Girl Scouts About More Than Cookies, Says CEO

Girl Scouts of the USA is aiming to become the largest leadership development organization for girls. Host Michel Martin speaks with Anna Maria Chavez, who became the first person of color to lead the organization in its nearly 100-year history. Chavez discusses how to keep the Girl Scouts relevant and involve girls of all backgrounds.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Who doesn't love the Girl Scouts, especially when cookie season rolls around? But the organization is trying to move beyond Thin Mints and Samoas. To evolve, it now has more than three million members and has become one of the largest leadership development groups for girls in this country.

Now, the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. wants to become more accessible to girls of all backgrounds. The group recently named a new CEO to make that happen, Anna Maria Chavez. When she first took office in early November, she became the first Latina and the first person of color to lead the organization in its nearly 100-year history.

And Anna Maria Chavez is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us and congratulations.

ANNA MARIA CHAVEZ: Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here with you.

MARTIN: So were you a Girl Scout?

CHAVEZ: Yes, I was. I was very, very honored to be part of an organization growing up. I grew up in a small town named Eloy, Arizona, which is a very small agricultural community, but we had Girl Scouts. And one day, my best friend came to school and said I'm going to join. You should join, too. And it really had an impact on my life.

MARTIN: But, you know, you told a story at the recent Girl Scout convention in Houston that, when you told your grandmother you were going to go to Girl Scout camp for the first time, she said, no, no, no, no. We come from migrant camps. We don't need to go any camp. Did you find that that was a common misperception?

CHAVEZ: Well, you know, for those of us who did not grow up camping or being outdoors, I didn't have a lot of family history to Girl Scouts, but the more I learned about it and the more that my parents and my grandmother learned about it, they said this is a great opportunity for you to develop new skills, meet other girls and participate in girl-led activities.

MARTIN: The Girl Scouts have a long list of well-known alums, including the first woman to sit on the Supreme Court, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The first female secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The first woman space shuttle commander, Eileen Collins. The CBS news anchor, Katie Couric, just to name a few. And there was - I think these are numbers that come from the Girl Scouts themselves - that nearly 70 percent of women currently serving in Congress were Girl Scouts. And I'm wondering why you think that is.

CHAVEZ: Well, I think that we have, again, had 100 years of history of developing leaders within local communities, statewide and national leaders, as well. And so I think what you're seeing is, you know, the next generation of leaders coming up. They may be five years old, but they are running their own businesses as cookie entrepreneurs, but also because we have a rich history in the United States, we've developed leaders in this country.

My former boss in Arizona, Janet Napolitano, is now the head of Homeland Security for this great country, has over 225,000 employees, and she was a Girl Scout and fondly remembers being a Girl Scout in New Mexico. So I think, anywhere you go where you see a woman leading an organization, most likely, she was a Girl Scout.

MARTIN: Just to clarify for folks who aren't sure what you're talking about, you were the deputy chief of staff to then Governor Janet Napolitano when she was governor of Arizona. Now, of course, she's the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. You are a lawyer by training. You did work at state and local government in Arizona, so why did you want to take on this job?

CHAVEZ: Well, I thought it was a great opportunity to give back to an organization that really changed my life. I have spent my entire career as a lawyer in public service, and when I got that opportunity, actually, to go to a local Girl Scout Council based in San Antonio, Texas, I felt that was a wonderful opportunity to help create that next generation of leaders.

MARTIN: You know, why is it that membership in the Girl Scouts is still disproportionately and overwhelmingly white? It's nearly 80 percent. And at the same time that, you know, all of the surveys show, including surveys by the Girl Scouts, show that African-American and Latina girls actually aspire to leadership, at least they say they do, even more than Caucasian girls do. Why do you think that is?

CHAVEZ: Well, first of all, I just wanted to share with your listeners that we've actually been a very inclusive and diverse organization for close to 100 years. Actually, we were just in Houston at our national convention and I pointed out to members there that we had our first Latina troop organized, actually, in Houston in 1922. We did have desegregated troops of girls long before, you know, a law was passed instructing us to do so. So it's always been part of our mission, part of our vision.

In addition, it depends on the part of the country you're in. You know, when I was leading the organization in San Antonio just a few months ago, of our, you know, girls there, 56 percent of the girls we served were Latinas. I think that, as we reach out and reach more girls at the local level, I think we'll begin to reflect the population that we live in.

MARTIN: One more challenge I did want to talk to you about, and this is something that I think people tend to associate with the Boy Scouts more than with the Girl Scouts, and that's the whole question of how to address questions of sexuality. I'm sure you remember the story out of a troop in Denver where a seven year old was rejected by a Denver Girl Scout Troop because he has, quote, unquote, "boy parts," even though he identifies as a girl who prefers to dress as a girl and really sees himself as a girl. And the Girl Scout Council of Colorado actually reversed that decision and changed – and said that the child is welcome.

But, you know, going forward, how are you going to navigate that? Because, on the one hand, you know, a lot of people say, look, this is a seven year old child. Let him - her - you know, of course, you should welcome such a child. On the other hand, there are people who would say that this is a 100 year old organization and that they look to these institutions to stand for what they consider traditional values.

How do you think the organization should navigate this question going forward?

CHAVEZ: Well, let me be clear. Girl Scouts is a girl serving organization, so our members are girls. And, you know, I'm very sensitive that we are discussing children and, at the end of the day, we need to be respectful for that child's confidentiality and ensure that we're not harming kids as we talk about the situation.

MARTIN: Well, the child's parents went public with this because they were upset that the child was not accepted into the scout troop, so if I may, I'd like to press the question. How do you navigate this going forward? If a child presents as a girl, then the girl would be welcomed and the child would be welcomed? Or is there a national policy on this point?

CHAVEZ: You know, again, it's a case-by-case basis. This is currently a local council issue and so they are trying to come up with a solution that is respectful for that child and that parent.

MARTIN: Do you think that your own presence as a woman of color will change the way people look at the Girl Scouts, for those who have not already been introduced to its programs or just aren't familiar with it or think it isn't for them?

CHAVEZ: Well, I think, for girls that may not have a family connection to Girl Scouts, I'm hoping that my story will resonate with them. I also think that, as we increase our outreach to, perhaps, parts of our country that may not have a strong programming because of the lack of volunteer resources or that there are girls, you know, that have moved into the area who are really interested in it, the more we're creative around new programming, that will interest them.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, you know I have to put you on the spot. What's your favorite cookie?

CHAVEZ: Oh, well, you know, again, as the CEO, I have lots of cookies. My son actually loves the Trefoil. I have a partial taste for Samoas, but we do have...

MARTIN: A partial taste for Samoas?

CHAVEZ: Yeah.

MARTIN: What does that mean?

CHAVEZ: Because I go back and forth. I like Trefoils and I like Samoas.

MARTIN: Okay.

CHAVEZ: But we do have two bakers in the country that actually make Girl Scout cookies, so you may know Samoas because you've eaten them all their life or you may live in another state and you may know them as Caramel deLites.

MARTIN: Oh, I didn't know that. I know them as Samoas.

CHAVEZ: Yes.

MARTIN: They're Caramel deLites in some other parts. So, as CEO, do you get a private stash?

CHAVEZ: I do have my resources.

MARTIN: Okay. Anna Maria Chavez is the new CEO of the Girls Scouts of the U.S.A. and she was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Madame Chair, thank you so much for joining us.

CHAVEZ: Thank you so much.

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