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Scouts 'n the hood.

It is after dark in Harlem. The streets are thick with tension. Fearful residents are barricaded in their homes, while crack dealers solicit passers-by on every block. Sirens and gunshots pierce the air.

At a local gym, a small gang of black teenagers stops playing basketball as its leader arrives. At his command they gather together, raise their hands in a special sign, and repeat their gang's creed, "On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country, and to obey the Scout Law; to help other people at all times; to keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight."

This "gang" is Boy Scout Troop 201, which meets at the Judge Kenneth M. Phipps Police Athletic League in Harlem. Like millions of scouts all across the country, they adhere to the same Scout Law: "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent."

But to these boys and their parents, scouting is different. Even more than in the rest of the country, it is a way to protect their families from the violence and moral breakdown that surrounds them. "Scouting lets your children see something besides selling drugs," observes Barbara Banks, a parent and volunteer who works with Troop 201. Eddie Fletcher brings his grandson to the troop meetings, saying they have made the boy a new person. Another scout, Earl, has been a member of Troop 201 for a year. He is serious, almost angry looking; he has been kicked out of other troops twice before for fighting. Asked what he likes most about scouting, Earl responds, "The discipline -- it helps control my temper -- and the camping trips." Through scouting, some of Earl's anger has been channeled into a determination to overcome obstacles. In spite of the problems with his temper, Earl says, "Nothing stops me from scouting. It's fun."

Urban Eagles

Two-hundred-fifty miles away, in the most dangerous part of Washington, D.C., another group of scouts meets. Sitting in Irene Gardner's Southeast Washington living room, eating Christmas cookies and drinking punch, these 11th- and 12th-grade boys are learning the ropes from former troop members now in college.

Troop 1650 is remarkable in scouting achievement. Since 1988, 10 of its members have reached the rank of Eagle Scout. This is the highest honor in scouting, which less than 3 percent of all scouts attain. The Eagle Scout award requires years of work. A boy must serve as a troop leader, complete numerous merit badges, and carry out a major community service project. To produce 10 Eagle Scouts is an outstanding achievement for any troop. This is no small feat for boys from Southeast Washington, many of whom come from single female-headed households.

At this Christmas meeting, the scouts hear "things they would not get in a seminar," says Scoutmaster David Morris: the lowdown on "girls, drugs, liquor, homework, and the need to study." For three hours they discuss the "benefits of going to a black versus a white college," and "what to look out for, and the racism found in college." This is the kind of information that boys like 16-year-old Darryl Gardner, who wants to be an engineer, are hungry for. The 12 assembled scouts will use this knowledge to help themselves succeed.

For the members and families of Troops 201 and 1650, and other inner-city troops like them, scouting is a part of their fight to save their children and rebuild their communities. Today, the Boy Scouts of America are bringing their programs to inner-city areas across America. Scout leaders are taking many children out of the city for the first time and teaching them how to pitch a tent and cook over an open fire. The Boy Scouts gives these boys -- many abandoned by their fathers -- their first lessons in self-discipline, loyalty, and personal honor.

In Baden-Powell's Spirit

In so building character, inner-city Boy Scout troops are following the original spirit of the scouting movement. The Boy Scouts were founded in Britain in 1907 by Lord Robert Baden- Powell, a war hero concerned by the growing numbers of sullen and dispirited young men who were "pale, narrow-chested, hunched-up ... smoking endless cigarettes." Lord Baden-Powell found that the wartime techniques of scouting that he had developed for his troops in the British army were fascinating to boys. He decided to transform the military practice of scouting into an organization that could restore the vigor of British youth and give them "pluck and resourcefulness."

But Lord Baden-Powell wanted to do more than just develop in young men sharp minds and strong bodies -- he wanted to give them a sense of duty and a moral compass for life. He told young men, "You will find that the object of becoming an able and efficient Boy Scout is not merely to give you fun and adventure but ... you will be fitting yourself to help your country and to be of service to other people who may be in need of help."

Scouting has since become one of the most successful youth movements in history. Since its establishment in 1910 in the United States, more than 85 million youth and adults have participated in the Boy Scouts of America. Today there are over four million Boy Scouts nationwide.

Scouting has had a great impact on American leadership. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Gerald Ford were both scouts. So were some 60 percent of members of Congress, including Eagle Scouts Thad Cochran, Sam Nunn, and Richard Gephardt, as well as Scouts Jesse Helms, Bill Bradley, Newt Gingrich, David Dreier, and Ron Dellums.

And the Boy Scouts have not confined their influence to Washington. Of the 172 astronauts selected since 1959, more than 100 were scouts. Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong was the first scout as well as the first man to set foot on the moon.

