My Afternoon with Frances Hesselbein

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Frances Hesselbein (Hesselbein Institute)

I never met Juliette Gordon Low, of course, but last week I came pretty close. I had the privilege of spending part of the day with Frances Hesselbein at her office in Manhattan. Few individuals have had as great an impact on the Girl Scout movement as this gracious lady.

Mrs. Hesselbein was the GSUSA National Executive Director from 1976 to 1990. Her first day on the job, in fact, was July 4, 1976. Today she is the director of the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.

I had asked to interview her about the decision to sell Rockwood National Center in 1978. But we soon moved on to the many highlights and happier memories from her time at GSUSA.

She presided over many milestones, some more popular than others, including implementing circular management principles, introducing the Worlds to Explore program, reconfiguring the Edith Macy Center into a year-round training facility, and the introduction of the contemporary (three faces) logo. Some of her favorite memories include:

Halston Uniform

Mrs. H (“Frances” just seems too informal!) had just returned from visiting a Halston retrospective exhibition at the Nassau County (NY) Museum of Art. The famous fashion designer had created a stylish collection of adult uniforms in 1978, and Mrs. H vividly recalled participating in that process. She also let me borrow the gorgeous exhibit catalog.

Camping

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The diverse staff of Camp Blue Knob, circa 1952 (Hesselbein Institute)

I had submitted my resume, Rockwood book outline and synopsis, and several other documents in advance, and Mrs. H immediately noted that we both had experience as camp staff, making us both survivors of that trial by fire. She shared with me several staff photos from her time directing Camp Blue Knob in western Pennsylvania and pointed out the unusual racial diversity of the group for the early 1950s. She also had a photo from the summer 2016 camp out on the White House Lawn.

White House Honors

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Frances Hesselbein and President Bill Clinton (Hesselbein Institute)

While Mrs. H never camped on the White House lawn — that I know of — she has been a frequent visitor. But few visits can top one in 1998, when President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. (Juliette Gordon Low was posthumously awarded the medal in 2012.) The beautiful medal is prominently displayed in her office.

 

 

 

Diversity

While her Girl Scout camp was integrated in the early 1950s, society lagged behind. Mrs. Hesselbein recalled that she could not eat with her African-American staff members at any restaurant in any nearby town.

With that camp experience in mind, one of her priorities as head of GSUSA was to reach out to all girls, especially girls in historically underserved communities.  When she began at GSUSA, the organization was 95% white; fourteen years later, minority ranks had tripled.

As part of that effort, she sought to have a greater range of images in Girl Scout handbooks and other publications. She wanted any girl, of any background, to be able to find herself in a handbook. New handbooks depicted girls of all skin tones, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all physical abilities — in other words, all girls.

A Secret to Longevity?

Finally, as our conversation drew to a close, I brought up another topic: age. Mrs. Hesselbein is 101 — exactly twice my age.

Of course, many people remark on her extraordinary vigor. But my casual research in recent months has led me to a realization. We Girl Scouts seem to be an exceptionally long-lived group of women.

That holds true for volunteers and long-time staff. I just recently learned of a former Rockwood director who has passed away in February — and wanted it known in her obituary that she lived to 99 years and seven months.  At Nation’s Capital, we lost two past council presidents in recent years — Marguerite Cyr (101) and Bobby Lerch (104).

And the more I investigate, the more very senior Girl Scouts I find. Camping expert Kit Hammett (96); national board member Lillian Gilbreth (93). National presidents Henrietta Bates Brooke (89) and Grace MacNeil (92). But the record, so far, must be Executive Director Dorothy C. Stratton, who passed away at age 107!

 

I would love to see some data on the percentage of our membership over age 90 compared with the general population. That could be quite a retention incentive.

I asked Mrs. Hesselbein what she thought might be behind this possible trend. We came up with the same answer immediately — the girls.

The girls keep us young.

Postscript: No selfies from my visit, some memories are too precious to share. 

©2017 Ann Robertson

 

Back to the Birthplace

Last weekend, I finally visited the renovated library at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah, Georgia. I had not toured the house since the library’s controversial redo in April 2015.

Based on the criticism I’d read, I expected to step into a high-tech Apple Store, with rows of gleaming iPads, computer monitors, and glaring fluorescent lights. The reality was quite different.

