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Thursday, December 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 39.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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From S'mores to Social Change
An insider's take on the future of Girl Scouting
The author (left) and Sheba McCants, lead muralist, at the
Madison SOS mural unveiling.
The author (left) and Sheba McCants, lead muralist, at the Madison SOS mural unveiling.

What happens when you put 10,000 Girl Scouts together under the same roof for four days? Do they consume endless boxes of Thin Mints and Caramel DeLites? Sing "Kum Ba Yah"?

To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect when I boarded a plane bound for the Girl Scout National Convention in Indianapolis in early November.

I joined Girl Scouts seven years ago, at age 10. Since then, I've watched the organization evolve to engage a new generation of girls, who socialize over Facebook rather than around a bonfire. But with the organization's 100th anniversary approaching in 2012, the Girl Scouts have taken bold steps to replace their focus on service with a focus on social change.

One thing is certain - Girl Scouting ain't what it used to be.

At each Girl Scout National Convention, held every three years, 1,800 delegates - girls and adults representing Girl Scout councils across the nation - vote on the policies and strategies that will shape the future of Girl Scouting. This year, delegates debated issues ranging from the trivial (removing outdated language from the organization's constitution) to the monumental (the role that somewhat antiquated traditions should play in Girl Scouting).

But it's not all business. I attended the convention as one of 10 National Young Women of Distinction, who are selected by the Girl Scouts of the USA for the leadership demonstrated by their Gold Award project.

As Young Women of Distinction, we attended the Girl Scout Leadership Institute, which juxtaposed workshops on topics like human trafficking with celebrity appearances. (Picture throngs of 13-year-old girls generating more photo flash than paparazzi at the sight of MTV reality show starlets Angela and Vanessa Simmons, daughters of rap/hip-hop mogul Joseph Simmons.)

We met with Girl Scouts from around the world and learned about their advocacy for girls in their home countries, from Singapore to Ecuador, and participated in a focus group on the future of the global Girl Scout movement.

We shared the stories of our Gold Award projects with Girl Scouts working on their own Gold Awards in a girls-only lounge. And we heard from Commander in Chief star Geena Davis and women's leadership guru Marie Wilson, who called for President-elect Obama to form a presidential commission on "women and democracy."

Such activities underline the Girl Scouts' goal of becoming more relevant to young women today. More concrete steps to that new relevance can be seen in the new Girl Scout Leadership Experience, an outcomes-based program emphasizing three "keys" of leadership: discovering, connecting and taking action.

This model has already drawn praise from those outside Girl Scouting. The New York Times noted that Girl Scouts have "led the way in embracing social entrepreneurship, training girls how to start their own movements. It's a step toward a "you-figure-out-how-to-get-it-done" model of citizen participation in the 21st century."

Created with input from experts on youth leadership and feedback from 4,000 girls across the nation, the Leadership Experience aims to rejuvenate Girl Scout activities. At its heart is a series of handbooks, or "journeys," designed to empower girls as social change agents.

The first set, released this fall, dubbed It's Your World - Change It!, concentrates on personal leadership development. Titles are available at each age level. For instance, Juniors (grades 4-5) can use Agent of Change, while Ambassadors (grades 11-12) have Your Voice, Your World: The Power of Advocacy. The latter, which offers a powerful blueprint for social action projects, guides girls through researching issues that matter to them, brainstorming solutions, pitching ideas to decision-makers, and other components of community organizing.

Two more journeys will be released in the next two years, one highlighting science and the other art, says Eileen Doyle, vice president of program development for the Girl Scouts of the USA. Although the next two journeys won't focus explicitly on activism, they'll incorporate the discover-connect-take action theme. "When Girl Scouts tackle serious social issues, the goal is sustainable social change," Doyle says.

Why the focus on social change? The Leadership Experience is based on Change It Up! What Girls Say About Redefining Leadership, a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute. The study concluded that a majority of girls aspire to a leadership style focused on personal principles, ethical behavior and the ability to effect social change. Kathy Cloninger, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA, thinks young women benefit from a broader definition of leadership: "The current command-and-control style of leadership is too limiting for girls."

The Leadership Experience gives girls a chance to develop their own leadership style through cooperative, experiential and (gasp!) girl-led activities. That means that adult leaders have been relegated to the status of advisers, and even 5-year-old Daisies have significant input.

Perhaps even more surprising to those who associate Girl Scouting with conventional values, the Girl Scout Leadership Experience encourages participants to challenge the status quo enforced by "traditional" leadership and cultural norms.

That emphasis on social change is unusual, says Jill Denner, a California-based expert on girls' development. "Youth leadership in general is a bit controversial," she adds. "It scares people."

For me and other young activists, the Girl Scouts' bold stance is a breath of fresh air. At age 15, I started work on my Gold Award project, which aims to develop a sustainable solution to a community issue. For my project, I founded Madison SOS (Speak Out, Sister!), a citywide organization to engage teen girls in action and leadership on issues affecting their lives. Through Madison SOS, I've led efforts to create a training program for young women on activism and advocacy skills, a mural celebrating girls' dreams for the future of our city and a status report on crucial issues facing teen girls.

Girl Scouts connected me with the resources and support I needed. When I first heard about the Girl Scout Leadership Experience, I was thrilled - it will make many of the opportunities I've had to explore leadership available to girls across the country.

And if Girl Scouting helps adults begin to value girls for the contributions they make to their communities, that's some social change that I can get behind.

Natalia Thompson serves as a consultant to the National Board of the Girl Scouts of the USA. She is a senior at West High School.

For more information:

Girl Scouts of the USA
Gold Awards:

Girl Scout Leadership Experience

Black Hawk Council (Madison-area Girl Scouts)

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