Inner-City Challenges

Now the Boy Scouts are seeking to build future leaders in America's inner cities. This is a challenge in communities where there is not much of a scouting or backwoods tradition and where there are few fathers -- or even, sometimes, mothers -- to volunteer as scout leaders.

Scouting can also be expensive. Uniforms, camping gear, money for dues, monthly campouts, and summer camp can cost $300 to $400 a year per boy. A new uniform alone can cost $60. This price tag is expensive for most parents, but often prohibitive for many inner-city parents.

Despite these difficulties, scouting can work in the inner cities. In New York City, a program called "Scoutreach" brings scouting to such economically depressed areas as Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Lower East Side. According to Manhattan scout executive Gary Laermer, the inner-city troops use the same scouting methods that are used everywhere, except that, "In the Scoutreach program the delivery mechanism is different: We pay college students to work as troop leaders in areas where we can't get volunteers." These college students serve as scoutmasters and plant the seed of scouting in inner-city neighborhoods. The Council, through donations, pays for the boys' handbooks and uniforms, and provides money for campouts. There now are 55 Scoutreach troops in New York City, with a membership of over 2,000 boys.

The goal of Scoutreach is not just to have outsiders provide a scouting experience for inner-city kids; the ultimate goal is to turn over Scoutreach troops from paid leaders to local volunteers. According to Anthony Soriano, district executive of the Manhattan Council, under the best circumstances it takes two to three years to develop a fully functional volunteer troop. Since the program began with two troops in 1989, Scoutreach has turned over six troops to volunteer leadership.

One of these is Harlem's Troop 201. Parent and volunteer Barbara Banks is proud that all the troop's leaders are volunteers: "When you are getting paid in Harlem to do something, that's all you care about -- the money, not the kids."

Teaching Boys to Lead

The patrol method is one way Scouting teaches leadership and responsibility to inner-city youth. Each scout troop is divided into patrols or small groups of eight to 10 boys who elect one of their number to be the patrol leader. These small groups determine troop activities. According to Lord Baden-Powell, "The main object of the patrol system is to give real responsibility to as many boys as possible. It leads each boy to see that he has some individual responsibility for the good of his patrol." By giving responsibility to boys, the patrol method builds in them self-confidence and an understanding of others -- in a word, leadership.

Melvin Horne, assistant scoutmaster for Troop 1650 in Southeast Washington, D.C., observes that "For many of the boys this is the first time that they are responsible for something and that they have to get someone else's cooperation." In his original Boy Scout handbook, Lord Baden-Powell wrote, "The patrol leader is responsible for the efficiency and smartness of his patrol. The scouts in his patrol obey his order, not from fear of punishment, as is often the case in military discipline, but because they are a team playing together and backing up their leader for the honor and success of their patrol." According to Assistant Scoutmaster Ernest Gardner, "Scouting teaches boys to lead without brow-beating."

At 17, Tremayne Jackson is the man in charge. As the Senior Patrol Leader of Troop 1650, he is responsible for running his troop of twenty boys. "Being a leader," he says, "requires you to be aware of what everyone is doing and to plan events." Having been a scout for many years, Jackson says, "I have experience enough to know what to do, so it's pretty easy." Mr. Jackson leads a busy life. When not in school, he is either running his troop or preparing applications for college. Jackson wants to be a research diver, and he plans to go to a school where he can get a degree in marine biology. He likes scouting because "it teaches you responsibility and leadership skills you need to know in life."


"Scouting," wrote Lord Baden-Powell, "is not a club -- nor a Sunday school -- but a school of the woods." When you ask scouts what they like most about scouting, almost universally they respond with camping. For boys, scouting is camping. Hiking, camping, swimming, canoeing, learning about snakes and lizards -- these are the natural activities of 12-year-old boys, not running drugs through trash-filled alleys. For inner-city boys, camping is really something special. For 16-year-old Darryl Gardner of Southeast Washington, "Camping allows you to do something different than everyday life." For many, the outdoors opens up a totally new world, and they revel in it.

Scout leaders like Melvin Horne see camping trips as the time when they can really work to build a boy's character. "Camping," he says, "gives the boys 24 hours to focus on scouting without anything else." For many of them, he adds, "camping is the first time away from home without another relative." When camping, the boys learn not only to depend on themselves because they are not with their mothers or fathers, but they also have to depend on their patrol members to work together to set up tents, collect firewood, and prepare meals. Assistant Scoutmaster Ernest Gardner says that "Boys tend to develop self-confidence in the outdoor environment, which shows them that they can take care of themselves."