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Birthplace Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez (right) discusses the theory behind the new library (photo by Mark Bowles)

I watched a Cadette troop swarm into the room and head straight for the activity table in the middle of the room. Most of them passed right over the iPads—that’s something they see every day. What they really liked was the stereopticons. Everyone had to try out the “vintage virtual reality glasses.”

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The stereopticons were extremely popular (photo by Mark Bowles)

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Birthplace Executive Director Lisa Junkin Lopez, front view (I forgot to take her picture!)

 

I spent over an hour in the library with Lisa Junkin Lopez, the executive director of the Birthplace. She arrived in November 2015, shortly after the new library was unveiled and instituted several modifications in response to a range of feedback. We had an excellent discussion about the purpose of various museum features.

Honor the Past, Serve the Future

The interactive table is the focus of the library and provides hands-on activities that allow girls to physically connect with the past. After a series of “do not touch” displays in other rooms, the girls welcome the change. The activities are grouped around the themes of Poems, Songs, Speeches, and Storytelling.

 

The exhibit has also been designed for maximum accessibility. Girls can feel Braille letters, for example. Girls are encouraged to compose poetry about their Girl Scout experiences, and they can leave their own mark on history by adding their favorite book to the memory journal. At one point, they could use a beautiful blue vintage typewriter to record their thoughts, but it was so popular that the machine would jam and congest the room. As the last stop on the tour, the library also offers a transition between past and present.

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This desk once held a vintage typewriter, a technology that proved too popular to remain on display  (photo by Mark Bowles)

Community Service

The library is now stocked with books by and about women, which builds on the Gordon family’s love of reading and learning. Troops are encouraged to bring contributions for the library, and returning girls often search the shelves for “their” books. Surplus books will be donated to Loop It Up, a local literacy charity.

There are also traditional Girl Scout handbooks and fictional stories on view, but these are for display only. It might be nice to have scanned excerpts of the older books available to browse on the iPads.

For All Girls

While the Birthplace is one of the holiest shrines of Girl Scouting, it also is one of the best-known house museums among the many restored mansions in historic Savannah. It is also the only house museum that has an elevator, making the upper floors accessible to visitors with physical disabilities.

Lisa explained that the Birthplace has an opportunity to expand on Juliette Gordon Low’s principle of inclusion. It can serve as a model and resource for other historic house museums seeking to improve the accessibility of their facilities without compromising their historical integrity. That seems like an outreach effort worth pursuing.

The Girls’ House

Overall, I did not find the new library as horrific as often portrayed. I’d feared isolated girls with earbuds roaming about, following a pre-recorded tour.

Instead, I was delighted to watch girls eagerly experience both the old and the new technology. We need to use the tools and technology available to help modern girls connect with the past. I’m sure I’m not the only Girl Scout historian who has referred to semaphore as “vintage texting.” That translates into something the girls understand, something more appealing than waving an old rag on a stick.

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Girl Scouts has long embraced technology. These campers from the 1920s are using “vintage GPS systems,” also known as a compass (GSCNC Archives).

I also don’t think the redesign of the library has damaged the historical integrity of the building. The rooms have not been structurally modified, just the contents changed. Any house museum will have to make compromises to meet modern building codes. I’m fairly sure the gift shop and public restrooms were not part of the original layout either, but I don’t hear complaints about those.

I find that when girls connect with Girl Scout history, when they discover their place in this venerable movement, they come away with a deeper appreciation of Girl Scouting. That’s what I saw happening in the Birthplace library, and I have no problem using the occasional iPad to help that process along.

©2017 Ann Robertson

Girl Scouts on Parade

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Hooray to our confident young women who braved the insults and haters and stood tall and proud yesterday during the 2017 Inaugural Parade.

 

 

The issue of whether or not the Girl Scouts should have participated in the events surrounding the swearing-in of a new president generated considerable discussion.

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Girl Scouts marching in the 2017 Inaugural parade (photo by Julie Lineberry)

Some commentators dismissed the uproar as the work of “childish feminists.” (Their argument might have been more convincing if they used our real name, Girl Scouts of the USA, not Girl Scouts of America.)

My own blog post on the matter was shared around the digital world, and I was interviewed and quoted by the Boston Globe.

