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Scouts launch bid for more Latinos

Aiming to boost their sagging numbers, the Boy Scouts are launching a million-dollar campaign to draw more Latinos, a group that has long resisted Scouting’s appeal.

But the Scouts’ national officials acknowledge that it may be a tough sell. Only three of every 100 Scouts are Latino, and some immigrant families see such groups as an indulgence of the well-to-do in their home countries. Some also bristle at the uniforms.

“We go in in a uniform that looks like the Border Patrol,” said Paul Moore, head of the Scouts’ Los Angeles Area Council. “Then we ask [adult volunteers] to fill out complex applications that ask for their Social Security numbers. I think we’ve found some good ways in L.A. to deal with some of these things, but we have to do a better job of getting parents to see Scouting as something that aligns with their hopes and dreams for their kids.”

For 2009, the Scouts have targeted six heavily Latino areas across the U.S., including Fresno and San Jose, for a pilot program called Hispanic Initiatives. Radio commercials, public service announcements and messages on such social networking websites as Facebook will underscore the similarity between Scouting’s ideals and traditional Latino family values, officials said.

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The effort -- which also focuses on New York; Chicago; Orlando, Fla.; and Harlingen, Texas -- will stress the hiring of more Latino staff, a goal the organization has set for its 304 local councils across the U.S.

“We’re telling them you need your staff to mirror the community you’re trying to serve,” said Marcos Nava, the Scouting executive in charge of the campaign. “We have about 3,000 professionals -- full-time employees -- but only 194 are bilingual and bicultural.”

Language has been a stumbling block to recruitment, especially to letting immigrant parents know more about Scouting programs. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the same thing from local councils,” Nava said. “ ‘If only we had someone who spoke Spanish.’ ”

Some ongoing programs will be stepped up. Scouts and their leaders will have access to more Spanish materials, such as the Manual del Wolf, a translation -- published a few years ago -- of the Cub Scouts’ Wolf Handbook. Additional ethnically targeted efforts, such as the popular Scouting and Soccer program, will be devised. More high-profile Latinos will be wooed to serve on local boards.

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Scouting executives consider Hispanic Initiatives, which is being managed by a Washington, D.C., marketing firm, crucial to the organization’s long-term viability.

“It can’t be all Norman Rockwell Caucasian guys like me,” said John Richers, the director of Fresno’s Boy Scout council. “I’m hoping that Scouting tomorrow looks more like Marcos Nava than John Richers. We have to make sure we still have relevance in the new America, if you will.”

That’s not a new concern.

“It’s a very familiar story,” said Jay Mechling, an Eagle Scout who went on to become a UC Davis professor of American studies. “It’s been nearly 100 years that they’ve been trying to figure this out.”

Founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America sought to build character and shield youths from unhealthy urban influences.

It was “city rot,” declared one of the founders, that “has turned such a large proportion of our robust, manly, self-reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers.”

For decades, the Scouts were mainly white and middle-class, despite occasionally successful efforts to draw inner-city minorities.

But their ranks have been thinning for years, despite periodic efforts to brighten their 1950s image.

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The Boy Scouts offer a merit badge in cinematography and lessons against copyright infringement. They offer co-ed after-school and adventure programs.

Until a redo last year, they were wearing uniforms designed by Oscar de la Renta. Still, their numbers fell from more than 4 million in the early 1990s to about 3 million today.

Video games and computers have kept kids indoors and out of Scouts, some officials say. Headlines about phony recruitment numbers, as well as the Scouts’ heavily publicized positions against atheism and homosexuality, have not helped, with schools in some areas reconsidering their long-standing support of Scout troops.

While the U.S. Latino population has grown by more than 50% since 1990, few have a family member with fond memories of poking Scout campfires or mastering the Cat’s Paw knot.

“The vast majority can honestly say their grandfathers, fathers and uncles were not in Scouting as youths,” says a fact sheet from the Scouts’ marketing division. “This is an unfortunate reality when one takes into account that Hispanic Americans/Latinos are among the most ‘brand loyal’ consumers in this country.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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