Self-Esteem and Self-Control

The scoutmaster for Harlem's Troop 201 is Preston Lewis, a staff manager for New York Telephone, who got involved with scouting because he wanted to work with young people and be a decision-maker. When growing up, he says, "I never wanted to be a Boy Scout. I thought it was nerdy. They didn't have any respect." Now, he believes, "Scouting has great ideas. Our challenge is how to make them attractive." One of his goals is to improve the boys' awareness of education. Mr. Lewis maintains that "There is not a strong value placed on education in Harlem." To help the scouts, the troop has arranged for tutoring one hour per week for each boy to help him with his school work. His other major concern is the boys' self-esteem. Mr. Lewis adds, "This is a black concern, particularly in Harlem, where there is a lot of negativity." He has brought in speakers such as businessmen and graduate students to talk to the scouts. "We want to show the scouts that drug dealing and crime are not what happens to every black person in America."

Coming from such rough backgrounds, the boys still find self-control difficult. At a recent meeting the boys were reprimanded for going on a rampage -- screaming, running, and fighting -- when an assistant scoutmaster who was substituting for Mr. Lewis was late. When asked why they misbehaved, several scouts expressed anger and disappointment that the meeting might be cancelled.

The parents of Troop 201 see themselves in a fight for their children's future. At a recent troop Christmas party, it was easy to see how proud these parents were of their boys as the scouts solemnly repeated the Scout Oath and Law.

Later in the evening, each boy was given a toy by the troop, but they had to make a Christmas wish before the assembled parents and scouts. Some of these boys, as one would expect, wished for things like snow, but others wished unselfconsciously for an end to crack-dealing and killings in their neighborhood. Liz Townes, the troop committee chairman whose grandson is a scout, pronounced, "We have to flex our muscles and grab our children to us."

Scoring a 10

Not every inner-city Boy Scout troop has needed a program like Scoutreach to be successful. Throughout the country, there are poor urban troops that have run well under their own volunteer leadership for many years. Troop 1650 of Southeast Washington stands out not only as an example of a good inner-city troop, but as an exemplar for scout troops everywhere.

The scope of the troop's activities is impressive. Troop members go on a weekend campout and day-trip hiking or swimming each month. In addition, the troop plays basketball against local high schools, goes white-water canoeing, and takes long bike trips. This is a level of activity not found in many suburban troops. What's more, all of these activities and their weekly meetings are planned and run by the boys. The adult leaders tend to stay in the background and provide support when needed and help with logistics.

The troop is supported by St. Timothy's Episcopal Church, which provides a meeting place and money for expenses. The church does this even though few of the scouts are members of the church. Church member Robert James, the liaison between the troop and St. Timothy's, says the scout troop is part of the church's outreach ministry. Mr. James says "There is more to saving souls than having people come to Sunday school."

On January 10, 1993, St. Timothy's sanctuary was the site of an important occasion for 15-year-old Damon Morris and Troop 1650 -- Damon's Eagle Court of Honor, the 10th such ceremony in the troop's history. Since it is so rare for an inner-city scout to become an Eagle Scout, two other local troops brought their scouts to witness the event and be inspired by it. Most of the troop's parents were there, as well as Damon's teachers from school and representatives from the National Capital Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. The pastor of his church, the Pennsylvania Avenue Baptist Church, also attended. Damon had performed his Eagle Scout service project at his church, where he had refurbished its main meeting room. He spent two months planning, leading, and working with seven other scouts, painting and repairing cracks in the walls of the room. Most of the troop's nine other Eagle Scouts were also there, back from college during Christmas break.

While the main purpose of ceremony was to honor Damon Morris for his hard work and personal achievement, it also served as a public initiation into an elite brotherhood. In a moving part of the court of honor, the "Eagle Scout Challenge," Damon was told by a grown man and fellow Eagle Scout, Stanley Scofield, that "The final responsibility of an Eagle Scout is service.... The Eagle stands as protector of the weak and helpless. He aids and comforts the unfortunate and the oppressed. He upholds the rights of others while defending his own." Throughout the ceremony, Damon stood proudly at attention, a little overwhelmed at being at the center of attention for all those present.

Troop 1650 is proof that parents and community groups can not only keep black teenage boys off of drugs and out of jail, but that they can help them achieve high aspirations and build noble characters. As Irene Gardner of Troop 1650 says, "Don't tell me about black males as an endangered species. We have some good guys here." The Boy Scouts are helping those good guys develop into fine young men.
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Title Annotation:black Boy Scouts
Author:Parenti, Mark
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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