Today GSUSA, the national headquarters, released their own follow-up statement, which reads in part:

Being a leader means having a seat at the leadership table no matter what. It means being willing to work with whomever happens to hold political power. It means not running from the face of adversity but, rather, standing tall and proud and announcing to the world and the powers that be that SHE is a force to be reckoned with—and that girls’ viewpoints and needs must be taken seriously. This is what we model at Girl Scouts, as to do otherwise would be to tell girls to sit down and be quiet—and that they don’t count.

Now there is a movement afoot to not ask Melania Trump to serve as honorary president of the Girl Scouts, another 100-year old tradition dating back to Edith Wilson. (Edith was Woodrow Wilson’s second wife and second First Lady; his first wife, Ellen had declined the invitation and then promptly died.)

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First Lady Grace Coolidge in her beloved Girl Scout uniform (GSCNC archives)

Again, I disagree. We are non-partisan, we can’t pick and choose who we’ll take and who we want. That’s the first lesson in troop management. Would we reject the Trump granddaughters if they wanted to join?

In fact, I hope Mrs. Trump becomes deeply involved in Girl Scouting. It would be an excellent way for her to be a voice for women in the United States, a voice that quite literally has the president’s ear.

So, Mrs. Trump, after you drop your son at school Monday, why don’t you take a stroll down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. GSUSA headquarters is only a few blocks south of Trump Tower. You can pick up your membership pin and a beautiful official scarf in the GS Shop—and we’ll help you to begin learning what it means to be strong, confident, and independent.

©2017 Ann Robertson

 

God Bless America and the Girl Scouts

Today musicians across the country will play both the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” Over the years, many people have called for making “God Bless America” our national anthem. Among other arguments, it is a much easier song to sing.

I happen to agree, but I have an ulterior motive. I want the royalties.

 

Written in 1917, “God Bless America” debuted on Kate Smith’s radio show in 1938.  It was an instant hit.  Irving Berlin’s lyrics captured his love of the United States, the country that had welcomed his family when they fled Russia in 1893.  He decided to use the royalties from this song to invest in the country’s future, especially its youth.

Sheryl Kaskowitz's book from Oxford University Press, is available through Barnes and Noble and Amazon, among others.

Sheryl Kaskowitz’s book from Oxford University Press.

In July 1940 Berlin set up the God Bless America Fund and instructed its trustees to equally distribute all royalties to two all-American organizations: the Girl Scouts of the USA and the Boy Scouts of America (Note: We are NOT the Girl Scouts of America).

Berlin sat on the board of directors of the Boy Scouts and his wife on the board of the Girl Scouts.  The Fund’s trustees explained the selection of beneficiaries: “It was felt that the completely nonsectarian work of the Boy and Girl Scouts was calculated to best promote unity of mind and patriotism, two sentiments that are inherent in the song itself.”

Originally the funds were distributed to councils across the country, but since the 1990s the fund has focused on the Girl Scout Council of Greater New York and the Greater New York Councils: Boy Scouts of America. Both organizations used the funds to provide programs in low-income neighborhoods.

At the time, right-wing fringe groups attacked the Girl Scouts for accepting Berlin’s gift. Noting that the composer was Jewish, they denounced the song as being part of a Jewish conspiracy to replace the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Historian  Sheryl Kaskowitz reprints excerpts from some of these startling letters, including one that claimed the Girl Scouts had accepted $15,000 from Berlin as part of the conspiracy: “Millions of Christian Americans resent certain forces using a great Patriotic organization such as yours to further their own selfish interests, and further the lid is about to be blown right off this slimy trick.”

The Girl Scouts persevered, and ten years later, in 1950, Fund president Herbert Bayard Swope cited the movement as “a leading factor in the fight to end race, color, and religious discrimination in the United States.”

Annual income to the two organizations has ranged around  $100,000-$200,000 in recent years. According to a 1996 article in Billboard, other patriotic Berlin songs have been added to the Fund’s catalog, including “This Is the Army” and “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.”  The bulk of the royalties still comes from “God Bless.”

Royalties swelled to $800,000 for 2001, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  By 2011 some $10 million had been distributed to both organizations.

However, Fund trustees became increasingly uncomfortable with the Boy Scouts’ official policy of discrimination against homosexual members, upheld in a 2000 Supreme Court ruling. Fund publications began to stress that royalties went to the Greater New York Council, not the national organization.  Each year the Greater New York Council had to assure the Fund of its non-discrimination policy.

