Scouts face ethnic challenge

The Scout Association believes it is tacklig racism;others are not so sure. Nadene Ghouri reports New attempts are being made to encourage black and Asian involvement in the Scouts, overcoming the barriers of perceived racism and the suspicion of community leaders.

John Fogg, director of public relations at the Scout Association, said: "We have learned some hard lessons. Until a couple of years ago our methods of recruiting ethnic young people were about opening the doors and hoping they'd integrate. We were wrong."

In 1991, an internal census revealed that only 1.7 per cent of Scouts defined themselves as having a black or Asian background. Now around 10 per cent of the association's budget is spent on community and ethnic development.

Amit Poppat is the Scouts' Midlands-based regional community development officer, and claims the Scouts used to have something of a "missionary-style 'Man from Del Monte' approach".

He said: "Integration is fine, but it was a question of integration on whose terms? One of our major tasks has been educating the organisation, to the extent that cultural awareness training is now a mandatory part of all Scout leaders' training. That includes the subtleties, like ensuring Muslim young people aren't served bacon butties when they go off to camp, or not using dated terms like 'coloured'.

"And teaching is the right word. We can't go in and tell people who may have been volunteering for several years that they've been doing it all wrong. Also, how do I persuade community leaders that the Scouts can do it better than they can at the mosque or temple? It's not easy."

John Fogg believes ethnic minorities are probably happier in Scout groups of their own - of which there are now 34 in Britain - and integrating only at camp.

He said: "It's easier to set up new groups than try to force change on volunteers already pushed to the limit. Our emphasis has changed now to setting up partnerships. We have to break down community leaders' suspicion of us. I feel they often think we are trying to weaken their hold and influence on their own young people. It's much more constructive to make contact with them as potential leaders."

One of the earliest of the partnerships was the Birmingham-Pakistan Scout project, co-run by Makhdoom Ahmad Chisti. An advocate of the discipline, respect and spiritual development Scouting offers young people, he is disillusioned with the association itself.

He said: "I'm not invited to national functions or encouraged to join the national council. I'm still happy to work in my own capacity, but it's no wonder other Asian leaders stay away. The SA don't trust us. They think we have some kind of hidden agenda."

Mr Chisti recalled visiting the Scout HQ in Birmingham: "I arrived with a car-load of Asian young people due to be invested as Scouts. First, the man at the door was sure I had the wrong building. Then he locked the door and made us wait in the cold until my white colleague arrived to vouch for us. You can imagine what the young people made of that."

Mr Fogg says racism is not an internal SA problem: "I am not aware of any evidence. But of course, with more than 100,000 volunteer leaders I'd be foolish to pretend it isn't happening somewhere. Clearly some will have views that are no longer considered acceptable, but that may not stop them being perfectly good Scout leaders. We can dictate association rules, but we can't dictate opinions. And that goes for both sides."

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