On My Honor

by Alyssa Rosenberg

Thanks so much to Ta-Nehisi for having me back here again. It's such a pleasure to spend time with all of you, and to share space with a couple of writers I admire tremendously.

I was intrigued this weekend by the New York Times' pieces on the efforts of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts to rebrand themselves in the face of declining membership; for the Boy Scouts, membership rolls have dropped by 16 percent in the last decade, while the number of Girl Scouts has fallen by 13 percent in the same time period.

Some of the significant cultural issues the organizations face are radically different. The Boy Scouts don't allow atheists or agnostics to participate as Scouts or adult leaders, while the Girl Scouts voted in 1993 to allow members to substitute words or phrases for the promise "to serve God" in the Girl Scout promise. The Boy Scouts officially banned gay people from leadership roles in the organization in 1991, and in 2004 issued a position statement that said "homosexual conduct is inconsistent with obligations in the Scout Oath." The Girl Scouts adopted a policy in 1991 that said there are no rules about sexual orientation with regard to leadership or membership, except that folks should behave appropriately and not promote any sexual orientation to members. And Girl Scout groups are allowed to partner with Planned Parenthood to provide sex education to members. In other words, social issues may play some role in declining membership in each organization, but it's certainly not clear that kids are staying—or being kept away—from Scouting because the organizations have gotten either too permissive or too conservative.

It may seem silly to care so much about these kind of Mickey Mouse institutions. But this is why I do: I was a Girl Scout all the way through high school, mostly because I was doing volunteer work with a special troop for girls whose mothers were incarcerated at MCI Framingham through the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Program. The girls were picked up from all over the Boston area for meetings that occurred alternately at Girl Scout offices and in the visitors' room of the prison. I can't say that I learned a ton about prison life or anything—MCI is largely a medium security facility except for people who are awaiting trial, and I never got further in than the visitors' room. And I don't know if the programs we ran changed the lives of any individual girls or their mothers (who had to go through a lot of training programs before they could participate). But I did learn that the Girl Scouts were most useful when they were addressing a real, felt need for the girls in the troop. Whatever else we did, we cut through the bureaucracy and resource constraints of prison visits and got the girls in to see their mothers a couple of times a month, independent of whether their relatives or their foster parents had time to take them.

To run those kinds of programs, the Girl Scouts still need members who can pay activities fees without help and hustle the hell out of cookie sales. But the organization will be most relevant and important where it can meet needs other organizations can't, or won't, where it can be culturally sensitive and flexible. The pledge, "On my honor I will try to serve [God or who or whatever] and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law" is a good starting point. We can build out from there.