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Girl Scouts, Girl Scouts relevancy, Girl Scouts restructuring
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Girl Scouts Reach Out to Today’s Girls

December 25, 2008 03:15 PM
by Anne Szustek
With revamped badge programs and career seminars, the Girl Scouts is carving a role for itself in 21st century America.

Girl Scouts Reinvents Itself

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The Girl Scout Promise, committed to memory by kindergarteners and senior citizens alike, says, “I will help people at all times.”

The decades-old vow is now being turned on its head as Girl Scouts looks to its 2.6 million members for clues as to how to remain relevant to “21st Century girls.”

The organization, founded in Savannah, Ga. by Juliette “Daisy” Low in 1912, taught its members survival skills such as cooking, sewing, outdoor preparedness and the virtues of being a good citizen. While these are unarguably venerable pursuits, as evidenced by the group’s numbers, the future women of America are increasingly failing to squeeze in time for troop meetings among sports practices, music rehearsals and homework.

The number of girls participating in the Girl Scouts has dropped by 250,000 over five years, according to Time magazine. In response, the organization has taken its motto to heart: “Be prepared.”

Rather than learning how to tie a bowline, the Girl Scouts’ executive board has taken a decidedly different approach to facing the problem of dwindling membership: constructing a “core business strategy” to target girls more likely to opt for a project on blogging rather than, say, camping. The organization hired a cadre of marketing and management consultants to rehash programming and business tactics.

One course of action is Girl Scouts’ new “journeys,” which promote career-readiness skills such as “community asset mapping,” “assessing team dynamics” and critical thinking, as well as offer flexibility to create longer-term service projects of particular interest to an individual scout or troop.

The effort seems to be paying off. A 17-year-old in Evanston, Ill. developed an overnight program, “Secrets to Surviving High School,” geared toward eighth graders. Another Chicago-area teen got hands-on experience in the magazine publishing industry after getting acquainted with female business leaders at Camp CEO.

Traditional bastions of Girl Scouts, such as cookie selling, camping and badges, are still a part of the program. But the badges, offered alongside the “journeys,” have been revamped with future careers in mind. “Yesterday’s ‘home economics’ badge is now called the ‘chef’ badge,” writes the Chicago Tribune.

Fiscal restructuring is also part of the Girl Scouts’ plan to stay alive. Nationwide, the organization was down $1 million in membership dues and another $1 million in grants. As a result, local councils are consolidating. The national organization plans to cut the number of regional councils from 312 to 109 to help reduce operational costs.

Seven councils around Chicago rolled together to form one group, the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. According to the Chicago Tribune, with almost 100,000 members, the united council is the largest in the country.

Other cost-cutting measures include closing council-run summer camps, some of which were going unused. The Girl Scouts sold a camp near Racine, Wis. for $7 million, and sold 65 acres in upstate New York.

Camping has been dwindling in popularity among Scouts for the past 10 years. Girls now tend to go for yurts equipped with electricity and handicap accessibility, rather than tents, writes Time magazine. Mary Connell, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey, told Time, “These are 21st Century girls. They, at the very least, want to be near a cell phone tower.”

Opinion & Analysis: Today’s Girl Scouts: too progressive?

Whether it’s needlepoint or a PowerPoint project, the organization has long sought to promote female empowerment. A Junior Girl Scout handbook in use during the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, encouraged girls to consider career paths as diverse as auto repair, computer programming and journalism, as well as teaching about American folk arts and camping.

As the Girl Scouts seeks to establish relevancy in a changing society, some circles contend that the group’s progressive aims go too far. In 2004, two troops in the town of Crawford, Texas—home to President George W. Bush’s ranch—refused to deliver cookies in protest over the local Bluebonnet Council’s decision to name a Planned Parenthood executive a “woman of distinction.” The troops were also opposed to Planned Parenthood’s sex-education program, which distributes literature to fifth- through ninth-graders about masturbation, homosexuality and birth control, and includes illustrations showing the correct way to put on a condom.

Donna Coody, a local Brownie troop leader who disbanded her group in protest, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press, "You're telling these girls to raise their fingers up to pledge to honor God and country, and yet you're handing out materials saying homosexuality is OK.”

The Bluebonnet Council says that it gave no funding to the programs and does not send girls to attend them. Meanwhile, the cookie boycott backfired.

Becky Parker, a troop leader in charge of cookie distribution in the Waco area, told AP, "People thought the boycott was ridiculous and was one man's extremist views.”

According to the Bluebonnet Council, the Girl Scouts organization takes no official policy on abortion or sex education, and has no national relationship with Planned Parenthood.

Related Topic: American Heritage Girls

In response to the controversy in Texas, Christian girls’ organizations whose programming parallels traditional Girl Scouts’ activities have emerged. In 1995, Patti Garibay, a Cincinnati-area woman, founded the American Heritage Girls. Garibay was unhappy that the Girl Scouts allowed lesbian troop leaders, and that girls were allowed to substitute words for “God” in the Girl Scout Promise.

Coody opted to move her charges into Garibay’s organization. “I felt like the Girl Scouts’ morals were definitely lacking, and the girls needed another choice,” she told AP.

Members are not required to be religious, although leaders must sign a declaration of faith. Meetings open with a prayer, and troops need to be opened through either a private school or church professing beliefs similar to those of the American Heritage Girls.

Reference: Girl Scouts

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