By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Deon Bryant found it a perfect fit when she joined Scouts BSA, formerly known as Boy Scouts.
The Skyline High School student said she attended a few Girl Scouts meetings but found her niche with Scouts BSA.
“The Boy Scouts was attractive to me because I like camping and the outdoors,” said the 16-year-old Mesa resident who described herself as a heavy-duty tomboy. “Both had definite advantages. But the cool, outdoorsy things appealed to me. I like to get my hands dirty.”
Deon was one of nearly 6,000 girls who joined Scouts BSA in the first two weeks, according to Kate Jacobs, a spokeswoman at the Scout’s national headquarters in Texas.
Boy Scouts of America opened its venerable program to girls Feb. 1 and changed the name to a gender-neutral one, though troops can only be either all boys or all girls 11 to 17 years old.
“Troops continue to form every day across the country as word spreads about this incredible opportunity,” Deon said.
The open enrollment comes a year after BSA allowed girls to become Cub Scouts, another once all-male bastion for ages 5-10. Since January 2018, 77,000 girls have joined Cub Scouts, Jacobs said.
At Phoenix-based Grand Canyon Council BSA, which covers most of Arizona with 11 districts, so far 300 girls have signed up for Cub Scouts and 68 for Scouts BSA, according to COO Joseph Curtis. Grand Canyon’s current total registration was 35,000.
The state’s second BSA council is in Tucson and serves four districts in southern Arizona.
BSA’s National Executive Board has steadily expanded membership, beginning in 2013 when it lifted a ban on gay boys, followed by allowing gay adult scout leaders in 2015. Two years after that, BSA welcomed transgender boys into its ranks.
Grand Canyon Council CEO Andy Price discounts dwindling membership for BSA’s launch of its Family Scouting Program. He said the organization was responding to requests from families.
“Every year of my career I’ve had families ask, ‘How come our daughters can’t participate?’” said Price, who’s been in Scouting since he was 8.
His response mirrors a statement put out by BSA in 2017 that cited “years of receiving requests from families and girls” for a reason behind its historic decision.
The nonprofit organization has seen its youth membership dip to 2.3 million in 2017 from 2.7 million in 2011, according to BSA’s annual reports. Curtis said Grand Canyon’s membership has not increased in the last three years.
Compounding the overall drop in membership, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced last year it was severing its century-old sponsorship ties with BSA to pursue its own programming that would be better suited to its needs. It will continue funding chartering activities through the end of 2019.
Nationally, about 425,000 Mormon youth participate in BSA programs – 18.6 percent of the total membership, according to BSA officials. Roughly 70 percent of Grand Canyon’s youth membership belongs to the Church, Price said, adding the organization did “a survey with parents and 30 percent will stay with Scouting.”
Price said the survey results were encouraging because the scouts and leaders who remain are dedicated to the program and not in it because they were told to join by the Church.
Sarah Sokiveta is a longtime scout leader who’s staying put.
“My scout leadership has never been because I was a member of the Church,” said the Mesa resident, a scoutmaster of a nine-girl troop.
Sokiveta said what attracted her to BSA Scouts was its mission statement “to prepare young people to make ethical and moral choices over their lifetimes by instilling in them the values of the Scout Oath and Law.”
Girls and boys will have the same curriculum since the program is not gender-specific, according to Price.
Sokiveta said girls who choose Cub Scouts or Scouts BSA generally have a brother or parent involved in the programs. In her troop, half are new to Scouting and the other half joined because a brother was a member, she said.
“For every three girls who join, we pick up a brother,” Price added.
Deon said her younger brother was in the Cub Scouts and her father, a pack leader. She is now a senior patrol leader – the first female to achieve that in the council – and has her eyes set on earning Eagle rank.
Both Sokiveta’s 13-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, Bridgette, are in the program.
Bridgette, who attends Montessori Education Centre Charter School, said Girl Scouts didn’t appeal to her.
“I have a few friends who said in the Girl Scouts they learned things but never do anything with what they’ve learned,” she said.
With Scouts BSA, there was camping, learning to tie knots and whittling, said Bridgette, who owns three pocket knives.
While families may be embracing BSA’s open enrollment, its counterpart, Girl Scouts of the United States of America, called the move underhanded.
Its president Kathy Hopinkah Hannan sent a three-page scathing letter to BSA’s then-President Randall Stephenson, accusing his organization of a “covert campaign to recruit girls” that would undercut the Girl Scouts.
She stated that her organization focused on creating engaging new programming around STEM, high-adventure experience in the outdoors, entrepreneurship and other offerings to keep up with the times and suggested BSA should do the same to attract members instead of raiding the Girl Scouts.
“Over the last century, GSUSA has adapted to the changing environment, always prioritizing the health, safety and well-being of girls,” she wrote. “For BSA to explore a program for girls without such priorities is reckless.”
She requested BSA instead focus on “serving the 90 percent of American boys not currently participating in Boy Scouts” and expand its scope of programming to all boys, “including those that BSA has historically underserved and underrepresented such as African-American and Latino boys.”
Price said BSA was not stealing members from the Girl Scouts but rather adding a program for girls in the community just like a 4-H Club or any other youth program.
