“Men and women work together; there’s no reason why they shouldn’t scout together,” says Andy Bicking of Ulster County, who earlier this year organized the 91st Sojourners, the Valley’s first unisex scouting group. “The focus is on working as a team and having fun, adventurous times together.”
Named in honor of 19th-century abolitionist (and Ulster County native) Sojourner Truth, the 91st Sojourners teach traditional scouting fundamentals — just like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do. The group is part of the Baden-Powell Service Association, an independent program formed in 2006 that is active in 45 countries worldwide.
Ranging in age from five to 18, group members are categorized as Otters (ages five to seven), Timberwolves (ages eight to 10), Pathfinders (ages 11-17), and Rovers (ages 18 and up). They are taught the original principles laid out by Lord Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the scouting movement in the early 20th century. Group Scoutmaster Bicking, 42, and the other 10 volunteer adult leaders emphasize the importance of public service and outdoor skills. “Whenever we’re out, we always have our eyes open for simple things, like picking up trash,” says Bicking. “We don’t have badges for social media and video games.”
Unlike traditional scouting groups in this country, the BPSA offers children (and adults) the chance to be part of a program that promotes equality between the sexes. “The initial appeal was that it’s an inclusive organization,” says Bicking. “There’s no argument or battle to be fought with a national policy. We welcome everybody.”
Of the 32 scouts that make up the 91st Sojourners, three previously had been Cub Scouts, including Lyle, Bicking’s 11-year-old son. Lyle — who has friends with same-sex parents — told his father that “Scouts are supposed to be friendly to others.” “It’s no surprise that the idea of an organization excluding others is weird to him,” says Bicking. “I know other families in our group have had similar conversations with their kids.”
While the Boy Scouts of America has recently lifted its ban against openly gay scouts, there’s still controversy over the involvement of gay adults and leaders in the organization. The fact that the BPSA does not have membership strictures of any kind is a big plus, says National Commissioner David Atchley. “Those are the types of points in our program that actually draw people in. Most people have been happy to see [the all-inclusion policy] as part of the program.”
Another reason Bicking joined the BPSA was the opportunity for unisex participation. His daughter Elka, seven, is also a scout with the 91st Sojourners. She takes part in outdoor activities — such as archery and learning how to use axes, saws, etc. — that might not be offered to girls in other scouting programs. “The parents seem motivated by our progressive membership policy,” says Bicking. “Generally they seem to think that coed scouting can provide more life tools for getting along in our society.” He hopes that the kids learn cooperation, leadership, and similar skills that wouldn’t necessarily be part of other programs.
Within the past few months, the group has participated in community events such as the Riverkeeper Sweep, an annual volunteer cleanup of the Hudson’s shoreline. They also helped rebuild the campfire circle at the Ulster-Kingston YMCA, which suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy. Bicking looks forward to welcoming more youngsters into the group. “For me, as a former Boy Scout, this program feels like a seamless tradition,” he says. “We are hoping to grow our membership, and get the kids outside as much as possible.”