Seeking Hispanic Scouts

IV. A few years ago, Charles Boddy and Randy Larson met with a group of Hispanic clergy in Lawrence, Mass., to promote the Boy Scouts of America. Both had long been active in the organization and lamented that so few Latinos, who make up 70 percent of the city's population, had joined its ranks. Boddy gave what he thought was a compelling presentation, explaining the Scouts' values and the variety of programs they offered. The religious leaders "asked very pointed questions, were all very enthusiastic," Boddy recalls. "So I finished and thought, 'Wow, I did a great job. They get it. They want to join the Scouts'." As he was leaving, though, a couple of the clergymen approached and said they had a question: "What," one asked, "is a Scout?"

That succinctly captures the challenge the group faces as it embarks on an ambitious campaign to double its Latino membership by its 100th anniversary in 2010. Though Hispanics constitute 15 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only about 3 percent of the organization's 2.9 million members. That leaves plenty of room for growth, which the BSA sorely needs, given the steady decline in its numbers (it had 3.4 million members 10 years ago). Yet many Latino families know little about the group—or consider it so quintessentially white, suburban and middle class that it seems inaccessible. The Scouts are determined to change that image and to refashion themselves as multicultural and modern. "We're either going to figure out how we can be the most exciting and dynamic organization for Hispanic youth," says Rick Cronk, the BSA's immediate past president, "or we're going out of business."

The Scouts have staked their future on Latinos for a simple reason: demographics. Hispanics account for more than one fifth of kids under the age of 5 and are projected to make up one quarter of the nation's population by 2050. The combination of their high fertility rates (2.9 kids per woman, compared with 1.8 for whites) and young ages (a median of 27, putting them near the prime of their childbearing years) gives rise to a striking statistic: the ratio of Hispanic births to deaths is eight to one, compared with one to one among whites. As a result, sometime around the start of the new millennium Latino population growth began to be fueled more by U.S.-born babies than by immigration. A vast second generation of Latinos is just now emerging from elementary school, offering the Scouts fertile ground for recruiting.

These kids have distinctive traits. According to a 2008 study of Latino youth by the Intelligence Group, a market-research firm owned by the Creative Artists Agency, they straddle cultures nimbly. They speak Spanish at home and English at school. They retain traditional values like respect for their elders, but also embrace American ambition and individualism. They're proud to be Latino and consider themselves cultural vanguardists, yet they're eager to participate in broader youth culture and wary of "Hispanic products" that single them out. "They have so much broader a palette to choose from," says CAA's Christy Haubegger, "and they feel enormously empowered as a result."

The Scouts' first concerted foray into Latino youth marketing, in 2002, failed to grasp much of this. Mostly, the effort consisted of translating existing marketing materials into Spanish. A new Latino slogan—"Vale la pena" ("It's worth it")—was neither culturally resonant nor especially rousing. More important, it didn't explain to immigrant parents what was worth it. A flier produced by a Midwestern BSA council typified the problem. Translated from English, it highlighted ideals, like reverence and obedience, embedded in the Scout Oath. "While those are nice values that are consistent with the Latino community, if a parent reads that, they still don't know what the Boy Scouts of America is," says Carlos Alcazar, president of Hispanic Communications Network, a market-strategy firm. Namely, a parent wouldn't know that it's a youth organization aimed at producing good citizens and leaders.

Hoping to invigorate Latino outreach, BSA chief scout executive Bob Mazzuca hired Alcazar in 2007 to develop a new strategic plan. Alcazar toured the country, visiting local councils from Lawrence, Mass., to Santa Ana, Calif. Part of what he found was encouraging—when Hispanic families joined the Scouts, they loved it. But he identified two main problems: Latino ignorance of the BSA, which gave way to rumors that it was some sort of government or military outfit, and a lack of bilingual staff and volunteers to accommodate new recruits and their parents. Later that year Alcazar presented a five-year plan that's now underway. The BSA has created a national office for Hispanic initiatives, begun hiring local Latino staff and started crafting a national ad campaign. It has also launched six pilot projects in cities across the country to test new marketing proposals.

The one in Orlando, where Puerto Ricans have been migrating in droves, is led by Eric Santiago. A half-Brazilian, half-"Nuyorican" from Brooklyn who grew up Scouting as an escape from the ghetto, he's been pulling 70-hour weeks since last summer to promote the BSA throughout the area. He raises money, recruits volunteers and courts Spanish-language media. Every week he visits schools, churches and fairs, and delivers a two-pronged pitch—emphasizing Scouting's adventurous side to entice the kids and its opportunities for family bonding to woo the parents. Along the way he's learned a few tricks. He doesn't wear his uniform when he meets new groups, to avoid arousing suspicion. And rather than cold-call an organization, he tries to enlist local Latino leaders to make the initial approach.

The work has been much tougher than he'd imagined. "You've got to be kind of thick-skinned" to deal with all the rejection, says Santiago. The multitude of misconceptions ("Are you grooming child soldiers?" "Are you going to force my kid to kill a rabbit and eat it?") can be tiring. When families do express interest, the next challenge is to accommodate their schedules, which are often strained by long hours in service-sector jobs. More dispiriting still, he has encountered xenophobia on a few occasions. When he visited a school once, an elderly white Eagle Scout wanted to hand off a number of Latino kids rather than integrate them into his troop. "I don't want to deal with the parents," he told Santiago. "If they come to us, they should learn English." (Such sentiments have cropped up elsewhere, too, such as this online comment in response to an article about Hispanic recruitment in Delaware: "If they (hispanics) want to fit in—then THEY HAVE to make the changes, not the AMERICAN BOY Scouts of AMERIA [sic].")

Still, Santiago is making headway. So far he's signed up 125 kids in nine new units, including three sponsored by Iglesia de Dios Mission Board, a Puerto Rican Pentecostal church in Kissimmee, south of Orlando. After an exuberant service on a recent Sunday, Santiago and a local county commissioner, John Quiñones, presented the groups with their charter. Everyone seemed excited—the youngsters because they'd been told about a nearby 1,600-acre BSA camp, and the adults because they welcomed a wholesome activity for youth. "The Boy Scouts give you that tool to keep kids out of the street and bring them something where they feel they belong," says Leonardo Rivera, the father of three kids who joined up. "It creates a bond between the Hispanic community and the American community." And that's exactly what the BSA is looking for.