MILTON -- It was at a camp in the Blue Hills Reservation that Maggie Wierzbowski first heard Amharic, a language spoken in Ethiopia. A young Cub Scout was doing so, and in exchange, the 17-year-old high schooler from Quincy introduced him to Polish, which she speaks fluently.
The pair added the Amharic and Polish words for “hello” to a board containing a multilingual collection of greetings. The words telegraphed the varying backgrounds of the Scouts, parents, and staff members like Wierzbowski gathered at New England Base Camp in Milton that late October Saturday. As they took in the board, said Wierzbowski, the Scouts would inquire, “Where’s that from?” Or, “Where’s the country located?”
The Scouts -- almost 350 of them, according to Darrin Johnson, the camp’s general manager -- had come from neighborhoods in Boston and throughout the suburbs, as well as out of state, to participate in activities promoting diversity and cultural sensitivity.
In the midst of rising tension across the country over race, religion, and ethnicity, Boston-area Boy Scout leaders have been increasingly focusing on teaching Scouts to respect different cultures and heritages, said Chuck Eaton, executive director of the Spirit of Adventure Council, which oversees some 12,400 Scouts in 385 troops, packs, and other groups spread throughout 76 cities and towns in Greater Boston.
That a Boy Scouts council would take the lead on such a hot-button subject might come as a surprise, given the controversy that long surrounded the national organization’s ban on gay Scout leaders, a policy it abandoned just last year.
“That policy was very difficult for this council in particular, and we were really glad that it was changed,” said Eaton. He added that his group has provided sensitivity training for adult leaders for about 15 years, and that there are openly gay Scout leaders in Greater Boston.
“We really think and have always thought that Scouting does a fantastic job of helping young men and families deal with diversity and open people’s thought process about understanding, respect, and differences,” he said.
The local council tailors its programs focusing on racial and cultural diversity to specific age groups. Since 1979, Scouts in middle and high school have been able to earn an “American Cultures” merit badge. To do so, they are required to learn about groups with different racial, cultural, national, or ethnic backgrounds than their own. That can mean going to cultural festivals, learning traditional songs and stories, visiting places of worship, or speaking directly with people of different heritages.
“The older kids are encouraged to sit down and have real conversations,” Eaton said, “and [we] challenge them to come out with a deeper understanding, and even do some written work on it.”
And for younger Scouts, such as those in first or second grade? “They’re going to be excited to play games from another country,” Eaton said.
Earlier this year, the mother of a Needham Cub Scout mentioned to Eaton her son’s joy at meeting a Spanish-speaking Cub Scout at a day camp. It was the first time the third-grader could remember meeting someone who wasn’t white, Eaton recounted.
“We know that that happens all the time,” Eaton said. “It was great to understand that the kids themselves think that that’s wonderful.”
The interaction took place at New England Base Camp, a recreation center with outdoor offerings for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as school field trips, corporate outings, and the general public. When it comes to Scouts, especially, programs at the camp are often designed to facilitate interactions where those from different backgrounds work toward common goals and learn about each other.
On a wall at the camp hangs a map where Scouts are encouraged to mark the countries in which their ancestors lived. Other activities include making postcards to send to an international Scout center in Switzerland, where they will be distributed to Scouts all over the world, and a board where Scouts can write their definitions of “peace,” and how they think peace can be sustained.
These days, the campfires warm not just s’mores, but Vietnamese dumplings, too, thanks to a visit a few weeks ago from a troop associated with a Vietnamese cultural center in Dorchester. “They came and taught the staff how to make Vietnamese food on the outdoor fire,” Johnson said, so the workers can pass the skill on to Scouts.
The camp gets many visits from Scouts who live in densely populated neighborhoods in Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and other cities. Many of them are first- or second-generation immigrants, and many others are racial minorities with older familial roots in the United States, according to Komba Lamina, the Spirit of Adventure Council’s Urban Scouting and Exploring executive.
“My role is to really go out to communities where Scouting is less prominent or does not exist at all,” Lamina said. There, he partners with various organizations to start Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops, with the goal of getting enough parents and community members involved to have them run independently.
The adults that do get involved, Lamina says, tend to come away with a better understanding of other cultures.
“We bring all of these folks together from different walks of life,” he said. “You’re having parents that are coming together, and the focus is the pack. And they’re all helping to run a project. They’re all helping. Whatever expertise they have, they’re all lending a hand. Those lines, whether it’s cultural lines or financial lines or whatever, they begin to dwindle.”
And Lamina says that Scouting can have the same effect on youngsters, merely by exposing them to diversity.
“It helps get them more comfortable now, and as they grow,” he said.
Nine-year-old Eli Burke became a Cub Scout in the second grade, when the urban Scouting initiative came to his Hyde Park charter school. Now a fourth-grader, he’s become more social from the experience, said his mother, Angela.
“I know it’s subtle, but he actually knows people’s names now,” she said. “It means he’s actually making connections.”
Burke said her son “looks very ‘other’” -- he is of black, Native American, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican ancestry -- but is not yet very conscious of race. “He thinks of it as the color, and not the racial identification,” Burke said.
She said her son and his fellow Cub Scouts enjoyed the activities at New England Base Camp that October Saturday but did not, at their age, comprehend the underlying purpose of the event.
“The Scout leaders have to be more explicit about how they make those connections for them,” Burke said. The youngsters are “capable of it, but they’re not going to do it on their own.”
Still, Burke says she’s impressed that the Boy Scouts are “bending with the times,” and teaching young people to be good citizens.
“I’m excited to see what they do with it,” she said of the organization’s leaders.
Jacob Carozza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jacobcarozza.