[originally published as an NBC News Op-Ed]
One of the first lessons you learn as a Boy Scout is how to read a map and follow a compass. Scouts spend a lot of time outdoors, orienting themselves and figuring out the right direction to go. Scouting also teaches us how to read and develop a moral compass, grounded in values and principles that are universal to the American experience. If you ask, any Scout can list off these values: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.
Difficult though the path may look at the moment, the Boy Scouts of America was following its compass last week by filing for bankruptcy. This will hopefully allow BSA to settle pending litigation and create a fund to compensate people who experienced sexual abuse in decades past and have recently come forward as states remove statutes of limitation. If it can navigate these difficult times, the BSA may be one of the best organizations to help Americans find our shared values once again.
At this moment of intense political polarization, our society can feel like we have lost the sense of common values that bring us all together. As the fabric of our society is fraying, Scouting can help us sew it back up. Over 100 million Americans have participated in Scouting programs — ranging from earning merit badges at their local summer camp to participating in two-week backpacking treks at Philmont Scout Ranch, the quintessential Scouting adventure. BSA brings together people from different backgrounds, puts everyone in the same uniform, reciting the same Scout Law, and gives us the opportunity to serve our community. Scouting grew to be an iconic American institution in the 20th century precisely because it’s an organization grounded in principles that are universal to the American experience.
In 2012, these values brought together a group of Eagle Scouts who loved Scouting but wanted to change the Boy Scouts of America’s discriminatory policies. When we came together to create Scouts for Equality and change these policies, our team of Eagle Scouts was able to instantly bond over our shared Scouting experiences and what the organization meant to us. All of us were raised on Scouting’s values, so we knew when the organization wasn’t living up to them.
We are optimistic about the future of Scouting because the BSA has shown that they can turn the page and learn from the mistakes of its past. In 2015, the Boy Scouts fully ended its national ban on LGBTQ Scouts and Scout leaders — and has even recently launched a gender-inclusive Scouting program. Similarly, as it filed for bankruptcy this week, the Boy Scouts of America made us proud by trying to live up to those values, even at a great cost to the organization. The BSA admitted its mistakes, apologized for what had happened, and pledged to do what it could to help those affected. Furthermore, the organization has been widely recognized by child safety experts for the steps it took to develop youth protection policies and training after past abuse came to light decades ago.
We are optimistic about the future of Scouting because the BSA has shown that they can turn the page and learn from the mistakes of its past.
But it’s clear that for the Scouting movement to remain relevant in the 21st century, the BSA must make further changes. Scouting needs a new map. It needs to fix past mistakes, clean its house and rebuild trust. To chart the course forward, the BSA will need to be reborn out of bankruptcy as a new, modern organization. For example, starting a Boy Scout troop in 2020 requires you to visit your local council’s office, fill out forms and mail them to the national office along with registration fees. The BSA is singularly focused on increasing membership — but doesn’t even let people start new units online.
The key is to make Scouting more local. The national BSA office is an encumbrance to local councils, which are legally and structurally independent organizations. To make progress, the BSA needs fewer layers of management at the national office and more control in the hands of local volunteers. There are already several councils — like the ones in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis — leading the journey to excellence toward more diverse council Boards of Directors who champion inclusive policies and solve for the needs of their local communities.
These councils are helping to get more kids outdoors, particularly those from urban areas. Scouting helps kids who have never seen the stars look up and see the universe for the first time. Scouting helps kids who never go a day without staring at a phone to see how much fun they can have when they put it away and focus on the present. Scouting helps kids understand the natural world around them and how they can help protect it as they grow into adults.
These councils also focus on participating in and giving back to the local community. They identify opportunities to support underrepresented communities that reflect the racial diversity of America. They tap into Scouting’s vast alumni network to support community service projects and become mentors for young Scouts. They help kids from all backgrounds and of all genders discover their interests, learn valuable skills like computer programming and explore options for the future. Whether its park benches or internships, great councils figure out what the local community needs and they find ways to provide it.
The path forward won’t be easy, but we’ve seen the BSA go through significant structural changes over the past decade and we know it can continue to evolve and grow as an organization and a movement. We believe that if the BSA sees this moment as a wake-up call and an opportunity to return to its roots, the organization can continue its century-long tradition of positively influencing the lives of millions of Americans. And we believe it’s worth fighting for, because Scouting has a unique opportunity to help reconnect us as Americans and remind us of our shared values — those creeds we hold universally true as a society.
Jonathan Hillis is an Eagle Scout, former national chief of the Order of The Arrow, and co-founder of Scouts for Equality.
Zach Wahls is an Eagle Scout, the bestselling author of “My Two Moms: Lessons of Love, Strength, and What Makes a Family,” and co-founder of Scouts for Equality. He is a state senator in Iowa.