Ten-year-old Sylvia VanNorman has wanted to be a Cub Scout ever since her older brother Miles joined Edina’s Pack 168. She went to his pack meetings and even passed the rigorous swim test at his summer scout camp so she could spend time in the water, too.
“Basically me and my friend did all of the stuff, but just, we weren’t in uniform,” she said. Now, Sylvia’s got the uniform, and is working to earn an Arrow of Light award patch to put on it.
During a recent campout in Victoria’s Lake Auburn campground, she and five other girl Cub Scouts checked off adventure requirements, such as setting up a tent without help from an adult, and one other vital outdoor skill: “How to not burn a marshmallow.”
Sylvia is among the first girls in the country to become Cub Scouts as the Boy Scouts of America opens up to girls after more than a century of teaching morals, leadership and responsibility to boys only.
Since the shift was announced last fall, it’s been applauded and scrutinized, called forward-thinking and unnecessary. Now, the Edina scouts (part of an “early adopter” pilot) are testing out what the change means, beyond a new name for the group’s flagship program.
“It’s not called Boy Scouts anymore,” Sylvia said. “I correct everybody! It’s called Scouts BSA.”
For Sam VanNorman, Sylvia’s dad and a den leader, the shift means that he can now share the bonding experience with his whole family, not just himself and 13-year-old son Miles, but also daughter Sylvia and wife Maggie.
“I’m thrilled,” he said.
For the Boy Scouts of America, the shift, while historic, doesn’t mean the group is going fully coed: It is creating all-girl and all-boy dens for younger Cub Scouts, and will form single-gender troops for older scouts next year.
For their part, the Girl Scouts are battling for new members, as they work to convince parents that a girl-centric organization best knows how to shape their daughters into leaders.
A ‘market-driven shift’
The Boy Scouts’ latest move follows several recent steps toward inclusivity for a group that once resisted change, including expanding rights for gay scouts (in 2013), ending a ban on openly gay adult leaders (in 2015) and accepting boys based on the gender they list on their application instead of telling transgender boys they couldn’t be scouts (in 2017).
It also comes as the Twin Cities region’s local council, Northern Star Scouting, opens a new leadership center at its base camp near Fort Snelling.
With a climbing wall that’s a replica of cliffs in Taylors Falls, Minn., and an immersive escape room with a 9-foot-wide touch-screen table computer and surrounding video projections, the base camp hosts school field trips as well as birthday and bat mitzvah parties, reaching out to tens of thousands of kids who aren’t card-carrying scouts.
Kent York, the marketing and communications director of Northern Star Scouting, said the changes are a “market-driven shift” as the group works to stay relevant as kids and parents are now pulled in many directions, from organized sports to multiple after-school activities.
“As an organization that’s 108 years old,” York said, the question becomes, “OK, what are we doing to adapt to the environment in which we operate and still offer the things we do?”
The change isn’t happening all at once, however, and it isn’t happening for every pack. There were several steps that even the most enthusiastic den leaders, such as Sam and Maggie VanNorman and Pack 168 leadership, needed to take before girls were able to sign up.
First, because Boy Scouts of America runs its troops in partnership with chartering organizations such as churches, synagogues and civic groups, which provide a meeting space, Pack 168 had to get approval from its sponsoring church, said Joel Nordin, the pack’s co-leader and committee chairman. Next, the pack held an open session for parents to talk through the change.
Cub Scout packs across the country are setting up girls-only and boys-only dens, which will come together for larger, coed pack meetings and activities such as the Pinewood Derby race that has been a part of Cub Scouting since the 1950s.
But the organization is leaving it up to individual packs to decide whether to include girls, York said. So far, out of Northern Star Scouting’s 403 Cub Scout packs, about 100 have made the call to limit enrollment to boys only, he said.
The fight for members
Girl Scout leaders, who initially said they were “blindsided” by the move, have responded with Facebook ads that proclaim “For Girls. By Girls. All Girls,” even as the Boy Scouts stock their Scout Shops with uniform skorts and sparkly purple Lion Cub T-shirts.
The Boy Scouts’ change has driven Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys Chief Executive Officer Tish Bolger to clearly communicate her group’s girl-centric efforts. So far, this is working in her favor: Local Girl Scout membership is up 18 percent from last year, she said.
“We’re finding that parents aren’t necessarily assuming that a male-centric organization is what they prefer for their daughters,” she said. “Women are still marginalized in our society, and we know that. And so what we want to do is provide an opportunity and an environment where girls feel empowered and that it’s safe. And that girls have a community, and they can thrive there.”
Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are both making major, competing drives for new members this month.
On Sept. 20, Northern Star Scouting plans to have volunteers at every elementary school in the counties it serves to sign girls and boys up for Cub Scouts. Meanwhile, Girl Scouts of Minnesota and Wisconsin River Valleys expanded its Spirit Day sign-up drive into a Spirit Week, lighting Minneapolis’ Interstate I-35W bridge in green Wednesday night and encouraging girls to set up a backyard tent on Thursday.
Some of the girls, however, seem to be skirting the fray. Several of the girls in Pack 168 are also Girl Scouts, and don’t plan to quit, their parents said, but joined Cub Scouts to do more outdoor activities.
At Auburn Lake campground this summer, the Edina scouts started a campfire using just a flint. They learned how to tie a bowline knot from Sylvia’s older brother Miles, now a Boy Scout in Troop 123 who is serving as the girls’ den chief and mentor. The girls said they were looking forward to swimming in the lake and pocket knife lessons, which would earn them a Whittling Chip award.
Around the campfire, Sylvia wasn’t wondering why girls were now allowed to be Cub Scouts. It was why they were ever not allowed.
“I have no clue,” she said.
Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726