Scouts 'N the Hood

By Parenti, Mark | Policy Review, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Scouts 'N the Hood


Parenti, Mark, Policy Review


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. …

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