The Fund was not satisfied by the council’s statement in 2012, and it refused to cut a check to the Boy Scouts for several years. However, eventually the Fund was satisfied and donations resumed. For 2015, the New York Boy Scouts received a donation of between $50,000 and $100,000.

 

Girl Scouts representing Justice, Liberty, and Peace strike a pose during a June 19, 1915, rally at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

Girl Scouts representing Justice, Liberty, and Peace strike a pose during a June 19, 1915, rally at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

The Fund has never had a problem with the Girl Scouts. For 2015, Girl Scouts of Greater New York reported a donation from the God Bless American Fund of between $25,000 and $49,999. (See Greater New York Annual Report 2015.)

The Girl Scouts of the USA has long advocated inclusion and maintained a strict policy of “For All Girls.” Period.  We know there is always room for one more around the campfire.

God Bless the Girl Scouts, indeed.

©2016 Ann Robertson

UPDATE: Lunch with Anna, FORMER CEO

UPDATE: Anna Maria Chávez has resigned as GSUSA CEO, effective June 30. 


Yesterday I had lunch with GSUSA CEO Anna Maria Chávez at the National Press Club. It was just Anna, me, and 400 or so of our closest friends. There were also about a dozen CEOs of various Girl Scout councils, former GSUSA CEO Marsha Evans, and many many past and present Girl Scouts.

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I forgot my camera yesterday, so this 2013 photo of Chavez and I will have to do. (I’m on the left)

It was a typical Washington lunch presentation, with a berry, walnut and goat cheese salad; a breaded chicken breast, fresh vegetables, and a light, 20-minute speech.

What did Chávez have to say?

First, to answer members’ frequent question, Chávez wore a fitted navy skirt suit. It definitely qualified as “business attire” and thus as official uniform. She was also wearing an official Girl Scout scarf and pins. She specifically commented that she was wearing her newly received Catholic St. Elizabeth Ann Seton  medal.

Second, Chávez did not dwell on the Gold Award. It was mentioned, certainly, several times, but it was not the focus of the presentation. (She did not even ask Gold Award recipients present to stand.) Instead, the overall theme was reasons to “invest” in girls and Girl Scouting.

Third, Chávez acknowledged the previous day’s tragedy in Orlando, Florida, where over 100 patrons were shot at a gay nightclub. Several times she emphasized that “inclusion is in our DNA,” suggesting that Girl Scouts could be a positive force in expanding tolerance.

Fourth, when asked about plans for the future, Chávez twice mentioned that she is expecting a “call to the ministry.”

The entire presentation is available online.

©2016 Ann Robertson

 

DC Girl Scouts in Cold War Propaganda?

My name is Miya Carey, and I am a doctoral candidate in history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. Last month, I had the pleasure of spending a week at the new Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital History Center in Frederick, MD, completing the last bit of my dissertation research. My project looks at the shifting constructions and experiences of black girlhood in Washington, DC from the 1930s to the 1960s through an examination of African American and interracial girls’ organizations. One of the main organizations in my study is the Girl Scouts.

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Ethel Harvey, GSCNC President, 1972-1978

I found many gems during this research trip, but one of the most fascinating was a photo album from the Ethel Harvey collection. Harvey was one of the most prominent leaders in the scouting movement in Washington, DC. She became the first African American to serve as president of any Girl Scout council. In 1961, she and Pansy Gregg, her co-leader and dear friend, traveled with their troop to Our Cabaña, a WAGGGS world center, in Cuernavaca, Mexico. [The same troop would visit Pax Lodge in London and Our Chalet in Switzerland in 1964.]

 

The most striking photographs in the album featured the scouts, who were all African American, dressed in their sharkskin “stewardess” uniforms and posed listening to record players, creating scrapbooks, and writing post cards. Following this series of photographs is a note that says, “photographs taken by USIA.” This note refers to the United States Information Agency, which President Eisenhower established in 1953 as the organ of U.S. public and cultural diplomacy. It is unclear how the USIA used these photographs, if they used them at all, but it is useful to speculate how these photographs could have been used, and why the USIA thought that photographing the scouts would further their goals.

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Senior Troop 1027 (GSCNC Archives)

The agency’s main goal was to maintain the image of the U.S. abroad as the bastion of democracy and on the right side of the Cold War. However, this was a difficult task when images of racial violence and civil rights protest dominated international headlines, and revealed the cracks in America’s promise of democracy for all. The Our Cabaña photographs were taken after Little Rock, the start of the sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, and numerous other civil rights struggles. The common thread linking each of these events is that young people were at the center of each.

