The Boy Scouts of America said this week that the organization would create a “diversity and inclusion” merit badge and make earning it a requirement of becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest scouting rank. The nonprofit also joined a growing number of organizations announcing public support for racial equality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Texas-based organization, which was formed in 1910 and reports more than 2.2 million youth members, has frequently been criticized for a lack of inclusivity.
For decades, openly gay people were not allowed to be members or adult leaders, a stance that began to change only in 2013. Almost three-quarters of its youth membership is white, with Black members making up less than 7%, according to a tally from the end of 2018.
In a statement Monday from the executive committee, the Boy Scouts said the group would do more to make sure “every person feels that they belong, are respected, and are valued in Scouting.”
The organization said that it would make diversity and inclusion training mandatory for its staff, starting July 1, and that it would work with local councils to ensure that property names, events and other insignia do not bear “symbols of oppression.” The Boy Scouts said the review would “build on” an existing 30-year ban on displays of the Confederate flag.
Effie Delimarkos, a spokeswoman for the Boy Scouts, said the organization was still working on the details of how a scout would earn the diversity and inclusion merit badge. The development of a new badge typically takes years, but she said the timeline would be expedited in this case.
The organization said in the statement that it would incorporate elements from existing badges that “require scouts to learn about and engage with other groups and cultures to increase understanding and spur positive action.”
“We believe that Black Lives Matter,” the organization’s statement declared, saying the group stood with Black families and individuals. “This is not a political issue; it is a human rights issue and one we all have a duty to address.”
The Boy Scouts had initially put out a much broader statement June 3, with no mention of race, and focusing instead on teaching scouts “to become the best versions of themselves.”
“I was shocked and deeply disappointed that their original statement made no reference to the experiences of Black people, the pain that the Black community was feeling,” said Dwayne Fontenette Jr., 29, an Eagle Scout who also has volunteered as a scout leader.
Fontenette then helped write a letter last week, signed by more than 500 scouts, calling for the Boy Scouts to take a stronger stance against “anti-Black racism.” He said in an interview that he was “moved” by the organization’s statement this week.
“It represented for me the first time in my scouting history where I feel like the organization saw me and valued me completely,” he said.
Fontenette, who is Black, said the Boy Scouts still had an “extraordinary amount of work to do to create an environment in which Black people have equal access and equal outcomes in scouting, and an experience in which we are made to feel as we belong.”
Since the death of George Floyd during an arrest by the Minneapolis Police prompted protests nationwide over racial equality, many organizations and businesses have been eager to publicly embrace the cause. Apple pledged $100 million toward a racial justice initiative. Sephora said it would devote at least 15% of its shelf space to products made by Black-owned firms, and companies like Nike, Twitter and Citigroup have all aligned themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement.
The Boy Scouts’ statement came as membership in the organization has dwindled in recent years. While more than 130 million Americans have participated in the Boy Scouts since its inception, shifting American attitudes have pulled families away from the God-and-country oaths and outdoorsy survival skills associated with the Scouts.
The organization has made a number of progressive changes in recent years.
In 2013, the group ended its ban on openly gay youths participating in its activities. Two years later, the Boy Scouts ended a ban on openly gay adult leaders. In January 2017, it said it would begin accepting members based on the gender listed on their applications, paving the way for transgender youth to join the organization.
And while girls had been allowed in some programs, like Sea Scouts, since the early 1970s, the Boy Scouts said in 2017 that the organization would begin allowing girls in its other core programs.
Last year, Scouting Magazine reported that more than 61,000 people became Eagle Scouts.
But the organization has also been embroiled in scandal. In February, the organization filed for bankruptcy after thousands of people came forward with allegations that they were sexually abused by scout leaders, with many filing lawsuits against the Scouts.
Benjamin Jordan, a professor at Christian Brothers University who has researched the history of scouting, said this week’s statement contrasted with the more exclusive reputation the Scouts had developed in recent decades. But he pointed out that the Boy Scouts had, even in the 1920s, sought to encourage the creation of Black troops in the Southeast through a program called the “interracial service,” despite conservative pushback.
“This move,” he said, “is more a return to their past rather than a new departure.”