Some thoughts about the Boy Scouts’ move to admit girls

Photo (cc) 2013 by Phoebe Baker

I’m no longer involved with the Boy Scouts (not boycotting; just at a different stage of my life), but I continue to take an interest in what they’re up to. Admitting girls and giving them a chance to become Eagle Scouts strikes me as odd, given that both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts were set up with the idea that there is value in having single-gender youth programs. The Girl Scouts aren’t admitting boys, so this comes across as an effort by the Boy Scouts to encroach on the Girl Scouts’ turf in order to bolster their own shrinking programs.

When our kids were younger, I was a Boy Scout leader and my wife was a Girl Scout leader. It was my impression that the Girl Scouts was a better-run program with none of the issues that bedeviled the Boy Scouts such as its longtime ban on gay scouts and leaders (since lifted) and atheists (still in effect).

I’m not sure how the Girl Scouts can respond to this latest move. The Boy Scouts may well have some success in recruiting girls who would rather be in a program integrated by gender. In our Facebook discussion, a few people have suggested that the Boy Scouts have a more robust outdoors program than the Girl Scouts, and that girls interested in that should be welcomed. Still, I’m skeptical as to whether this is a good move.

Over at The Boston Globe, Derrick Jackson offers a different perspective.

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How Trump’s toxic touch could contaminate the scouting movement

Photo (cc) 2013 by Phoebe Baker.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Note: On Thursday, July 27, the BSA’s chief scout executive, Mike Surbaugh, issued a strong statement about Trump’s speech that said in part, “We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.” Read the whole thing here.

Donald Trump contaminates everything he touches. So no one should have been surprised when his speech at the Boy Scouts’ national jamboree took a nasty turn into partisan politics. After all, it’s always about him.

But there is a larger issue at stake here: the fate of the Boy Scouts of America, which has been slowly evolving out of its discriminatory past. As an Eagle scout, a former scoutmaster, and the father of an Eagle scout, I really care about the future of the organization. And I’m concerned that President Trump’s toxic rhetoric will stain a movement already seen by many as anachronistic.

Make no mistake — Trump’s speech on Monday went well beyond the bounds of anodyne patriotism that has characterized remarks delivered to the scouts by past presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama. As he has repeatedly, Trump dwelled on his Electoral College victory map, which was “so red it was unbelievable.” He derided the “fake media,” claiming they would play down the size of the crowd — as though (as The Washington Post put it) the 30,000 scouts had turned out for him rather than the jamboree. He boasted that he’d bring “Merry Christmas” back into the lexicon, ignorant of scouting’s embrace of all religious faiths. He put in a plug for “killing this horrible thing known as Obamacare.”

And yes, the scouts booed Trump’s reference to Hillary Clinton and chanted “USA! USA! USA!” a few times. But scouting is a pretty conservative movement, and I have no doubt that many of those in attendance were Trump supporters. Those of us in Blue New England are outliers within the BSA, and the president’s actions were not helpful to the idea that scouting is for everyone, not just for kids in red states. Indeed, based on some of the reaction I’ve seen on Twitter, many people already believe the worst about the Boy Scouts, and they saw Trump’s remarks as confirmation of their stereotyped views rather than as a transgressive outburst.

Let me also put to rest the notion that Trump shouldn’t have been invited. Scouting has always had a close relationship with the federal government. It has held a congressional charter since 1916. The president of the United States is also the honorary president of the BSA. My Eagle card is signed by Richard Nixon; my son’s by George W. Bush. The problem isn’t that Trump was invited. It was solely in what he said. Now he has put the national organization in an impossible position. If the leadership fails to go beyond the boilerplate statement it has already issued, then it will take flak from Trump critics. But if it makes it clear that Trump’s remarks were inappropriate, then it will alienate its largely conservative membership. This is what Trump does — he divides.

The sad thing is that the BSA has come a long way in recent years. Seen as a force for progressive values during the civil-rights era, scouting later fell under the sway of cultural and religious conservatives. For years, the movement was known mostly for discriminating against gay boys and adult leaders. The ban was upheld by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision. As I wrote in The Boston Phoenix in 2001, that decision was misguided because it failed to take into account the reality that a small number of unelected leaders were setting policies opposed by many within the organization.

Gradually, the BSA dropped its ban, first allowing openly gay scouts, then gay leaders. It is the height of irony that Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was perhaps the key scouting official responsible for pushing the national organization to end its discriminatory ways. That led the Mormon Church, a major force within scouting, to pull out of two programs for older boys. Unfortunately, scouting continues to discriminate against atheists, as its admirable embrace of boys of all faiths does not extend to those of no faith.

