Chun-Yin Chong points to a patch on his scoutmaster uniform. It’s a rainbow rectangle with an arrow in the middle.
The patch symbolizes a core tenet of the national Baden Powell Service Association: inclusivity. Chong is the scoutmaster of the 6th Woodrunners, BPSA’s Anoka-based chapter.
The scouting association is “radically inclusive,” said Jessica Mohn Johnson, founder of the Duluth-based chapter, 467th Borealis. According to its mission statement, all are welcome to join, “regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, class, ability, religion (or no religion), or other differentiating factors.”
Chong says the scouts aren’t trying to appropriate the symbol of the LGBT Pride movement by donning the rainbow-colored patch, but he is cognizant that LGBT people have historically been left out of scouting. For him the badge conveys a conscious effort to be open to all.
An independent association with no affiliation to Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, the organization teaches traditional-style scouting and emphasizes community service. Nobody sells cookies (there’s actually a rule explicitly forbidding kids from doing so, Chong said); the troop is outside as often as possible, learning about self-reliance and stewardship of nature.
Chong co-created the 6th Woodrunners in 2008 with George Stecher, when their membership was adults-only. They opened up the chapter to youth in 2014, after Chong’s son Lucas left the Boy Scouts because he didn’t like selling popcorn for fundraisers or doing the intensive badgework that was required.
As an immigrant from Malaysia, Chong said Lucas and the daughter of his fellow scoutmaster may never have even sat at the same table before meeting each other through scouting. “But because we provide this platform, people from a different background, they come together. They kind of learn about each other. They build this understanding.”
A DIY experience
Freddie Sylvestre, a 6-year-old scout in the 6th Woodrunners, is looking forward to getting his camping and safety badges. When his dad told him about the group, he joined because “I like the sound of that.”
At BPSA, there aren’t a plethora of badges to earn. Scouts usually focus on gaining about two a month. In one lesson, scouts are taught how to properly use a knife to carve a block of wood. In another, scouts learn the value of service by visiting senior living homes, where they go bowling with residents and share cookies.
The troop tries to keep costs low and build practical skills through do-it-yourself projects. Need something to hold your water bottle? Scouts can assemble one out of some rope. Even the uniform neckerchief is handmade.
“Instead of like, every time you need a piece of equipment then you go to this expensive sport store and drop a lot of money, you know, we tend to have the kid solve the problem first,” Chong said.
BPSA is slowly gaining traction in the Midwest. The 6th Woodrunners chapter includes about six to eight families, or 20 to 26 members. Holding events in Anoka can make it difficult for those outside the Twin Cities to participate, Chong said.
The newly established 467th Borealis is hoping to expand BPSA’s reach. “The program itself, it does two major things and it does them very, very well. And that’s traditional scout craft, so outdoor skills, and service. And I thought, that’s exactly what we’re looking for,” said Jessica Mohn Johnson, the Duluth chapter’s founder.
A different option
While BPSA’s practices differ compared to those of Girl and Boy Scouts of America, the organizations are not at odds.
“We just give people options based on what they are looking for — for example, like inclusive membership could be a big draw for people. Because we don’t require members to have a religion or believe. If you’re atheist, that’s fine. That’s not my business, what you believe in,” Chong said.
“If you [are] able to take up the scout law, you make your scout oath, you’re willing to help other people, you’re a good person, you’re not afraid to go out and play outside. Join us. Have fun.”
That inclusivity is what drew Freddie’s dad, Steve Sylvestre, to the 6th Woodrunners. An adult scout himself, Sylvestre looked for a troop that his entire family could join.
“For me, it’s the kind of value system, I guess, that I want to instill. Just because of where you’re born or what your family’s beliefs are, that doesn’t lock you out from being able to experience this,” Syvestre said.
With a new baby in the family, Sylvestre is looking forward to introducing his daughter to the world of scouting. “I think I might have a chance at youngest scout at 6 weeks old.”