Meet the group redefining what it means to be a scout

The Baden-Powell Service Association offers families a more welcoming version of scouting.

 

Pathfinders cool off at Nicol Sanctuary, the last overnight stop on their 8-day, 111-mile trip on the Willamette Water Trail last year.
Courtesy of Ethan Jewett / 55th Cascadia Scout Group

On a chilly gray afternoon in late January, a group of pre-teens gathered on the soggy ground under a towering Douglas fir in Portland’s Grant Park. Diane West, wearing a large smile and two neatly tied braids, held up a segment of rope, curling it as she spoke. “You make a ‘6,’ go through the hole, around the rope and back through the hole,” she explained, as the sound of children’s laughter filled the park. “Is this right?” a young girl in a pink fleece asked, holding up her knotted cord. “Yes!” West responded, her green jacket just covering the rainbow patch on her uniform, a symbol of inclusivity.

This was the weekly after-school meeting of the 55th Cascadia Scouts. Formed by Ethan Jewett in 2013, it is one of many groups nationwide operating under the Baden-Powell Service Association, a nonprofit scouting organization that welcomes everyone, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation. It was founded as an alternative for those who felt excluded from the Boy Scouts of America.

Jewett, a tall man with a salt-and-pepper beard, is now the BPSA’s West Region commissioner. He was a Boy Scout as a teenager, he explained, when the organization operated in an atmosphere of intolerance and exclusive policies. “That was our reality,” he told me.

55th Cascadia Scout Group Pathfinder Ada Gene takes in the sights halfway through her troop’s canoe trip on the Willamette Water Trail last year.
Courtesy of Ethan Jewett / 55th Cascadia Scout Group

And it had been the reality for Boy Scouts ever since the early 1900s, when writer Ernest Thompson Seton helped usher scouting to the U.S. from Britain. The group appropriated Native American motifs for use in scouting ceremonies and excluded Black people from some troops for decades. Openly gay people were also banned because homosexuality purportedly conflicted with the Scout Oath’s pledge to be “physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.” This position reflected, to a certain extent, the organization’s longtime sponsorship by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In 2006, former Eagle Scout David Atchley formed the BPSA in Washington, Missouri. He wanted to teach some of the principles of English scouting pioneer Robert Baden-Powell — self-reliance, good citizenship and outdoor skills — to everyone. The BPSA follows that creed that “all people and all families have an equal place in the scouting movement,” according to their website, and the movement is now redefining what it means to be a scout.

It wasn’t until nearly eight years after the BPSA was founded that the Boy Scouts, under increasing pressure, started accepting openly gay members. In 2015, it welcomed openly gay leaders, as well. The organization then decided to admit transgender boys in 2017, one reason for the recent withdrawal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ sponsorship. And last year, the appropriation of Indigenous customs for BSA rituals was banned from the Boy Scouts of America’s honor society, the Order of the Arrow. 

Jewett, however, still thought the Boy Scouts were evolving too slowly. Seeing a need for an alternative scouting group in the Portland area, he founded the 55th Cascadia. The group is now one of the BPSA’s largest, with around 120 members. All children deserve an equal chance to be a scout, Jewett told me. Rather than a radical departure from the Boy Scouts of old, he sees the BPSA as a return to scouting’s roots — at least the ones that aren’t discriminatory. “There is nothing about scouting that has ever smacked me as not being equally valuable to everyone,” he said.

It was this vision of a welcoming community that inspired David Coronado of Sacramento to create the 31st River Valley group. Coronado grew up in the Boy Scouts, but knew it was not the right place for his transgender son and nonbinary child. The group is small — 10 members — but the experience has been illuminating for all. In addition to learning traditional scouting skills, members are taught how to interact with others without judging them based on their pronouns.

Children from the 55th Cascadia Scout Group’s Timberwolf age group learn knot-tying skills in Portland’s Grant Park.
Helen Santoro / High Country News

Today, the BPSA has around 2,500 members and 70 scouting groups nationwide. That’s a mere fraction of the 2.3 million Boy Scouts, though the BSA’s numbers are in decline, and may be further impacted by its recent filing for bankruptcy. Still, the BPSA will likely never rival the Boy Scouts in terms of membership. “We’re going to be small and organically grow and always be volunteer-based,” Kristen Klever, BPSA’s former chief commissioner, said. That frees the organization to focus on the scouts’ well-being, as opposed to worrying about fundraising, she said.

This idea of a small, inclusive community is what attracted people like Jewett. In the park, while we watched the scouts practice their knots, Jewett recalled that he and his fellow Boy Scouts used to travel to the Sierra Mountains every summer, while his sister’s Girl Scout troop stayed at home, learning how to use a hot glue gun. Around five years ago, his sister and nephew hiked into American Meadows near California’s Squaw Valley for the first time with him. His eyes welled with tears. “I took her to a place where she had never been welcome.”

Scoutmaster Gwynedd Benders of the 636th Mt Tabor Group teaches Leave No Trace practices at the Hullabaloo regional campout.
Courtesy of Ethan Jewett / 55th Cascadia Scout Group

Helen Santoro is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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