Nearly 7,000 delegates and staff members of the Order of the Arrow, the National Honor Society of the Boy Scouts of America, descended on IU’s campus from July 30 to Aug. 4 for the 2018 National Order of the Arrow Conference.
The conference, which usually takes place every two years, is designed to bring together members of different Order of the Arrow lodges from around the country to participate in outdoor and adventure activities.
Justin Wilson was in the Order of the Arrow when he was a boy scout, but his role during this year’s NOAC was to try and educate and inform those attending the event of bias and discrimination within BSA, as well as ways to combat that prejudice.
He said the catalyst for the creation of SFE came in 2011, when Zach Wahls, a boy scout from Iowa, gave a speech to the Iowa Legislature in opposition to a ban against same-sex marriage that was being considered by the legislature. The speech by Wahls, who is the son of two lesbians, was recorded, uploaded to YouTube and went viral shortly afterward.
Wahls was also an Eagle Scout, and he teamed up with a former National Chief of the Order of the Arrow to start SFE. Wilson, also an Eagle Scout, joined SFE in 2012 and started by working in his hometown of Dubuque, Iowa.
After spending time as SFE’s National Grassroots Director, and following policy changes from BSA, Wilson became the executive director of SFE after Wahls stepped down. One policy change came in 2013, but wasn't effective until 2014, and rescinded the ban on homosexual youth in the program, while another policy change in 2015 rescinded the ban on homosexual adults.
This year’s NOAC is the first for SFE, after the organization was also at the 2017 National Scout Jamboree as a guest of the United Church of Christ.
However, the group was not allowed to have an official presence at NOAC. After having conversations with Doug Bauder, director of IU’s LGBTQ+ Culture Center, as well as Nicky Belle, director of IU’s First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, in the weeks prior to NOAC, SFE was able to operate out of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center on Seventh Street during the event.
“We’re providing a space that the boy scouts should be providing, but have yet to do,” Wilson said. “We’re on the outside looking in. We would very much like to work with the boy scouts in some way, but up to this point they’ve been unwilling to do so. At something like this, NOAC, we asked to be part of it and weren’t allowed to be part of it, so we created an unofficial presence right next to it and kind of got the word out on our own that we’re here unofficially.”
The LGBTQ+ Culture Center was turned into a “Rainbow Cafe,” a term given to SFE by the international scouting community at previous jamborees, during NOAC. While SFE is focused on BSA, WIlson said the organization networks and makes its resources, including a special patch called the Inclusive Scouting Award, available worldwide.
During NOAC, SFE members operated during business hours in the culture center, setting up on the front porch with free items like bracelets, stickers and, of course, patches, while also engaging in face-to-face dialogue with NOAC participants about their experiences in BSA.
“We’ve been overwhelmed by the receptiveness of the scouts here,” Wilson said. “I was very worried that we’d have few, if any, visitors, being here unofficially. But we put up a bunch of signs and balloons and rainbow colors and people notice and they’ve come up and talked to us. We’ve been promoting our presence on social media and we were surprised to see scouts were then taking it upon themselves to tell people.”
Belle also engaged NOAC participants, as well as SFE members, during their time in Bloomington regarding BSA’s use of native symbols and native-related events and practices. He went to events featuring native symbols and practices and also met with senior leadership in specific areas regarding the events.
“Our whole thing is education,” Belle said. “This is a perfect opportunity to try to educate and engage people in dialogue, talking about not only the real devastation, the effects that colonization and colonialism has and had on native people in this area, but also the importance of engaging in dialogue with contemporary native communities.”
This was also Belle’s first time working with BSA within NOAC as director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center. He said BSA youth he’d spoken to had been receptive to potential changes, particularly regarding aspects of Indian regalia used in the ceremony portion.
“As you see youth and adults engage in using native imagery, saying that their work is to honor native people and native histories, we’ve been trying to impress upon people the real importance of learning those histories, learning the real history,” Belle said. “Native history isn’t just those war bonnets. Native history, particularly in Indiana, is genocide, is removal, is cultural oppression."
At the LGBTQ+ Culture Center, Bauder and Wilson said several hundred people stopped by the center and engaged with SFE in the first couple days of NOAC, compared to just a handful of people who came in 2009 when NOAC also took place at IU.
“They just keep coming because these guys are out front and the porch is just festooned with colorful balloons and literature,” Bauder said. “It’s one of the most significant educational opportunities we’ve had on a quiet summer week.”
There were no formal programs as part of SFE’s presence at NOAC, according to Wilson. He said interactions with NOAC participants were more about having casual conversations, hearing stories of BSA and making sure the participants know they are loved and welcomed.
“What we’re able to do at an event like this is to directly share those inclusive scouting patches, be able to have conversations about what does it mean to be a leader in the boy scouts,” Wilson said. “You might only be 17 now, but when you become an adult how can you help us continue to push the culture of the boy scouts?”
When engaging with BSA members, Belle wants to make sure conversations are taking place with contemporary native communities to avoid cultural appropriation. He said those conversations are currently lacking, but he had a largely positive experience interacting with people during NOAC.
“There have been many people who have been very, very open to having discussion with me and sitting down and talking with me and hearing my feedback,” Belle said. “When people often think about the boy scouts and the Order of the Arrow, they often think about the cultural appropriation aspect of it. It’s the people in war bonnets who have no idea what they mean. People in costumes who are playing Indian, parading around campus.”
Belle said his ideal result would be for the aspects of BSA that don’t engage contemporary native communities or don’t encourage youth to learn the real histories of tribal groups to be removed from use.
For Wilson, his focus is on providing support to BSA members who feel the organization isn’t giving it to them.
“We’re the group to make sure that, even if it’s only once a year, there are people that are out there that care about them, that want them to be here in scouting,” Wilson said.