Will scouting endure? Long before Trump’s speech, that was a question with no certain answer. Membership has been declining for years. Uniforms, camping, and hiking have long since given way to youth sports and other activities. The great thing about scouts is that it accommodated all kinds of kids, including those who didn’t fit in elsewhere. To their credit, scouting’s national leaders have slowly been moving into the 21st century. Trump’s speech, though, was a huge setback, and it’s going to take a long time for the movement to recover.

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Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold (II)

Read this scorcher of an editorial (link now fixed) from the New Haven Register on the Boy Scouts’ homophobia. Also, the Connecticut Yankee Council announced last week (before the national vote) that it will stop discriminating against boys and adults on the basis of sexual orientation.

The walls are crumbling. And my guess is that the national headquarters of the Boy Scouts of America no longer has the juice to enforce its discriminatory policies at the local level.

Why the Boy Scouts’ half-measure won’t hold

Boy_Scouts_BSA_Stamp

This commentary appeared earlier at The Huffington Post.

The compromise announced by the Boy Scouts of America on Thursday is untenable. And that is precisely why it’s good news.

More than 60 percent of the organization’s national leadership voted to approve a policy ending discrimination against openly gay scouts while keeping in place the ban against gay adult leaders. With the BSA finally dragging itself into the late 20th century, can the 21st be far behind?

The answer, I hope, is that the time to end discrimination has arrived. But it isn’t going to be accomplished without a lot of strife. As this story from the Associated Press makes clear, the organization seems likely to rip itself apart. Members of the homophobic religious right are already threatening to leave.

John Stemberger, the founder of an anti-gay group called OnMyHonor.net, went so far as to claim the BSA had caved in to “bullies” from Washington and Hollywood — a perniciously offensive twist given the bullying that many gay youths endure.

At the same time, you can be sure that those who have been fighting against discrimination will keep pushing. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, a scout leader, noted several months ago, scout councils in liberal enclaves such as the Boston area have already endorsed nondiscrimination policies. Thursday’s national vote is an invitation to defy openly the ban on gay adult leaders.

I write from considerable experience. I am an Eagle scout. So is my 22-year-old son. I’m the former scoutmaster of his troop, and though I’m not as active these days, I continue to be a registered adult leader. I believe that scouting can be a life-altering experience, introducing boys to teamwork, fair play, love of the outdoors and respect for the environment.

As a scout leader who has participated in a number of training sessions, I can attest that the BSA’s discriminatory policies never came up in the context of actions we were expected to take. Even in conversations those policies were rarely mentioned. Here in the Northeast, I’ve found that most (though not all) adult leaders are opposed to discrimination.

We all make our peace with such things in our own way. Like Derrick Jackson, my personal policy was to hang in there as long as I was not put in a position of having to discriminate. I never was, though of course I also have no way of knowing how many gay kids and adults stayed away because they thought they wouldn’t be accepted. Still, I believed — and still do — that the good in scouting outweighs the bad, and that the organization is more likely to change if people of goodwill stay involved.

Though Thursday’s vote can be seen as a modest step forward, another possible compromise floated earlier this year would have been far more workable. You may remember that one: groups that charter troops, such as churches and civic organizations, would have been free to set their own policies.

Such a compromise would have accurately reflected how the BSA actually operates, as troops are considered part of their chartering organizations. To concoct a hypothetical, it would have opened the way for a Unitarian Universalist church to sponsor a troop that allowed gay scouts and adult leaders as well as atheists, another group banned under current BSA policy.

Following an uproar, though, the BSA’s national leadership retreated, leading to this week’s action — and to an opportunity to end scouting’s discriminatory policies once and for all. I welcome the moment. Far better to bring this embarrassment to an end than to muddle through for another five to 10 years.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Goldsmith awards reflect the changing media landscape

I recently had the privilege of helping to judge more than 100 entries for the 2013 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, which is administered by Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center. We chose six finalists, which were announced immediately, and a winner, which will be honored on Tuesday evening.

At a time when news organizations are struggling to survive, it was heartening to see so much good work. But the finalists also show how the world of investigative journalism is changing.

For instance, two of the newspapers that made it to the finalists’ circle, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune, are owned by the troubled Tribune Co., which recently came out of bankruptcy and is now up for sale. If Tribune Co. ends up with the wrong owner, investigative excellence at its newspapers could become a thing of the past.

On the other hand, another finalist was produced by a collabortion among nonprofit news organizations: the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, Public Radio International and the Investigative News Network. This is no longer surprising. Rather, it is further evidence that nonprofits are essential to carrying out public-service journalism.

Further evidence of the way things are in 2013: two of the finalists were produced by the New York Times, which, despite financial problems of its own, is more firmly established today as our leading news organization than perhaps at any other time in our history.

The sixth finalist is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox paper that has been experiencing something of a revival in recent years.

The finalists’ entries themselves run the gamut, from sexual abuse in Boy Scout troops, to Walmart’s corporate misbehavior in Mexico, to how the chemical and tobacco industries conspired to foist toxic flame retardants upon the public.

