Culture

Girl Scouts confront shifting US demographics

Challenges for national organization reflect makeup and interests for new generation of American female participants

LOS ANGELES — In a small meeting room in the Villa Flores senior housing development downtown, a group of 9-year-old girls are planning their next project. They look at maps and plot their routes for what will serve as Girl Scouts Troop 16155’s hiking challenge. But there are no dirt trails, rocky hillsides or campgrounds on their route. Just concrete streets, crossings and restaurants.

This is a distinctly urban hike — a fitting project for a Girl Scouts troop that is based in downtown Los Angeles and has attracted mostly Latinas from East L.A., downtown and south of downtown. Only about a fourth of the 58 girls who have joined since the troop was formed in June live above the poverty line.

It’s a new demographic reality that Girl Scouts of the USA is confronting — and embracing — in the face of declining membership. The shift is significant for the century-old organization that is more often associated with white-dominated suburbia, van pools and cookie sales in strip malls.

"The State of Girls: Unfinished Business," a report by the Girl Scout Research Institute out today, shows that almost half of girls ages 5 to 17 in the U.S. belong to minorities, up from 38 percent in 2000. They will be in the majority, at 54 percent, by 2030. Latina girls, who made up 16 percent of girls in 2000, are now almost a fourth of the girl population — and are projected to be almost a third by 2030.

The numbers are not new, but the Girl Scouts are mining gender-specific data on everything from bullying to childhood obesity (Girl Scout cookies now have no trans fat) and are repositioning their outreach strategies accordingly.

“We’re re-examining how to reach girls of different backgrounds,” said Judy Schoenberg, lead author of the report and head of the institute, formed 10 years ago to study trends in the group’s population. “Forty-two percent of girls live in low-income households. That’s an alarming statistic.”

Although American girls have made giant strides in education — they are more likely to graduate from high school than boys are — the disparities among girls of different races and ethnicities are striking. White girls who are not Hispanic fare much better in reading and math. Eight out of 10 Latina and African-American girls are “below proficient” in reading by fourth grade, compared with 5 out of 10 white girls.

“These findings could be a wake-up call for all of us,” said Anna Maria Chavez, chief executive of Girl Scouts of the USA.

Membership decline

Decline in membership sounded the first alarm for the organization. The Girl Scouts today have about 2.2 million youth members, down from nearly 2.9 million 10 years ago, largely because the demographics have changed.

Immigrant girls did not grow up in a Girl Scouts tradition and may not even know what they are. Girls raised by a single parent may not have the support of a father or mother who has time to take them to meetings. And, as the recent formation of Troop 16155 attests, many urban neighborhoods don’t have troops. Aside from one affiliated with a church in Little Tokyo, this new troop is the first in downtown Los Angeles.

“We decided to embark on a new core business strategy and take the organization in a different direction and position our organization to be much more relevant,” Chavez said.

The research put out by the institute, often in cooperation with the Population Reference Bureau, provides more ammunition to persuade policymakers, educators, and business and faith leaders to invest in girls, she said.

In 2011, three in five girls ages 5 to 17 lived in states in the South and West. More than one-fifth (21 percent) lived in just two states: California and Texas. Today, 54 percent of girls ages 5 to 19 live in large metropolitan areas with populations of 1 million or more.

Using the research produced by the institute, the Girl Scouts partnered with a local university to investigate why girls in south San Antonio didn’t exercise. They received federal funding, and they got their answer: lack of outdoor exercise facilities and the threat of unleashed dogs roaming the neighborhoods.

“If a girl wants to take up running to increase her health, she can’t run because she’s got this wild pack of dogs running after her,” Chavez said.

The Girl Scouts launched a campaign to encourage residents to license their dogs and keep them on a leash. Exercise programs were introduced in local schools.

“Anything that draws attention to the disparity that these girls suffer is good,” said Donna Spruijt-Metz, director of the Mobile and Connected Health Program at the University of Southern California Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. “Eight or nine years ago, most of the research was not done on girls. Finally, researchers have been looking into what motivates girls.”

Yet bringing Latinas and other minorities into the Girl Scouts can also be viewed as a form of Americanization of the population that not everyone embraces.

Anything that draws attention to the disparity that these girls suffer is good.

Donna Spruijt-Metz

Mobile and Connected Health Program at USC

While the Girl Scouts can teach important skills — from business development to leadership and socialization — it’s also a form of assimilation that can overshadow ethnic and cultural traditions, said Marta Lopez-Garza, professor in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge.

“You bring them into the fold and they begin to think a certain way,” she said. “Assimilation is that you become one … It brings girls into the mainstream. I don’t know if it creates critical thinking.”

For Frances Cruz, the words of her 9-year-old daughter Miranda to a friend were enough to make her realize that Scouting was good for Miranda and her 6-year-old sister Rebecca.

“She was telling her, ‘It teaches you how to be a leader — you will learn so many things, you don’t feel as scared when you want to speak up,’” said Cruz, a state employee who lives south of downtown. “When I grew up, there was no Girl Scouts troop here.”

Dani Marcos, who works for a railroad company, brings 9-year-old Clara to her troop meeting because his wife works late. He didn’t know much about Scouting except for the famous cookies sold every year, but welcomed the opportunity to have his daughter involved.

Samantha Caniz has already shown her sales skills. She sold 700 boxes of cookies and talks about her rewards proudly. She has earned entry in the Club 500, a family event for top sellers.

“Being in a troop helps her with her confidence,” said her mother, Maria, who was not aware of the Girl Scouts when she was growing up here.

One of the biggest challenges facing the organization’s new focus on minority populations is finding volunteers to form and lead the troops.

“There is a wait list for girls to be Girl Scouts because there are not enough volunteers to be troop leaders,” said Chavez. “A lot of kids are being raised in single-parent households, and our organization was built on a two-parent model.”

What used to be a three-month training process for volunteers is now being cut down to as little as five days through online technology.

Ginny-Marie Brideau, who founded the downtown troop when she wanted her daughter to follow in her Scouting tradition, said she had been warned that it wouldn’t be easy to get enough people interested. But in no time, about 20 girls of all ages expressed interest. A local church bought uniforms for girls who couldn’t afford them.

“It’s always about empowering women to make choices in their lives,” said Brideau, who lives near Union Station. “The biggest challenge is that we don’t have enough adults.”

It takes people like Pam Lee, an urban planner who doesn’t have kids but is willing to be co-leader of the Junior Girl Scouts.

Lilliana Arguello, membership manager of the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles, said the organization is trying to be more inclusive on all fronts. Notably, it recently changed the name of its Hispanic Membership and Marketing Initiative to Community Presence Initiative.

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Join the Al Jazeera America Mailing List

Get weekly news updates and the latest on what’s next for Al Jazeera America

Join the Al Jazeera America Mailing List

Get weekly news updates and the latest on what’s next for Al Jazeera America

Join the Conversation