As it prepares to turn 100, the Boy Scouts of America is honing its survival skills for what might be its biggest test yet: drawing Hispanics into its declining—and mostly white—ranks.
“We either are going to figure out how to make Scouting the most exciting, dynamic organization for Hispanic kids, or we’re going to be out of business,” said Rick Cronk, former national president of the Boy Scouts, and chairman of the World Scout Committee.
The venerable Scouts remains the United States’ largest youth organization, with 2.8 million children and youths, nearly all of them boys. But that is nearly half its peak membership, reached in 1972.
Its rolls took hits through the 1980s and ’90s over a still-standing ban on gay or atheist leaders, and scandals surrounding inflated membership numbers. In addition, teenagers raised on TV and shoot-’em-up games had less use for learning to build a campfire or memorize the Scout oath.
The country changed too. One in five children under 18 is Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census. But they make up only 3 percent of Scouts.
Cronk made Hispanic outreach a focus after he realized that just translating brochures into Spanish, or combining Cub Scouting with soccer, was not enough to meet the goal of doubling Hispanic membership by the group’s centennial in 2010.
So the group set out to sell Scouting, hiring a Washington-based media and marketing company that targets Latinos. To spread the word, the Scouts gathered a committee of Hispanic leaders, including the CEO of AT&T’s wireless unit, a U.S. senator from Florida and the archbishop of the Diocese of Laredo.
In 2009, the Boy Scouts is kicking off pilot programs in six heavily Latino cities, from Fresno, Calif. to Orlando, Fla., to test ways of introducing Scouting to immigrant parents. The group is also planning radio and television spots, hiring bicultural, Spanish-speaking staffers, partnering with churches that serve Hispanics and shaping programs to fit the family-oriented community.
“We’re serious about this,” said Rob Mazzuca, Chief Scout Executive. “This is a reinventing of the Boy Scouts of America.”
To work, the changes will have to run deep, said Julio Cammarota, a University of Arizona professor who has researched Hispanic youth.
Scouts will have to work with Latinos’ strong family connections and relax the focus on individual achievement, Cammarota said. Creating activities where younger boys learn from the older ones—much as they rely on siblings and cousins within the extended family—will also feel more comfortable.
Scouting’s traditional values dovetail well with those of Hispanic families—respect, discipline, and community involvement—said Carlos Alcazar, CEO of Hispanic Communications Network, which developed the 2009 strategy after conducting a yearlong survey of Hispanic attitudes toward the Scouts.
Michael Gudino, 7, and his brother Matthew Gudino, 6, talked about what they loved best: dribbling the ball, learning to pass and playing on a real field.
Pressed on what they like about Scouting, they stopped to think.
“Learning to be nice to each other?” Michael said tentatively. “Folding the flag?”