USA TODAY, Wednesday, February 6, 2013
A BIG TENT AND A NEW SUMMIT
By Alvin Townley
On countless rainy campouts with Troop 103, I learned to pack a big tent. If my patrol faced rain outside, we wanted as many Scouts as possible under our shelter. Disagreements naturally erupted inside that tent of boys, but we resolved them for the good of the troop.
In 100 years of Scouting, countless differences have arisen in our coalition of faiths, backgrounds, incomes, and politics. Yet we have always come together for our Scouts. This week, many expected the Boy Scouts to set an example of leadership and unity by opening Scouting's tent to everyone within our society.
Unfortunately, after debating its prohibition of gay members at its winter meeting, the National Board opted to discuss the issue further. Dedicated Board members faced inflamed warnings of large-scale defection from all sides; some even received personal threats. Yet inaction allows controversy to continue engulfing this storied youth program. And that's bad for our Scouts.
Until this national policy changes (and I believe it eventually will), funding and public support will erode, local volunteers and youth will face hard questions about their participation, and many families will quietly walk away. In this difficult interim, I pray America remembers that "Scouting" is a youth program and a grassroots movement of individuals much bigger than any organization or policy. Devoted volunteers, alumni, and inspiring young Scouts deserve everyone's support.
When the rain stopped on those Troop 103 campouts, we Scouts would venture outside our tent, stronger for having resolved our disagreements, and go conquer a new summit together. Likewise, when the Board rescinds this policy, factions must reunite and begin a longer trek to re-imagine Scouting for modern America, while honoring our core principles.
First, we need to lead bravely and end this divisive national policy. BSA and the churches and community organizations that "own" Scout units don't need to exclude one specific class of people. Rather, let's trust local leaders, parents, and charter partners to ensure member behavior always supports a safe and positive environment in their unit. Let's focus on exhibited behaviors that might adversely affect youth, not broad policies. Ultimately, I hope every American family can find a Scout unit where their child can thrive. Short of this change, that cannot happen.
Scouting faces a longer climb, however. The Scout program instills many traits lacking in society: leadership, outdoor adventure, character, civility. Yet despite the efforts of dedicated individuals, membership has declined for ten straight years even as the youth population has grown.
We need to make Scouting more accessible to entire families and embrace multicultural communities with relevant programs and open philosophy. We have the opportunity to launch exciting skill-specific and outdoor initiatives with new partners, revamp our dated and tarnished image, and engage youth where they spend time: gaming and online. We can recruit dynamic leaders under age thirty to rejuvenate our units and boards; we can reinvent the Scout uniform.
Internally, it's time to instill entrepreneurial principles, reign in national spending, and redirect resources to councils, innovative programs, and grassroots volunteers, unleashing their ability to change young lives.
For the sake of Scouting, this Eagle Scout hopes BSA will open its big tent to all Americans. Then Scouting and its partners must come together to seize today's opportunities and instill our rising generation with the healthy practices, important skills, and strong values they need to be prepared for life. Once again, we will rally America around this vibrant youth movement that our country needs more than ever.
Scouting is ready to climb its next summit. In May, we hope the Board and the 1,400 voting members of the National Council will finally give us that chance.