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Take Five: David Atchley creates 'non-discriminatory' alternative to Boy Scouts

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 14, 2012 - David Atchley has spent almost his entire life in scouting. 

He started out as a Cub Scout in the early 1980s, when he was in elementary school. With time, he became a Boy Scout, then worked his way up to Eagle Scout. In the summers, he worked with younger scouts as a camp counselor and as a youth commissioner.

Finally, when the time came, Atchley, now in his 30s and working as a software engineer, became scoutmaster for his oldest son’s Cub pack.

But in recent years, as the Scouts’ exclusion of homosexuals and atheists began to receive more and more public attention, Atchley remembers questioning why he remained with the Scouts.

Atchley, who is an atheist, said he tried to create a non-discrimination policy for his own Cub Scout pack. But when he took his idea to the Boy Scout Association’s (BSA) Greater St. Louis Area council, which oversees the Boy Scout troops in the area, he was turned down.

“I told them my background, what I did, that I was an Eagle and a scoutmaster and that I was also an atheist,” Atchley said. The council representative "ended the conversation by telling me, ‘Well, you’re just not the kind of leader the BSA is looking for. You should go to some other organization.’”

So he did. In 2008, Atchley mailed his Eagle badge back to the BSA.

But he soon found he had no “other organization” to go to – certainly not in Washington, Mo., his hometown. Even nationally, the few other options available didn’t offer the scouting experience Atchley was looking for.

Atchley decided to create an alternative. Drawing on the name and vision of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the Briton who founded the scouting movement in 1907, Atchley created the youth arm of the Baden-Powell Service Association (BPSA), which at the time only had adult members.

Besides the BPSA’s non-discrimination policy – it accepts everyone, including girls – Atchley says the main difference between it and the BSA is its focus on “traditional” scouting skills.

According to Atchley, the BSA offers a “modernized, urbanized sort of scouting where they offer everything under the sun .… So you’ve got a video game badge now, you’ve got robotics. You’ve got stuff that has nothing to do with outdoor skills. Not that those things are bad … but scouting is a program based on Baden-Powell’s idea of doing all of this in the outdoors and in nature.”

Beginning with just a few members from Atchley’s hometown in late 2009, the BPSA has since seen slow but significant growth. Overall, he estimates the BPSA has 50 to 80 members in four troops across the country. He expects three to six more troops to open by November.

Here are excerpts – lightly edited for clarity – from the Beacon’s conversation with David Atchley:

What was your experience with the Boy Scouts, and what drew you away from them?

Atchley: From a youth’s standpoint, my experience in scouting was good. My father participated in it with me – he was a scoutmaster for some time. The troop that I was in was local. I had good friends there.

At that time there were no real policy issues that were being discussed. But as we got older – as I got older – the policy issues became the focus. I was an Eagle Scout, I worked at a number of summer camps, I saw a couple people that got their Eagle badges stripped because they came out as gay. The policy just didn’t sit well with all those values you were taught as a scout. I couldn’t stay with the organization … [because of] where I stood on those issues as well. Once you get a broader experience in scouting, you meet more people, you travel to more places, and you see the policy’s effect on people you don’t normally see as a youth.

The last time I was in it, I was the scoutmaster for my oldest son’s Cub pack, and that’s when I was struggling with, ‘Why I am in the organization? This membership money is going to support them, they’ve got these policies, and how do I fight that?’ And a number of people tried to fight it from the inside. There are people who do it now still.

I didn’t think it was right, I though there were a number of kids who wanted to participate in scouting or should be participating in scouting.

I tried to create a non-discrimination policy just for my local pack. I took that to the Greater St. Louis Area Council, and they basically told me that if we put together the non-discrimination policy, they would revoke the charter for the pack. And I said, "Seriously?"

Has it been daunting trying to construct an alternative to the BSA? And why has it taken so long for an alternative to the BSA to spring up?

Atchley: There’s probably a number of reasons for that. The first one is that because the BSA has been in the U.S. for so long – they started in 1910, they had a Congressional charter grant in 1916. In between 1916 and the 1920s, they either coalesced with the other major scouting organizations or sued them out of existence.

That was allowed?

