Facing the Future: Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan Elevates Diversity and Equity

For the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan, diversity, equity and inclusion are more than just words.  In January, GSSEM made an intentional decision to hire its first Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, making it the first Girl Scout Council in Michigan and one of only a handful throughout the United States to do what numerous colleges and universities and businesses have already done.

“There is a recognition that, while our council is doing phenomenal work, we need to be more intentional and ensure that all girls have access to our programs,” says Monica Woodson, Chief Executive Officer with GSSEM.  “We are a complex council in terms of our geography.  We have suburban and rural areas and girls living in communities that can’t readily access us.  We also recognize that the makeup of our council is racially and ethnically diverse.  We want to make sure our work is reflective of the girls we serve.”

GSSEM serves more than 22,000 girls in eight counties – Genesee, Lapeer, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Sanilac and Wayne – in a 5,500-mile radius. Each of these counties are racially and ethnically diverse and the girls that GSSEM has yet to reach represent all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Since joining the organization In January as Chief DEI Officer, Justin Williams has been making visits to GSSEM’s service area to learn about the girls and adult volunteers and how the council can be more impactful, inclusive and supportive of its current and future membership.

Justin Williams, GSSEM's Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, has been working for the organization since January. Photo by David Lewinsky

“I am truly an outsider to Girl Scouts and had no connection to this organization,” says Williams, who was the Associate Director of Admissions and Diversity with Wayne State University Law School prior to joining GSSEM.  “Most of this for me has been like drinking water from a firehose.  I’m learning about Girl Scouts generally and our council specifically.  My role is to create a welcoming, inclusive space for girls to become leaders and offer them a safe and judgement-free environment where they can teach, learn and grow.  I want to build on the existing culture, strengthen our presence in key communities and offer all of our girls the opportunity to learn about and from each other.”

These efforts are already underway.  Woodson says it is important to her and GSSEM board members to begin working on areas that can be addressed immediately including increased recruitment efforts in communities where GSSEM doesn’t have the robust engagement that they know is possible; ensuring that all materials are culturally appropriate and translated into languages spoken throughout the council’s service area; and uniforms better reflect the diversity of each girl.

“We want girls to have access but also feel like they are genuinely a part of this movement,” Woodson says.  “This is one movement and one council.”

However, this does not mean taking a “one size fits all” approach.

“Representation matters.  When we say ‘Girl Scouts is for every girl’ we need to live that,” Woodson says.  “We want to make sure that we’re creating an inclusive environment.”

There have been conversations with members of greater Detroit’s Muslim community who have told Woodson that they want more Girl Scout troops in Dearborn, southwest Detroit and Detroit, areas where their girls live.  They have asked the question:  Given the cultural diversity between certain communities, what is GSSEM doing to ensure all girls have the same Girl Scout experience?

In response, Woodson says she makes a point of highlighting the girl-led focus of the program, while recognizing that each and every event, camp, and activity is available to all girls, they also have the opportunity to tailor an experience that fits their unique needs.

In addition to the troops most people think of when visualizing Girl Scouts, GSSEM has established troops at area homeless shelters and within organizations like the Michigan School for the Deaf.  Woodson says they tend to go about this work without much fanfare out of sensitivity to the girls and their families.  Woodson adds that for these girls, especially those living in homeless shelters, the opportunity to have an authentic Girl Scout experience creates a sense of normalcy and may be the one constant they can hold on to.

Cathy St. James, who leads a troop at the Michigan School for the Deaf, says GSSEM has always been very welcoming to her girls who have the same opportunities to participate as girls who are not hearing-impaired.  When there is a need for additional accommodations, she says GSSEM has come through.

“We went to camp and said that we needed interpreters and they said, ‘What?’  I told them that I couldn’t watch the girls and interpret,” says St. James, who also works for the Michigan School for the Deaf.  “I gave them the number to Mott Community College which has an interpreter program so (GSSEM) didn’t have to pay for that and we had interpreters at camp.”

This is an example of meeting girls where they are, Woodson says. Williams says it is also an example of the importance of cultivating and retaining volunteers who girls can easily identify with so that they have visual proof that Girl Scouts is accessible to them.  Williams says he doesn’t think there are many girls out there who don’t want to grow as leaders in all areas of their lives.  He says what discourages them is the absence of people who look like them.  He cites cities like Flint and Pontiac with significant minority communities and notes that representation matters.

