The Breakfast Club

I am often asked why I work for a fraternity and what I as a woman could possibly glean, let alone benefit from, in this role. While I could provide numerous examples of what working for a fraternity has taught me, what I have learned about the desperate need for more resources and transparency around men, masculinity, and mental health often takes my breath away.  

By Nancy C. Snowden

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My husband and I have a tradition: On the morning that either of us travels we go to one of our favorite breakfast spots and have a little time to connect before we jet off in opposite directions.

One of our most visited places is a small local diner that makes the best omelets you could ask for; the coffee is strong, the hash browns crispy. It is always bustling on the weekends, so we are not alone in our love for this diamond in the rough. 

This morning was different, though. It was quieter and emptier than we were used to on the weekends. We slid into our favorite booth, ordered our usual dishes and started to chat. A few minutes into our conversation I started to notice a phenomenon taking place around us. One by one, older gentlemen started to trickle in, staking out various spots of the restaurant. The waitress placed coffee and their usual orders in front of them as if she had done it a thousand times before.

I remember remarking to my husband about how sweet it was that these men had a daily routine to stick to. However, before I could finish the sentiment more men started showing up, joining the early arrivals and congregating in groups. Some brought newspapers they went over together, others clutched 12-step rehabilitation cards, books or even sports statistics from last weekend’s farm league baseball game.

It suddenly occurred to me that these weren’t just groups of older men eating breakfast – it went much deeper than that. These men weren’t just random acquaintances or a simple breakfast club; they were a tribe, a unit, a fraternity.

Webster’s Dictionary defines a tribe as “social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.” In Judaism, we often hear the terms “one of the tribe” or simply “the tribe” thrown around to refer to those who are a part of the Jewish faith. A fraternity is a tribe – men and women who join organizations with a common culture or set of accepted values that bind them and seemingly set them apart from others.

So where am I going with this? Breakfast clubs, tribes, fraternity men? Judaism? Yes, this is seemingly the kitchen sink of topics, but there is an underlying theme to each of them – the mental health of men, and, college-age men, in particular, and the depth to which this issue is impacting our members and how much they want to advocate for change.

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I am often asked why I work for a fraternity and what I as a woman could possibly glean, let alone benefit from, in this role. While I could provide numerous examples of what working for a fraternity has taught me, what I have learned about the desperate need for more resources and transparency around men, masculinity, and mental health often takes my breath away.  

Mental health has always been an issue that personally resonated with me. I come from a family that has grappled with mental illness. I myself have struggled to cope with mental illness and regularly sought out therapy and medication in order to curb the effects of depression and anxiety. I don’t have a degree in the field, but when it comes to lived experience, I might as well have a PhD. However, the way I viewed mental health personally, and how it translated into my professional life varied. I knew it solely as an individual, a woman with access to the care I needed and the social acceptance to never feel stigmatized in my pursuit.

It was during my time as a graduate student that I began toying with the idea of writing my thesis on the topic of espoused and enacted values in fraternal organizations, from a gendered perspective. I questioned why members of fraternities and sororities joined organizations with such clear values but struggled to articulate them, let alone enact them, in everyday life.

The answer was not one that I expected.

The reason why men struggled to enact the values of the organizations they belonged to had little to do with desire. Instead, it was tied to the often contradictory forces of societal pressures to perform to the gendered standards of their organizations.

According to psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s seminal 1981 work, The Philosophy of Moral Development, men work from an “ethic of justice” or one that centers around the black and white decision making of right versus wrong, without taking into account  the shades of grey that often litter decision-making among men, especially adolescent men.  What my research illuminated is that men in fraternities were not enacting their espoused values because of the inherent gaps between what their organization wanted them to do, what they felt they needed to do, and what society expected them to do. The pressure of conforming to the needs of so many different forces, while simultaneously trying to meet the expectation of their peers, is exhausting and confusing, to say the least.

And that poses a big problem:  Unable to wrestle with the numerous societal demands, young men increasingly look for other means to cope with the mounting pressure placed on their mental wellbeing. Drugs, alcohol and other more insidious substances, such as opiates, are growing in use. So why does this matter when it comes to mental health? How did a fraternity further my understanding of this issue?

Up until working in my current role with Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity, I had yet to turn much attention to the notion of men, masculinity and mental health. Not because I didn’t think it was significant; I hadn’t yet grasped its impact on those “in the weeds” looking for a light, a resource, or just a friend.

Recently, at its annual International Convention, Zeta Beta Tau convened a commission dedicated to the topic of mental health and drug addiction. I expected some general interest in the topic and figured a handful of passionate brothers would show up to discuss and make recommendations to the fraternity.

What happened was astounding.

Brothers showed up in droves, and filled the room, eager to discuss this topic and brainstorm about what they and the fraternity could do to advocate for change. Brothers shared stories of cluster suicide attempts, of wishing they knew how to talk to a brother beyond the canned rhetoric of “Man, that sucks.” They appealed for tools to teach them empathy and reduce the stigma around men earnestly conveying their feelings within the intimate bonds of brotherhood.

I was astounded as alumni brothers supported these conversations, passionately engaging brothers in envisioning the future of the fraternity and the impact it could have on this topic.

That day, a roomful of vulnerable fraternity men taught me about the mental health crisis.

Within their fraternity, they had found their tribe and their breakfast club. Little did they know that they had begun to discover how to move beyond the developmental ethic of justice that research and society has defined for them, and instead have begun  to care about themselves, and about one another.

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As a society, we have backed men into a corner, asking them to exhibit the machismo of action movie stars, the grit of a Wall Street businessman, and the emotional stoicism of a politician. We have told them all the things we want them to be, but rarely ask, “What do you need to be the best, happiest version of yourself?” It’s no wonder that we have college students stuck in the ever-growing limbo, the state of delayed adulthood and refusal to commit to work or relationships described by author and scholar Dr. Michael Kimmel in his 2008 book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. On top of that, we have villainized fraternities as bastions of toxic masculinity, incapable of reform, and unworthy of the chance.

I believe that the fraternity functions as the ultimate tribe, the standard of what the breakfast club I alluded to earlier, strives to provide. Fraternity, when cultivated correctly, lays the foundation for support, resources, and deep intimate friendships that perpetuate emotional growth, reduce stigma surrounding issues impacting young men, and generate conversations that are largely ignored in greater society.

I hope that in the work that I do at Zeta Beta Tau I will continually learn from the valuable lessons brothers share with me on a regular basis and harness this knowledge to contribute to their wellbeing. As Dr. Seuss writes in The Lorax, Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”


JWI believes engaging men and boys is a key component to ending gender-based violence. Our programs Boy to MentschGreen Light GoSafe Smart Dating#ChangeTheCulture, Ladies and Gentlemen, and Good Guys provide tools to promote healthy masculinity and facilitate discussions around sexual assault and harassment on college campuses.

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Nancy C. Snowden is a writer, champion for equality, & wellness advocate. In her professional life, Nancy has worked in Higher Education for 5+ years and currently serves Zeta Beta Tau fraternity as the Director of Chapter Services. Personally, Nancy has a passion for research, cooking, women’s issues, and spending time with her husband Alex and two dogs, Bennett & Kai. Nancy can be reached at [email protected] and her blog, Bluntly Written  can be found at https://bluntlywritten.wordpress.com/

Shared with permission from bluntlywritten.wordpress.com (September 2018).