Blazing a Trail

During a hide-and-seek game called Eagle Eye, Kaya Staton hides behind a tree waiting to be found. The scouts played a few rounds of this game prior to learning about wilderness first aid at their bi-monthly meeting.

By Edward Burnette

Photos by Miranda Daviduk

Scoutmaster Ethan Jewett woke up late in his tent. It was 2013, and the first day of a camping trip he was leading. He poked his head out of the tent and saw three of his younger scouts in a fire-building competition. The morning was a rainy, northwest start to a day. The damp wood the scouts were using required them to follow a strict process to successfully build their fire.

As Jewett looked on, it quickly became clear that only one of the fires would ignite. The two boys floundering in their attempts to conjure flames chose to abandon their fires and pushed their extra kindling into the winner’s fire. The fire grew larger in front of the victorious girl, and her two troopmates congratulated her.

“I think that it’s absolutely magical to have an opportunity at that early age for boys to see the true capability and caliber of their female counterparts,” said Jewett.

Jewett leads the 55th Cascadia troop of the Baden-Powell Service Association (BPSA) in Portland, which was founded in 2013. It’s one of a growing number of scouting troops in Oregon and across the country that are taking a more inclusive view of gender. Driven by social change, demand from parents and political pressure, even traditional scouting organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) are finding ways for boys and girls to work together.

In October 2017, the BSA announced it would begin allowing girls into it youngest age groups of scouts, commonly known as Cub Scout dens. However, these dens would still be segregated by gender, only allowing girls to attain leadership positions over other girls, albeit now as part of the BSA. In May, the organization announced it will drop “Boy” from the name of the program for older scouts, which will be known as the Scouts BSA starting in February 2019. At that time, girls will be allowed in and eligible for the prestigious Eagle Scout rank.

“This is one of those cases where the United States is late to the party,” said Jewett. There is very little sex segregation in scouts in other countries. The exceptions to this are Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea and Yemen, among others.

Jewett, who’s also a provost commissioner of the Western Region of the BPSA, said the growing number of inclusive programs are helping kids to develop empathy and other skills. “It’s important for girls to experience that equality and that mastery alongside boys. It’s just there for everyone to see and, quite frankly, it makes the boys bring their A-game,” he said.

Growing up in scouting

The Baden-Powell Service Association began in 2006 and bases its ideology on traditional scouting. According to the organization’s website, this entails “good citizenship, self-reliance, loyalty and outdoor skills” in addition to “empowering youth through hands-on practice” as laid out by Boy Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell in 1907. Though modeled after the Boy Scouts, the organization has always allowed girls and members of the LGBTQ community into its ranks and introduced the Rover Scout program for people over the age of 18. The environment fostered by the BPSA creates dynamics of equality and diversity early in childhood and provides an alternative to the setting traditionally offered by the Boy Scouts of America.

Jewett grew up in California and was a member of the BSA troop in his hometown.  

“Looking back, it’s easy to see there were parts of me that were heavily influenced by the scouts,” said Jewett. He was a patrol leader and, among other activities, went on backpacking missions, long hikes and trips to San Francisco.

By the time Jewett’s son Travis was old enough to participate in a scouting troop, Jewett did not consider the BSA.  “When my son turned five in the fall of 2012, I was definitely bummed with the Boy Scouts of America,” Jewett said. Though neither he nor his son is homosexual, Jewett wanted an all-inclusive environment for his son. At the time, the Boy Scouts of America was still a full year away from allowing gay scouts to join and two years from allowing gay scouting leaders.

Despite all the changes BSA has made since 2012, it wasn’t the right fit for Jewett then, so he opted for an alternative. He and a couple other dads began taking their children hiking and camping in lieu of joining an actual scouting program.

Soon after, he says his wife brought to his attention an article about a charter group of the BPSA. “Within a day or two, Travis and I got on the BPSA website, broke out a credit card and filed a charter for our group in north Portland,” Jewett said.

As the march towards equality, specifically regarding same-sex marriage, picked up speed in recent years, the Boy Scouts of America was faced with the growing problem of not allowing girls or members of the LGBTQ community to join.

Henry Pilcher jokes around with his friends and fellow Timberwolf scouts. The troop is part of a larger scouting organization that is age and gender inclusive for both scouts and troop leaders. Though the individual troops are grouped together depending on age, there are troops for scouts as young as 5 as well as adult troops.

The Boy Scouts experience

These issues were epitomized by the case of Geoffrey McGrath. He joined the Boy Scouts in central California when he was 7 years old and earned the status of Eagle Scout just before turning 18. He went on to become a junior assistant scoutmaster, taking kids to scout camp until he was 20. But a year later his relationship with the Scouts changed.

