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BPSA scouting: Inclusion is at its core

Chun-Yin Chong
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Chun-Yin Chong, scoutmaster of the 6th Woodrunners, teaches his group about what to bring on a hike.

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.

The 6th Woodrunners scouts play "Ninja" at Peninsula Point Park in Anoka.
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
The 6th Woodrunners scouts play "Ninja" at Peninsula Point Park in Anoka.
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.

Freddie Sylvestre
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Freddie Sylvestre, a 6-year-old Otter scout, sings with the 6th Woodrunners to open their meeting. Otter scouts are children ages 5-7, the youngest official members.
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.”

Steve Sylvestre, center, an adult Rover scout, plays "Ninja."
MinnPost photo by Tiffany Bui
Steve Sylvestre, center, an adult Rover scout, plays "Ninja."
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.”

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/09/2019 - 11:42 am.

    Probably more than anyone want’s to know; but, I have crossed paths with the Boy Scouts and with the remnants of the “Woodcraft League”.

    They started as one in the early 1900s and the Woodcraft League founder, Ernest Thompson Seton, eventually parted company with Baden Powell and the BSA because Seton favored a coeducational approach, little emphasis on military style advancement and an emphasis on the outdoors and early environmentalism.

    Post WW1 military attitudes made Powell the winning organization and Seton mostly faded away. That this new org uses Powell’s name is ironic given the fact that what they see as their positive differences with the BSA can be traced to Powell’s early influence on the BSA:

    “The Boy Scouts is an organization recognized today as being founded by British military hero, Lord Robert Baden-Powell.

    After the Boer War, Baden-Powell returned to England, and because of his heroism, he was frequently asked to address groups to tell about his experiences. He soon learned that one of the booklets, “Aid to Scouting,” that he had prepared for his soldiers was being used by groups in England to guide young boys. Based on this, the leader of the Boys’ Brigade, an interdenominational Christian organization, asked Baden-Powell to expand and develop a program that groups could use to teach young men good citizenship.

    Baden-Powell had heard of Ernest Thompson Seton’s work in the United States and invited him over to discuss it. Seton hoped that England would establish chapters of the Woodcraft Indians and took a copy of the The Birch Bark Roll of the Woodcraft Indians to Lord Baden-Powell.

    Ultimately, Baden-Powell decided to go a slightly different direction, but he wrote to Seton explaining why, and noted that Seton’s book was a tremendous help in formulate his thoughts. Baden-Powell went on to create the organization of the Boy Scouts.

    Initially, Seton opted to follow Baden-Powell’s lead, and Seton co-founded the U.S.-based Boys Scouts with Dan Beard in 1910. He merged his Woodcraft Indian chapters into the newly formed group. Seton served as Chief Scout Executive until 1915 when he left the group over philosophical differences. Perhaps since Baden-Powell came from a military background, the scouts began to teach the use of firearms. This was offensive to all Seton stood for, and so he withdrew from the Scouts and went on to form other new groups.

    Seton Continues His Work
    This time Seton returned to his concept for the Woodcraft Indians 3rd book but made it coeducational and called it the Woodcraft League of America. It was open to all children “between the ages of 4 and 94.” Possibly because of his numerous books, the Woodcraft League programs spread worldwide.”

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/09/2019 - 12:18 pm.

    The use of Lord Baden-Powell’s name for a group formed to promote inclusivity is interesting, if not ironic. Baden-Powell was a racist imperialist of the old school. African and Indian Scouts were to be relegated to a lesser role, and certainly not to be integrated into the organization. “Fuzzy Wuzzy” may have broke a British square, but we’re not letting him come on any hikes or camp-outs with us!

    For her part, Lady Baden-Powell spent the three-and-a-half decades of her widowhood preserving her late husband’s legacy as it was on her death. She was the reason British Boy Scouts wore flared shorts as a part of their uniforms well into the 70s.

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