Girl power: How Latinas are changing the face of the Girl Scouts

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Lidia Soto-Harmon, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation's Capital (GSCNC).

The name Lidia Soto-Harmon might not ring a bell with many. But in the nation’s capital, the CEO of the Girl Scout Council chapter that serves Washington, D.C., and adjacent areas is known among thousands of American girls whose lives she has impacted.

Among them, young Latinas and girls with disabilities who may not have always naturally gravitated to the organization known as a piece of Americana.

It’s also crucial for the Girl Scouts to diversify to survive. As the U.S. Hispanic population grows into the new majority, the organization has a responsibility to increase the number of niñas in their fold, Soto-Harmon told VOXXI in an interview last week.

“One of the biggest challenges we have is, how can we keep growing? There is no doubt in my heart that we have to figure out how we are going to help mothers of girls growing up in this country to get involved and learn the values and practices they should follow so their daughters can be fully integrated in the United States and can excel in their education,” Soto-Harmon said.

The organization has been implementing programs to promote more Hispanic participation, including recruiting college students as volunteers to serve as troop leaders and providing financial aid to their girls to make their programs more accessible.

“We know that Latinas have the highest high school dropout numbers, the highest number of suicide attempts… this means that young Latinas are suffering,” Soto-Harmon told VOXXI. “And one of the ways that we can help is to involve them in organizations like the Girl Scouts. That’s our biggest challenge. How to bring those families and show them that by being part of this organization, they’ll have a better future.”

The Girl Scout Council CEO with some girls at the Department of Justice in Washington, during Womens Day. (Courtesy)

She knows where they are coming from because she has been there.

“My story is the story of every immigrant in this country,” Soto-Harmon said.

Born in the United States to Cuban parents, Soto-Harmon was raised in Ecuador and El Salvador. “I came back [to the U.S.] when I was 15 years old… The plan was to return to Cuba, eventually. But that could never be, so we came back to the United States.”

Now the mother to a teenage son and daughter, Soto-Harmon said the fact that she was raised in Latin America had a big impact on her, and it made her recognize the responsibility we all have to create an inclusive and open society. In fact, that was her main goal when she took the reins as CEO — to make the Girl Scouts more inclusive, especially when it comes to Latinas and girls with disabilities.

“For me, one of the biggest challenges has been looking for ways to include, in an organization like the Girl Scouts, girls that perhaps because they have some sort of disability, or they come from low-income families, or they speak another language have not been able to be a part of the organization,” Soto-Harmon said.

Although she wasn’t a Girl Scout when she grew up, Soto-Harmon said she has always been a Girl Scout at heart. She joined the organization as chief operating officer of the Girl Scout Council of the Nation’s Capital in 2004, and her passion for her job is palpable.

Over the years, the executive has held positions in both the public and the private sector. Before she joined the Girl Scouts, Soto-Harmon worked for First Book, a national children’s literacy organization dedicated to getting new books into the hands of children from low-income families. There, she held the position of senior vice president for community development. She also served as the deputy director for the President’s Interagency Council on Women, chaired by then U.S, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, where she represented the United States at United Nations’ conferences.

In addition, Soto-Harmon serves as a Board Member for the Tahirih Justice Center, an
organization that helps immigrant and refugee women seek protection from international human rights abuses.

“In my career, in all the jobs that I’ve had, I have always looked for ways to change the world,” Soto-Harmon said. And her current position with the Girl Scouts as CEO, which she has had for almost two years, has not been much different.

“Right now, as an executive with the Girl Scouts, this is where I have held the position where I’ve had the biggest impact on so many people, so many girls,” Soto-Harmon said. “I feel very fulfilled in the sense that the leadership really comes from a place where one tries to help other people. I think this is what causes, in myself, this feeling where I can’t wait to get up in the morning and get to work,” she said, laughing.

This year has been declared “The Year of the Girl” by the organization, which has had several well-known members, most notably Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, Dakota Fanning and Mary Tyler Moore. The Girl Scouts are commemorating their 100th anniversary, which will be celebrated in a very big way — thousands will gather in the National Mall next month, for a massive sing-along celebration. About 200,000 people are expected to attend. Naturally, Soto-Harmon has been very busy lately, getting everything ready for the event.

In a world where women don’t earn as much as men, it is even harder for Latinas to climb that corporate ladder or to reach their goals. Even though Soto-Harmon thinks the Girl Scouts set a great example last year by naming Anna María Chávez the first Latina CEO of the national organization, she said that one of the biggest challenges young Hispanic girls face these days is low self-esteem. She spoke proudly of one of her achievements as CEO of the capital’s chapter — the Encuentro de Chicas Latinas de las Girl Scouts. This conference’s mission is to reach young Latinas with the message of leadership and academic success.

Read related: Girl Scouts honor Latina leader Marieli Colon-Padilla of NHLI

“We have a conference where we try to bring a lot of women that have triumphed in their careers, so they can talk to the girls, and one of the things that is obvious is that having good self-esteem and confidence in the fact that we can make a difference is something that we need to instill in the new generation,” Soto-Harmon told VOXXI.

“If there is a person who comes to the United States as an immigrant, and has an accent when she speaks English, or maybe doesn’t understand cultural references the same way a person raised in this country would, sometimes that limits us, unfortunately, in our ability to triumph,” she explained.

The next Encuentro de Chicas Latinas de las Girl Scouts will be held in Washington, D.C., in August. This is in addition to another one of Soto-Harmon’s projects — the D.C. Step Showcase at Trinity Washington University to celebrate the rich history of African-Americans. This is now an annual event enjoyed by all Girl Scout troops in the region.

Right now there are about 3.2 million Girl Scouts, including those in the United States and those participating in troops and groups in more than 92 countries through USA Girl Scouts Overseas.

The organization has come a long way — and seen 59 million girl scouts earn their badges — since Juliette Gordon Low founded it in 1912. Low, who died from breast cancer in 1927, posthumously, received last Tuesday the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

“One of the reasons that, after 100 years, we are still an organization that is relevant in the community, that we have been able to instill aspects such as respect for our country, respect for adults, help other human beings, help the environment… the reason for all that is that as the world changes, so do the Girl Scouts,” Soto-Harmon said.

“The girls’ voices — what they want to learn and do — are the most important things.”

That doesn’t mean the Girl Scouts don’t face certain challenges today. The CEO said that now that the Latino community in the country keeps growing, the Girl Scouts have a responsibility to increase the number of Hispanic girls in the organization.

Read related: Chicago-based Latina mentorship group helps empower women

The organization has been implementing certain things to bring in more girls, including recruiting college students as volunteers to serve as troop leaders and providing financial aid to their girls to make their programs more accessible.

“We know that Latinas have the highest high school dropout numbers, the highest number of suicide attempts… this means that young Latinas are suffering. And one of the ways that we can help is to involve them in organizations like the Girl Scouts. That’s our biggest challenge. How to bring those families and show them that by being part of this organization, they’ll have a better future.”

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