“I came out when I was 21 to the local scout troop,” said McGrath. “I said I’d obviously still be happy to take the kids to camp, but my status had changed and I thought they should be aware of that. At which point, they just disinvited me from further involvement.”

McGrath, 53 now, spent over 20 years uninvolved with the Boy Scouts of America. During that time, he earned a master’s degree in social work and began working as a countywide crisis manager for at-risk youth and those suffering from mental health problems in Seattle.

Four years ago, McGrath began working with the BSA again. He started a new scout group, Troop 98, in a neighborhood outside of Seattle. A majority of the kids that McGrath works with in his area are inner-city youth who rarely have access to the kinds of activities and opportunities presented in scouting programs. “A lot of the kids had never been to the woods before, have no swimming skills, have never canoed and done things like that. We were able to bring those kinds of experiences to them,” said McGrath.

He said the troop would not only bring scouting to inner-city youth but would also welcome all boys regardless of sexual orientation or identity. “When we started the troop, it was known by all parties that it would be inclusive, at least for boys, when it came to LGBTQ issues,” said McGrath. “We started the troop and everyone was excited about it. About eight months later, the BSA ended our troop because of me being a gay scoutmaster and kicked out all the kids.”

After their expulsion from the BSA, McGrath and the kids went searching for a new program. “We saw BPSA as an inclusive option and were happy to make the change,” he said. “There are also no problems with having girls join, so we were able to be inclusive to LGBTQ and girls.”

Timberwolf troop leader Alan Fryer congratulates Aida Foltz on earning a new merit badge after learning wilderness first aid. Between them rests the troop’s mascot: a stuffed timberwolf.

Aida Foltz reads her compass and map to figure out which direction to go to find a landmark at Mount Tabor park in Portland. The Timberwolf troop learned about orienteering while they navigated their way around the park.

The benefits of inclusivity

Having boys and girls together, according to McGrath, can help create and foster an all-inclusive environment that appears to be a rarity these days. “It’s really fun to watch our kids as they compete. Sometimes they’ll self-segregate into boys and girls, but when they do it’s interesting to see that girls usually beat the boys,” said McGrath. “It’s great to see a little 10-year-old girl become the den leader of the boys and watch her really fill the role. Pretty inspiring.”

Jewett has voiced similar sentiments as he’s led his troop in Portland. “A thing I realized the very first time that I went out camping was that girls excel in the outdoors,” he said. “People who know the truth know that part of the game of excluding girls is to essentially make a safe space for boys.”

Jewett has spent most of his career working with children and believes an all-inclusive scouting program can be important. “Each [gender] will have a better measure of appreciation and respect for the other because they will have gone through these adventures and these hardships and seen the capabilities of each other, and that’s sort of how the real world is supposed to work anyway,” he said.

Scout law is laid out by the BSA as 12 goals to live up to every day, such as trustworthiness, helpfulness, bravery and cheerfulness. These notions are important to Jewett, who says his experiences in the Boy Scouts may have contradicted this promise. This is part of why it’s important to him to create a more inclusive environment.  “My BSA summer camps were full of songs and jokes that were made at the expense of girls. So, one of the crazy things in the Me Too climate is the sad way in which the boy-only culture of the BSA has not developed boys and men with the character that lives up to the scout law and scout’s promise, in so far as girls are not present,” said Jewett. “We need to protect a whole generation of boys from that. We need them not to be a part of it.”

Until August 2017, Eugene was not home to a BPSA troop. This changed when Angela Pittaluga wanted to find a program that both her 6-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter could participate in together. She joined the Rover Scouts of the BPSA, and as a scout leader was able to start her own troop, the 78th Emerald. Her son is a member of the Otter Scouts, while her daughter is a part of the still-unofficial Chipmunk Scouts. Though the troop only has four scouts at the moment, two girls and two boys, Pittaluga said she is confident in the experience she is giving the children.

“I knew that I wanted my kids in some sort of scouting program because I was in one and wanted to experience that with them. So I was excited when I saw the BPSA,” Pittaluga said. When she was in the Girl Scouts as a child, her experience was much different than those of Jewett and McGrath in the Boy Scouts. “We mostly did arts and crafts. We went on a couple camping trips and went to Canada a couple of times,” she said.

Her experience with BPSA has been starkly different than those of her childhood with the Girl Scouts. “It’s a pretty even split,” she said. “It’s wonderful being a part of something that doesn’t really care [about gender]. It’s about: Are you a good person? Do you care about scouting? That’s all we require.”

For the future, Pittaluga has high hopes. “I want to foster equity and equality. Despite all our differences, we’re really all just the same. But we need to celebrate our differences while not excluding what makes us unique,” she said. Additionally, Pittaluga encourages the children in her troop in find whatever future they can conceive. “I use the motto ‘Follow your Bliss’ and I want to help people do that,” she said.