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Girl Scouts Aims to Update Image

Dearth of volunteer leaders, especially minorities, prompts new strategies.

October 20, 2002|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Troop leader June Cleaver in a starched green shirtdress -- it's an enduring yet outdated and disabling image that Girl Scouts of the USA is taking bold steps to replace for the survival of the 90-year-old institution.

Girls by the millions -- 2.8 million, to be exact -- still want to be Scouts. It's just that their moms and other women can't or won't lead troops.

Adult role models shepherding girls toward good citizenship and success are the cornerstone of the organization founded in 1912. And the dearth of such volunteers, especially among the country's growing Asian and Latino populations, threatens to cripple it.

As 15,000 Girl Scouts and volunteers gather at the Long Beach Convention Center through today for their national convention, strategies for attracting Latina volunteers ages 18 and older will be central to policies delegates will consider. "We are involved in a major effort to recruit Hispanic girls and Asian girls," said Joannie Ransom, executive director of the Angeles Girl Scout Council and a co-coordinator of the convention. "In order to keep Girl Scouting relevant, it is so important that every girl has an opportunity to become the very best she can be through Girl Scouting."

For a national organization that was a fixture of white suburbia at its 1969 peak of 4 million girls, shifts in race, ethnicity and cultural mores also have depleted membership, to about 2.8 million as of September 2001. About 75% of those members are white. That number includes girls who are not Scouts in troops but participate in Girl Scout-run programs.

Nearly 11% are African American, and black membership continues to rise, according to Michelle Landa, a national spokeswoman.

But efforts in almost every state have gained new members in the unlikeliest of places -- homeless shelters, migrant farm encampments, Khmer-speaking Cambodian neighborhoods and what would seem to be the capitol of anti-Scout territory, juvenile hall.

Clearly, the Girl Scouts of yesteryear -- those who had to sport the nerdy uniform of green beret and knee socks, who sewed sit-upons of vinyl filled with newspaper, who crafted for light and cooking the buddy burners of wax-dipped rope coiled in tuna cans -- have been replaced.

The founding mission remains: to serve every girl, everywhere. Uniforms have been updated to include not just Girl Scout green but navy and khaki -- there is also a confused garment called a skort -- and they are completely optional. Badges are still earned. But they have names like "Stress Less" and "Global Awareness."

Most incredibly, the Girl Scouts are now sometimes even -- gasp! -- serving boys.

"Nobody likes to advertise that, but in communities where we are trying to increase membership, like the Cambodian and Hispanic groups, they are family-oriented, and we can't exclude anyone -- not even boys," explained Michelle Burton, economic development director for the Girl Scouts Council of Greater Long Beach.

As she says this, a glance at her appearance is telling: She is wearing a Talbots-looking pine green cardigan, modest A-line skirt and sensible pumps. Her hair is in cornrow braids, into which beads have been woven in "the colors of the African flag," she explained.

Burton said she is a truer picture of the Girl Scout of 2002 than the Betty Crocker stereotype the organization aims to overcome.

"In Girl Scouting, we have the challenge of removing the stigma that we're an upper-class, white organization, and we haven't ever been," said Burton, part of a council that oversees troops and programs in 17 communities, from Catalina Island to Compton.

Standing in front of the convention center Saturday morning, a group of Girl Scouts from Corona, near Riverside, including black, Latina and white members, snapped photographs alongside their mothers and troop leader Barbara Mathews.

Elnora Gomez, 53, a mother of one of the Scouts, said she grew up yearning to be a member, but she could not afford the fees. Another mother, Alma Padilla, 38, said she, too, wanted to be a member but her Latino parents were resistant to the idea because it was unfamiliar to them, and they were wary about letting her go on group field trips.

Now, their daughters are not only learning the values taught by the organization, they are learning about different cultures and foods from their Scouting peers. The Corona troop also has members with Italian, French, Japanese and Hungarian backgrounds.

Mathews, 52, has been a member of the Scouts for 34 years, and she has watched its membership diversify ethnically and among social classes.

"The national organization has made a real effort to try to reach out to other groups," she said. "It's great because I hated to see groups feel like they were being excluded."

National membership of Latino, African American and Asian American girls has increased from 2000 to 2001, the latest figures available, according to Girl Scouts of the USA.

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