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Alternative scouting group starts to grow

Navigators USA welcomes gay, atheist, and agnostic scouts.
By Donald E. Skinner
3.14.11

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Two boys with Navigators USA

Two members of Navigators USA groups light a fire during a May 2010 camping trip in the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. (Robin Bossert)

For four years Robin Bossert led a Boy Scout troop in New York City sponsored by the Unitarian Church of All Souls.

But over time a moral dilemma developed. The Boy Scouts of America had always had a requirement that boys believe in a supreme being. Then in 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the BSA, as a private organization, could set its own membership standards, including barring boys and leaders who were openly gay.

In 2002 All Souls terminated its relationship with the BSA. That’s when Bossert, who deeply loved everything about Scouting except its discriminatory policies, began creating an alternative scouting group that he came to call Navigators USA. Over the next few years Navigators slowly evolved as Bossert led his group of boys, still sponsored by All Souls, into that new model. First came a logo, then a shirt, and lots of hours of “imagining.”

Last fall a 188-page Navigators guidebook was completed and Bossert took the new group public, opening it up to others who wanted what the Boy Scouts is not—a group open to everyone, including gays and atheists. And girls. Navigators is coed.

Navigators is still a small operation. Those who have found the group have done so by happy accident, coming upon its website, or by seeing its listing on the Boy Scouts of America Wikipedia entry as an alternative scouting group.

Currently there are seven Navigators USA chapters—one at All Souls, three others in New York City through a partnership Bossert has with a local service group (including some youth in a homeless shelter), and one each in Binghamton, N.Y., Durham, N.C., and Belmont, Mass. There are also chapters being formed in at least a half dozen more places around the country, he said.

Interest in Navigators started to pick up this past fall, Bossert noted. He thinks part of that interest was generated by news stories about deaths from gay bullying. But a bigger factor was the completion of the Navigators guidebook.

“The book did the trick,” he said. “The book gives people enough information to start a chapter. Before that people were finding us on the Internet, but without a book to guide them there wasn’t much they could do.”

Sidra Taylor is coleader of the Navigators group in Binghamton, which meets at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, where she is a member. “We were looking for a scouting type of group,” Taylor said. “We didn’t want to go with the Boy Scouts because we’re not very comfortable with some of their policies. We did some searching online and came across the Navigators. It has everything we wanted. We’re really excited about it. It’s inclusive, it’s for boys and girls, and it provides ways for us to get kids outside in nature.” Taylor co-leads a homeschooling group and that was part of the appeal of Navigators. “Our 15 boys and girls have become a very close group, and we didn’t like the idea of splitting them up.”

Her chapter has been meeting since September. “We’re so glad Robin has done this,” she said. “And we’re happy to be pioneers.”

Navigators will be familiar to those who have been in Scouting. Page 3 of the Navigators USA Guidebook lays out the Navigators “Moral Compass.” It reads: “As a navigator I promise to do my best to help create a world free of prejudice and ignorance, to treat people of every race, creed, lifestyle and ability with dignity and respect, to strengthen my body and improve my mind to reach my full potential, to protect our planet and preserve our freedom.”

There is a chapter with subtitles on essential outdoor topics, “Building, Lighting and Extinguishing a Fire,” “First Aid Kits” and “How to Avoid Getting Lost.” There are other sections on camping in extreme weather, choosing outdoor gear, tying knots, camp cooking, and using a compass and topological map. Navigators also has badges and other awards.

Unitarian Universalist congregations have been among the most vocal opponents of the BSA’s discriminatory policies against gays and atheists over the years. The Unitarian Universalist Association parted ways with the BSA after the BSA withdrew approval in May 1999 for a religious emblem the UUA awarded to scouts who had earned it through a program of study in their congregations.

Indeed, Bossert said most of the interest thus far in Navigators has come from UU parents. He said Navigators is nondenominational, however. “It’s open to any group that does not discriminate.”

There was a time when many UU congregations sponsored BSA troops. Most have since dropped that affiliation. None have yet signed up to sponsor Navigator groups, except for All Souls.

