Should Girl Scouts Go Back to Basics?

At their convention, Girls Scouts USA is facing a split between traditional and modern—should its young members be campfire-building, or debating female body image?

“We’ve got a group of people organized,” says Marty Woelfel. “I won’t tell you how many.”

What she will tell me is that there’s a plan that’s been brewing for a year and a half, and that “a whole lot of people” are involved.

A proud volunteer with the Girl Scouts of Kentuckiana, one of the 112 councils that make up Girl Scouts USA, Woelfel is on a mission to return her beloved institution to its former glory. She, along with a phalanx of other old-school Girl Scout volunteers, believe that the Scouts has drifted from its core principles, and they aim to get it back on track.

So this week, when Woelfel and her supporters touch down in Salt Lake City, where the Girl Scouts are holding their national convention, they’ll be there for one reason: to bring back salt-of-the-earth, down-in-the-dirt fundamentals to the Girl Scouts.

“If everything works as planned, 5,000 buttons that say ‘Support an Outdoor Journey’ will arrive in Salt Lake City early this week,” she says. “And we have 5,000 flyers arriving in different people’s suitcases.”

The plan is to flood the convention with those flyers and buttons to create a visible groundswell of support for the activities they’re agitating for: Canoeing. Archery. Fire-building. Navigating a hike by the light of the stars. In short, the wilderness skills and outdoor abilities that the founding mothers intended.

For a person who wants to affect change within the Girl Scouts, the convention couldn’t be a better platform. Converging in one place will be thousands of troop leaders from all over the country, as well as the organization’s top brass, and 1,250 official delegates representing every Girl Scout council in America, who will vote on the program’s foundational aspects at a series of National Council sessions.

Woelfel and her fellow purists hope to swing those votes. Though she emphasizes that her activism in this area is separate from her affiliation with the Kentuckiana regional council, it’s that affiliation that will get her in the door—and allow her and her fellow guardians of the emerald sash to be heard.

“We realize this convention is the key place where all sorts of decision-makers come together,” she says. “It only happens once every three years, so the discussion could be very influential.”

Your average civilian may be unaware of how much the Girl Scouts has changed since the first troop of 18 girls was formed in Savannah, Georgia 102 years ago. The past decade has been particularly transformative. In 2006 the Girl Scouts shuttered two-thirds of its 312 regional councils in a controversial streamlining process known as “the Realignment.” It also redesigned its whole program, implementing a set of three “Journeys” for girls to pursue—none of which are dedicated specifically to traditional outdoors skills.

The overhaul was based on studies conducted by the Girl Scouts Research Institute (GSRI), and puts more emphasis on subjects like technology, media and what you might call global issues. Now girls can work toward merit badges for, say, analyzing how fashion blogs portray women, coming up with a plan to reduce their carbon footprint, or committing to a sustainable locavore diet.

“We listen to and move at the speed of girls, and research shows that today’s girls not only love camping and being outdoors, they also enjoy technology and helping the world while having fun, all of which can be found in Girl Scouts,” says Kelly Parisi, Chief Communications Executive for Girl Scouts USA.

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Despite these changes, however, membership has plunged by over half a million members since 2003, a fact that disillusioned volunteers blame on the organization’s rush to reinvent itself. In its quest to create a more “high-performance” system, as an official 2006 Girl Scouts press release put it, “They did away with all the traditional badges,” says Woelfel. “The outdoors just wasn’t there.”

Parisi insists that’s not true, pointing out that girls can still earn what the Girl Scouts now calls “legacy badges”—essentially, the old merit badges for things like hiking, camping and trailblazing. But the very name “legacy” seems to suggest those activities are now an afterthought, a view shared by Elizabeth Sheppard, founder of the Outdoor Journey Project, which is fighting to get such activities back at the tip of the spear.

“We used to have a lot more promotion of the camps, and a lot more troops went camping,” says Sheppard. But not only are the local councils turning away from their beloved Girl Scout camps—they’re selling them off. For some of the councils, the sales are an attempt to recoup soaring pension expenses, which rose by 40 percent after Girl Scouts USA froze its pension plan during the recession.

Now, the exasperation on both sides is reaching a fever pitch. A Facebook group called “GSUSA, Are You Listening?” is riddled with angry comments from alienated volunteers. “National tried to make it less about scouting and more about social issues because they could market that easier since they’ve destroyed camps nationwide,” reads one. “Problem is, you don’t get power from a curriculum—no matter how pretty the binder is.”

Woelfel agrees. “I think they gave the work of developing programs… to a bunch of young people who didn’t know Girl Scouts and were trying to meet a lot of what I will call ‘school-like’ objectives.”

In response to the Girl Scouts’ modernization, other organizations have begun positioning themselves as more traditional alternatives, including a few with a distinctly conservative worldview—groups like Frontier Girls, a outdoorsy program that warns on its website, “patriotism is a character trait we take very seriously,” and the Baden-Powell Service Association, which practices scouting as it was “prior to the 1970s.”

The idea of another group seizing the mantle of female scouting from the original institution is distressing to long-time devotees like Woelfel and Sheppard. “Our founder Juliet Lowe knew about outdoor education, for the girls to learn leadership, to work in a group,” says Sheppard. “We ought to be that premiere group. We’re Girl Scouts. We know how to do camping best.”

That’s the message that she, Woelfel, and their many supporters will take to Salt Lake City this week. The Girl Scouts have set aside two hours for them to make their case at a discussion session. And Woelfel expects the voting delegates will listen attentively, because if nothing else, she says, “The Girl Scouts are a very polite crowd. We’ll be well received. Whether we’ll be effective is another question.”