“We don’t look at it as competition because so many girls are not in scouting, period,” said Bill Nelson, scoutmaster for BSA Girl Troop 14 in Ahwatukee. “We don’t want to compete with anyone else in scouting and in recruiting girls.”
Nelson’s troop of seven girls, ages 11-15, is one of two girl troops currently formed in Ahwatukee.
“As people find out about the program, we are getting more and more people interested in joining,” he said. “Some of the girls who joined last week have brothers are scouts and so they know what the program is a little bit about.”
Nelson, who’s been an adult leader with BSA for over 20 years, has a son who earned Eagle rank, and a granddaughter and grandson who both joined a Scouts BSA troop.
“My granddaughter is 13,” Nelson said. “Mostly she joined to be able to do camping and hiking, archery and outdoors stuff.”
Both scouting organizations’ members earn merit badges in various activities to advance toward the highest achievement offered – Eagle rank for Scouts BSA and Gold Award for Girl Scouts. And both organizations focus on molding their members into successful and productive citizens.
Both can tout members who became famous.
Director Steven Spielberg, astronaut Neil Armstrong and former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg were all Boy Scouts. Former Girl Scouts include tennis star Venus Williams, astronaut Sally Ride and former Secretary of State and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
But a 2011 study published in Sage Journals looked at gender messages in both organizations and found girls were offered more activities intended to be performed in groups than were boys.
Boys also were offered proportionately more activities with scientific content and proportionately fewer artistic activities than girls, according to the study.
The perception Girl Scouts has limited opportunities for outdoor adventure is not true, say its officials.
They pointed to the summer camp programs. Scouts BSA offers year-round camping.
In Arizona, there are four camp locations where girls have the opportunity to choose from age-appropriate activities like archery, backpacking, ziplining, canoeing, white-water rafting and more, according to Girl Scouts.
Susan de Queljoe, spokeswoman for the Girl Scouts-Arizona Cactus-Pine Council, said it was still too early to comment if BSA’s recruitment will affect membership. The Cactus Pine Council’s current membership of 21,000 girls in more than 90 communities across central and northern Arizona has held steady for the past two years, de Queljoe said.
“Time will tell what will happen,” she said. “Boy Scouts allowing girls is a disservice to both boys and girls.”
She said boys and girls deserve the opportunity to belong to a single-gender group.
“I think that Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts fulfill really good leadership skills,” she said. “But research shows that girls do much better if in a single-gender environment where the whole patriarchal society is not dictating to them to be cute, pretty or quiet.
“They end up in an all-girl environment and end up being leaders in every single way.”
She said girls are exposed every day to a two-gender world and Girl Scouts gives them a place where they can be themselves, don’t have to worry about failing in front of boys or looking smarter than them – or any of the other cultural norms.
They can learn and find their own voice, which prepares them as adults to work in a “very patriarchal society,” de Queljoe said.
“Women do not have an equal place in this country,” she said. “Women are not valued the same way as men are. Women are not paid as much as men. Girl Scouts is one area where girls can learn in whatever way they wish. They don’t have to be second fiddle to anybody.”
Gilbert resident Isabella Belanger, a lifelong Girl Scout since she first joined as a Brownie, can testify firsthand what the program has done for her.
“I’ve learned to go outside my bubble and make friends,” said Belanger, 18, who attends Chandler-Gilbert Community College and is a Gold Award recipient. “One of the things that is really important is stepping outside your bubble when you feel you are all alone.”
She said she also learned leadership skills that served her well as a section leader for her marching band during her senior year at Gilbert High School.
And being in a girls-only group was a big help, she said.
“Sometimes you are a little self-conscious around boys, that is something that happens,” she said. “It’s nice to be surrounded by girls going through the same thing. It gave me the confidence to do things.”
Price noted while BSA’s four other programs for young people, Sea Scouts, Venturing, Exploring and STEM have always been co-ed, the Cub Scouts dens and Scouts BSA troops are single-gender.
That may be so, de Queljoe said, but the packs and troops can participate together in co-ed activities. Packs are made up of several dens and can be all-girls, all boys or co-ed.
The Girl Scouts in November went as far as to sue BSA for trademark infringement, claiming it didn’t have the right to use “scouts” or “scouting” by themselves for services offered to girls. The lawsuit, which asks for monetary damages, is making its way through federal court.
The Girl Scout’s suit isn’t the only legal issue facing BSA. The organization is fighting a number of sexual-abuse lawsuits and may consider bankruptcy as an option in light of mounting legal costs, according to several media reports in December.
In its latest annual report, BSA noted its financial condition for 2018 and the next few years ahead depended on three factors, including the outcome of the sexual-abuse litigation. In December 2017, BSA upped its annual membership fee to $33 from $24 for all members.
Like BSA, Girl Scouts also is facing plummeting membership, falling to 1.76 million girls in 2017 from 2.5 million in 2008.
But one thing Girl Scouts will never do is follow the route of its counterpart.
“We have a program that is based on research, based with life-changing outcomes, and we are going to continue to build a girl’s self worth, confidence, courage and leadership,” de Queljoe said. “I don’t see us taking boys. Girl scouts will never be open to taking boys.”