In addition to the investigative reporting award, also to be presented on Tuesday will be the Career Award for Excellence in Journalism, which will go to keynote speaker Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times. The Goldsmith Book Prize will go to Jonathan M. Ladd for “Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters” and Rebecca MacKinnon for “Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom.”

The event, which is open to the public, will begin at 6 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at 79 JFK St. near Harvard Square.

Meeting my match

At the summit of Mt. Monadnock

Two years ago, following a six-day, 50-mile backpacking trip with our Boy Scout troop along the Appalachian Trail in the Berkshires, I suggested something different for 2009: the Monadnock-Sunapee Greenway, a 48-mile trail in western New Hampshire that connects those two mountains.

The AT in New England tends to be choked with thru-hikers in August, some of them on the dubious side. And the Greenway between Monadnock and Sunapee was relatively flat, or so I’d been told. So on the clear, sunny morning of Saturday, Aug. 8, four scouts and four adult leaders headed for Jaffrey, N.H., to begin a five-day trip. And ran into trouble almost immediately.

At 3,165 feet, Monadnock is a modest mountain. Now that a tramway has been built to the summit of Mt. Fuji, Monadnock has actually overtaken it as the most-climbed in the world. Yet Monadnock is always harder than it looks, and I say that as someone who’d hiked it six times before, most recently last fall.

We took a path none of us had hiked — the Birchtoft Trail, up Monadnock’s eastern slope — and then the Red Spot Trail. That turned out to be exceptionally steep, with lots of hand-to-hand climbing up rock faces while wearing full backpacks. The adults were pretty much blasted by the time we reached the summit.

But our day was far from over. At the top we picked up the Dublin Trail (which is co-terminus with the Greenway), which we took to the northern base of the mountain. And from there we hiked to Spiltoir Shelter — one of a series of adirondacks with adjacent tent sites.

Somewhere along the way it began to dawn on me that, at 53, I wasn’t the hiker I’d been even two years ago, though I’d been running and my weight was reasonably good. To go backpacking during a hot week in the summer is to suffer, and I’d known that going in. But, somehow, the suffering-to-enjoyment ratio had shifted into the negative.

As it turned out, the next three days were not flat but, rather, consisted of one sharp, heart-pounding hill after another. We took a few shortcuts, and on one, along a paved road into the tiny village of Washington, I took a hard fall, splitting my knee open and bruising my right hand and wrist badly enough that I thought I might have broken it. That would have made me the second adult to leave the group. Fortunately, by the next morning it felt much better.

It wasn’t until we hit camp the fourth night, at Moose Lookout, that I was confident I would make it to the end. It poured that night. And though my new REI tent performed quite well, the trail on Wednesday was a muddy, sloppy mess. We struggled to the top of Mt. Sunapee (elevation: 2,743 feet) by noon, then took the Summit Trail down to the parking lot. Our week was over. (View in photo at right is from the Sunapee summit.)

The scouts had no problems, and we adults spent the week trying (and failing) to keep up with them. Three had participated in the 50-miler two years ago. The fourth had climbed Monadnock with a Cub Scout group I’d helped lead when he was barely 5 years old.

As for me, my sixth 50-miler was probably my last. I’d gone on three in the 1970s, two as a scout and one as a 21-year-old, helping my old troop. And I’ve gone on three as a scout leader in recent years, starting in 2005, with my son as one of the scouts. It was hard in ’05 and ’07, but it’s harder now.

Sure, I could run more. I could lose another 10 pounds. Realistically, though, that’s not going to happen. Right now, shorter, easier trips in cooler weather sound like the way to go. I’m back in one piece, and there were times last week when I wondered if that would be possible.

Photos of Kennedy and trail sign by John Kuconis.

A no-class comment

As the father of a son who recently earned his Eagle award and a daughter who just got her Silver, I’m appalled at a comment from a spokeswoman for the Boy Scouts of America that appears in today’s Boston Globe. Renee Fairrer tells reporter Irene Sege:

The Girl Scouts, pretty much they’re known for the Girl Scout cookies. When people think of Boy Scouts, they think of Eagle awards. They think of service.

Girl Scouts have to put in a tremendous number of service hours for their awards. The requirements can’t be directly compared, but the Silver award, for girls 11 to 14 years old, specifies that a girl put in 40 hours. The Gold, for girls up to the age of 18, requires 65 hours, according to a workbook my daughter has.

The Eagle, which a boy can earn up until he turns 18, does not specify a minimum number of hours for a service project, though such projects usually run about 100 cumulative hours from everyone who participates. In practical terms, that means the scout himself generally puts in fewer than 40 hours of his own time.

Too bad Fairrer didn’t understand that before she opened her mouth and inserted her foot.