Hillary Clinton. Madeleine Albright. Barbara Walters.* These powerful women have all shaped the course of the United States. And they have something else in common: They were all Girl Scouts.
The girls’ leadership organization has more than 2 million current scouts and 59 million living alumnae. Nearly half of all American women have been Girl Scouts at some point in their lives. Their uniforms, badges, and cookies are synonymous with what it means to be an American girl. Or at least a white, suburban American girl.
Girl Scouts has been losing members for more than a decade as it struggles to reach the new American girl, who is more likely than ever to be an ethnic minority or come from poor, immigrant families. Unlike many scouts who followed in their mother’s footsteps, these girls and their parents have few connections to the 104-year-old organization. And the Girl Scouts can’t seem to find enough volunteers to lead troops for all the girls on the waiting list.
Declining membership is hardly unique to the Girl Scouts—membership in most youth groups is down. To stay relevant, the Girls Scouts has revamped its outdoor-oriented programs to include STEM activities and financial-literacy education. It has also made an aggressive push to reach underserved communities, meaning poorer, ethnic minorities. It hired its first Latina CEO in 2011 and local councils began organizing all-Spanish-speaking scout troops. Most program materials are also available in Spanish. You’d be hard-pressed to find a photo on its website that doesn’t prominently show a smiling African American or Hispanic girl. The Girl Scouts has been a largely inclusive organization since the first troop was launched in Georgia in 1912, though black and white girls were segregated in different troops and summer camps until the 1950s. And the organization boasts many influential black alumnae—Condoleezza Rice, for one.