive, Development, Finance, Governance and Trusteeship, and Mission) have also been formally charged with considering how each committee’s work reflects the Society’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity. The position of National Diversity Officer was established, and I am pleased that Moneque Walker-Pickett (University of Miami, 1994) has agreed to serve in this role.
New awards celebrating those individuals, circles, and communities which embrace and champion diversity, equity, and inclusivity have been established. Plans are in development to determine how best to collect demographic data about Omicron Delta Kappa’s members. With the support of The Boulé Foundation, work continues to expand the Society’s presence at HBCU institutions. Our gift of membership program has received additional funding so that individuals with financial need may have the opportunity to join and develop as leaders through O∆K.
These are all concrete action steps. However, I believe that Omicron Delta Kappa needs to do more. We need to be an organization that is openly committed to social justice. By saying this, I am not advocating for the Society to become a political organization. That is not our mission or our purpose. However, as an organization which celebrates and develops leadership, we need to engage in difficult conversations about our organization’s history and heritage, how we can provide support for leaders of all backgrounds, and how we can prepare today’s collegiate leaders to be tomorrow’s community leaders with an understanding of how to work with diverse populations. Our traditions of leadership, as well as our past, current, and prospective members, expect nothing less.
By understanding where we could have more openly embraced social justice and realizing our potential to champion ethical and inclusive leadership, Omicron Delta Kappa will continue to advance its mission of bringing together diverse individuals to collaborate on matters of campus and community concern. As a mission, it is critically important to the future of our country and our world.
Willie L. Banks, Jr. is the chair-elect of the Omicron Delta Kappa Society and Educational Foundation Board of Trustees.