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Senior Troop 1027 (GSCNC Archives)

The scouts offered an alternative image of black childhood and young adulthood abroad. The image of black girlhood offered in these photographs is one that is both playful and patriotic. The scouts were doing typical teenage activities, such as listening to music, rather than being victims of racialized violence. They were proud members of the Girl Scouts, an organization that espoused patriotism and democracy, rather than young people marching against injustice. The USIA could use the figure of the black Girl Scout in American propaganda to demonstrate racial harmony, and counter the notion that the United States was in opposition to its black citizens, even if this was not completely true.

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Senior Troop 1027 (GSCNC Archives)

I still have many questions about these photographs. How did the USIA come to photograph the scouts at Our Cabaña? Did the agency have a relationship with the Girl Scouts? Most importantly, what did the girls in the photograph think? Did they know the purpose of photographs and the USIA? I would suspect that when they embarked on their trip to Mexico, they saw it as a chance to experience a culture different from their own, rather than serving as ambassadors of the American model of democracy. Regardless, these photographs demonstrate the far-reaching and rich legacy of the Girl Scouts in American culture.

 

Camp May Flather Desegregates in 1955

The District of Columbia Council’s flagship resident camp, Camp May Flather, quietly desegregated in the summer of 1955.

The Council’s Camping Committee had made the following recommendation to the Council Board of Directors, which voted for the change in January 1955:

The Committee on Camping recommends that there be no restrictions in any camp based on race. This means that in troop camping we will continue the present practice of camping as troops, but when council-wide encampments are held, there is no segregation.

Day camps will continue to be operated by District Committees and attendance will be limited by District jurisdiction.

Established camps will be open to all girls in the District of Columbia and Montgomery County [Maryland] regardless of district jurisdiction.

There was no big fanfare, no press release, just an invitation to members of a highly experienced troop of African American girls from the Charles Young School in Washington, DC. Troop 35 was led by Pansy Gregg, a second-grade teacher at Charles Young.

Intermediate Troop 35

Intermediate Troop 35 (GSCNC Archives)

Camp May Flather ran from June 27 through August 22, 1955, and five girls attended two-week sessions at camp: Beverly Pyles, Sandra Smith, Norma Turner, Sheila Gross, and Theresa Dorsey.

Council staff and members of the Camp Committee went to the bus stop as girls prepared to depart for Mt. Solon, Virginia, that summer. The women announced that from this day forward, Camp May Flather was open to all girls. Camp Committee chair and future council president Gertrude “Bobby” Lerch” waved a council checkbook and said that she would provide immediate refunds to any family that objected to the new policy. None did.

The campers later wrote about their experience for their school newsletter:

Sixth-grader Sheila Gross recalled:

I had a lot of fun at Camp May Flather last summer. I learned how to swim and how to make earrings and bracelets. I was in a group that played games and sang funny songs. We went on an overnight hike and slept out in the open. I had such a good time that I would like to go back next summer.

 

Prior to 1955, local African-American troops had primarily camped at Rockwood, just outside of Washington. As a National camp, Rockwood was open to all Girl Scouts.

Virginia McGuire (GSCNC archives)

Virginia McGuire (GSCNC Archives)

At the time, District VII, the administrative designation for African-American troops in the District of Columbia, had been raising funds to purchase their own camp. Leaders voted to donate that money toward a new administrative building at Camp May Flather. That building was named for Virginia McGuire, the original organizer of District VII in 1934. McGuire later became the first African American member of the council board.

Camp May Flather’s desegregation came one year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision. It would take another four years before Virginia began to desegregate its public school system.

At the end of the summer 1955 camp season, the Camp Committee sent a letter to parents of girls who had attended Camp May Flather “to get their reactions as to their likes and dislikes and things they would like to have done or would like to do when they return another summer.”

Members of the Camping Committee, October 1956. Bobby Lerch is second from left. (GSCNC Archives)

Members of the Camping Committee, October 1956. Bobby Lerch is second from left. (GSCNC Archives)

Information for this post was greatly aided by a recent donation from the family of Anne Murray, who was a member of the Camp Committee at the time of desegregation. I’ve already written about the wonderful camp scroll included in this material, and I hope to find more information as I explore the contents.

©2015 Ann Robertson