Atchley: Yeah, at that point they had a congressional charter. That charter allowed them exclusive use of the words "scout," "scouting" and the other trademarks they use in their program. That’s why we’re the Baden-Powell Service Association, not the Baden-Powell Scouting Association. The BSA is just so huge and has been around for so long that the biggest problem now is that Americans, typically, even those involved with the BSA, don’t get a lot of exposure to scouting outside the U.S. Their only view of scouting, and what that is, is what the BSA offers. The assumption by most people is, "Well, that’s how scouting is everywhere else in the world." That’s just not the case.

That’s why, when I tell people that we’re two really different programs – yes, we’re scouting, we share the same roots historically, but traditional scouting is not the scouting you see in the BSA – those people just see kids in uniforms and they go, "Oh, scouting." But the program fundamentally is different.

Once you turned in your badge and decided to look for another organization, how did you come across the BPSA, and what attracted you to it?

Atchley: Searching for something at that time, around 2007, 2008, there wasn’t a whole lot out there. Really there’s still not.

The first organization I came across was Scouting for All, started by Steven Cozza, another gay Eagle Scout who had his badge stripped fighting the policy from the inside. I sent my badge back in through them, and just looking on their newsletter I came across the BPSA.

Everybody involved [in the BPSA] at that point – I want to say everyone at that time was 30 or over. But the thing that attracted to the BPSA originally was that they were a traditional scouting program. There are traditional scouting programs in pretty much every other country but the U.S. at this point. The difference being that traditional scouting follows the original program aims that Baden-Powell put down, rather than the very modernized and urbanized scouting program that people are familiar with here in the U.S. So it’s kind of a back-to-basics focus on outdoor and physical skills and public service sort of thing. That was appealing. And so I got involved and decided to start a group of my own since I had enough youth. I took over as commissioner in late 2009, early 2010.

You draw a contrast between the "traditional" approach you have and the "urbanized" approach of the Boy Scouts today. Could you elaborate on that? What does that mean in practice?

Atchley: The Scouts sort of had a schism back in the 1960s. The original Boy Scouts Association in the U.K. was the first one. That was the one Baden-Powell formed, and everything branched off from there.

But in the 1960s, the Boy Scouts Association in the U.K. had at that point become corporate, it was a big bureaucracy where it was all about membership and money and numbers at that point. They had a committee put together and did research for two years on something called the Advance Party Report. They wanted to figure out how to make scouting more appealing to youth, how to get into the cities, and how to get more out of it, essentially. Based on that report, the Boy Scout Association in the U.K. made a number of changes that a number of people didn’t like. The BSA did the exact same thing using that Advance Party Report in their own committee, and they implemented those same changes around 1970, 1971.

So that was the big change in the program from the traditional outdoor skills, outdoor living, public service sort of thing to a modernized, urbanized sort of scouting where they offer everything under the sun. The kids can do anything. So you’ve got a video game badge now, you’ve got robotics. You’ve got stuff that has nothing to do with outdoor skills. Not that those things are bad – it’s good for kids to get into those, and we definite encourage kids to get into those too – but scouting is a program based on Baden-Powell’s idea of doing all of this in the outdoors and in nature.

That was the big schism between 1960 and 1971 in the U.S. and in the U.K. The traditional scouting groups kind of broke off at that point and separated from the main scouting organizations and made their own traditional scouting associations. The first one started in the U.K. and now there are over 88 independent associations in 44 countries.

How has the experience of having girls and boys in the same troop turned out? What’s the ratio of girls to boys in your troops?

I don’t know the breakdown nationally. Just based on talking with the scoutmasters from the different groups, I would say in general it’s probably about 50-50. I’m a little heavy on the girls side – I’m about 70-30 – but in the other areas it’s about 50-50.

There’s a lot of people who would like to do scouting but they don’t want to get involved with the BSA because of policies, or they’re looking for a more traditional program, for various reasons. The biggest reason I’ve seen out here in Washington, where I live, is mothers whose daughters want to do scouting like the boys do, not the Girl Scouts. They want to go camping and backpacking and canoeing and learn all those skills.

To be honest with you, I don’t think there’s any difference at all. People ask, "Do you change the program, because you’re coed? Do you have different sets of requirements for girls and boys?" No, it’s the same thing across the board. And from what I see, when you put kids in a knot-tying competition, or orienteering or anything else, it’s just like it was when I was a kid. They’re just as competitive. The girls do just as well as the boys, and sometimes better. Sometimes, it gets a really good competitive spirit going, because at the Pathfinder level, we usually do all-boys patrols and all-girls patrols. But they both compete with each other. 

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