“We’re too new for that,” said Bossert. “The only people that know about us are those who come across us on the Internet.” He said that for the moment, he’s focusing on getting parents, rather than congregations, to sponsor chapters.

Sponsors will be invited to help develop the program, he said. “We tell whoever wants to start a chapter that Navigators is not a fully robust program yet like the Boy Scouts, but if they’ll partner with us they can help us design badges and uniforms and do the other work that needs to be done.”

Bossert, who owns and operates a video production company in New York City, is the sole staff member of Navigators. He said he is paid a “tiny stipend.” He estimates he has put in at least 20 hours a week since 2003 on Navigator activities.

All Souls has been supporting Navigators since 2003 with grants of $10,000 to $20,000 a year, he said, not only helping the local chapters, but also the national organization. He said he hopes to attract broader support, including raising $200,000 to provide training, support for the chapters, a more robust website, and more curricula. Navigators is a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Starting a chapter requires five children or youth and two adult co-leaders, he said. The start-up fee of $150 is being waived for the time being and the national group pays for liability insurance for new chapters. “A chapter will have to pay for the uniforms—which is just a t-shirt at the moment—and books.” Navigator products, including the guidebook, are available on the organization’s website.

For now there is one level of Navigators for youth ages 7 to 18. Soon there will be a Navigators Junior group for the lower end of that age range, with its own handbook and programs.

Bossert said he’s not trying to compete with the Boy Scouts. “We’re an alternative. There should be more than one scouting choice. Navigators is focused on diversity and inclusiveness, the weakest part of the BSA. Navigators is very similar to the Boy Scouts in terms of outdoor activity and nature, but we emphasize inclusivity, the interconnection and interdependence of all people, the preservation of our planet, and an individual's right to believe or not believe in God.”

He said he knows that some UU parents and boys at many congregations continue to participate in Boy Scouts. “I respect that.” Others have joined Camp Fire USA, also a coed group. Bossert said Camp Fire isn’t well known on the East Coast.

Bossert plans to be at General Assembly next June 22-26 in Charlotte, N. C., to further promote Navigators. He added, “The past few months have been very exciting for me. It feels like Navigators is starting to take hold.”

No one is happier to see Navigators come along than James Hencke at First Church in Belmont (Mass.), Unitarian Universalist. A former Scoutmaster and an Eagle Scout, he said members of his family have been in Scouting since 1958. “We bleed khaki,” he said, “so the discriminatory policies from the hard right turn of the BSA have cut me to the quick.”

Hencke recently completed the paperwork to create a Navigators program at First Church. He is also mindful that many UU families continue to be involved in Boy Scouting. “We are being very careful in this nascent stage to stay in touch with our BSA families in our congregation. We emphasize that we are not in competition. This is a ministry to those who would otherwise miss out.”

The First Parish Board agreed in February to become a Navigators sponsor, said Hencke, pending final clarifications of some insurance details. It will become only the second UU congregation to sponsor a Navigators unit, the other being All Souls in New York City.

Michelle Kucerak and D.J. James started a Navigators group in Durham, N.C., last fall. It holds one meeting a month, at the Eno River UU Fellowship, and does monthly outings that have included overnight camping, a scavenger hunt, and a tour of a veterinary clinic. “We love it,” said Kucerak. “The kids like the fact it is very outdoors adventure oriented and has badges. As a parent I like the fact it has enough flexibility we can make this our own. Everyone who has come has been attracted by the fact that this is an open alternative to scouting. And it also helps that it’s coed. I hope this grows.”

The Navigators received a high-level endorsement Feb. 15 from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In a speech accepting the Forrest Church Award for Humanitarian Service from the Heart and Soul Charitable Fund, which was founded by All Souls, Bloomberg lauded groups supported by the fund, including Navigators.

Bloomberg said, “by belonging to the Navigators, boys and girls get the guidance and adult-supervised adventure that only scouting can offer—in an atmosphere free of any stigma about sexual orientation. And as a proud Eagle Scout who has publicly told the Boy Scouts to change their wrong-headed anti-gay policy, I say ‘Amen’ to that!"


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