“It starts with cultivating a diverse group of volunteers to lead the work.  You don’t have to be a mom to start a troop. You don’t have to have daughter who’s involved in GSSEM, and men in any community are encouraged to get involved,” Williams says.  “We want diverse volunteers of all stripes to join the Girl Scouting movement, which presents both a leadership platform and a development tool.  There’s a lot of value in the experiences that our volunteers bring, and we need the communities we serve to support girls.  Making our council great starts with a commitment from our volunteers.”

It’s Who We Are

The foundation for the work Williams was hired to do was the result of GSSEM’s forward-thinking board members and their commitment to the DEI lens Woodson wants her entire organization to work through.

“I think there’s been a shift.  2020 was a wakeup call on a lot of levels,” Woodson says.  “When you think of the social and racial unrest, we as a country are at an inflection point where you have to make a concerted effort to indoctrinate DEI into your DNA.  If you don’t, you’re missing the mark.”

Monica Woodson, CEO of GSSEM, discusses the importance of the diversity, equity and inclusion work the Council is focusing on. Photo by David Lewinsky

Originally, Woodson thought her board members would wait until 2022 to take the deep dive into DEI.  She says she was not too surprised when they told her to move ahead this year with incorporating this component into GSSEM’s overall mission, despite an ongoing pandemic and potential revenue losses.

“I am of the belief that in times of trial you can innovate and step outside of the box,” Woodson says.  “I knew that we could have taken a safer route to bringing this position on board, but that would have meant an entire year where we were not able to engage with girls who need us in their communities.”

Williams says GSSEM is an example of an organization that’s thinking about issues of race, equality and access in a way that it may not have in the past.  He says this thought process has continued to grow and become more mainstream because it is an expectation among shareholders, stakeholders, board members and the general public.

“One thing I learned from the season of discontent last year is that companies have to do this because communities are expecting it.  They want us to engage in this work in meaningful and intentional ways.  So, I’m not surprised that the opportunity existed to do this work with GSSEM.”

In a report, titled “Race to Lead Revisited: Obstacles and Opportunities in Addressing the Nonprofit Racial Leadership Gap, the authors say that, “Just as the sustained protests in the United States and around the world in the wake of the unjust killings at the hands of police officers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and far too many Black people, have focused our collective attention on systemic issues and racial disparities, nonprofits — and philanthropy in particular — must also use a structural analysis when examining the racialized gaps. Now is the time to move from talk to change.”

Frances Kunreuther and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld, Co-Directors of the Building Movement Project, and authors of the report, also say that 74 percent of a group of 5,000 people who work in the nonprofit sector reported that their organization has undertaken work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and there is an effort throughout the sector to better understand and reflect on race and racism.

This is reflected in the makeup of GSSEM’s staff as well as its ongoing emphasis in reaching out to girls of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and recruiting volunteers who look like them. Of the just under 100 fulltime employees with GSSEM, 55 identify as white and 45 percent identify as persons of color.

“We work hard to make sure girls know they are represented so that when they look at our staff they can see themselves,” Woodson says.

Williams says there will be challenges to the work because of deeply entrenched beliefs about the world held by people who are the opposite side of the DEI spectrum.

“We understand that in the world we live in, not everybody is going to stay with us through this journey,” he says.  “But what GSSEM, our region and our girls gain are the opportunity costs of being the inclusive Council we strive to be, and providing that safe space where all girls are supported and celebrated as they build leadership skills through Girl Scouts.”

For those industry leaders who choose not to make DEI a priority, Woodson says it’s not her job to try and change their minds.

“I don’t think anyone should be shamed or bullied into it,” she says.  “You have to have an awareness and a genuine desire to walk this path.  Time will tell how companies and organizations are going to be impacted if they don’t incorporate this into their work.  DEI does not have an end date and the conversations around it will continue.”

This is the second article in a series of monthly features about the leadership and life skills girls are learning as members of Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan. It is made possible with funding from the Girl Scouts of Southeastern Michigan.
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