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An Alternative to the Girl Scouts Is Gaining Fans in US Cities

Radical Monarchs, an organization for Black and Brown youth, celebrates the positive.

Bloomberg Businessweek

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Troop members Isis and Valentina take part in a scavenger hunt in San Francisco. Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun for Bloomberg Businessweek

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Since it was founded in 1912, the Girl Scouts of the USA has been the best-known option for preteen girls interested in joining a youth organization with a nationwide presence. It took 102 years, but an alternative is gaining steam.

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Hollinquest. Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun for Bloomberg Businessweek

First established in 2014 in the San Francisco Bay Area, Radical Monarchs is a troop for Black and Brown girls—as well as children who identify as nonbinary—from 8 to 11 years old.

Its mission, says Marilyn Hollinquest, who started it with her friend Anayvette Martinez, is to teach children to “advocate for themselves and their communities and make the world a more just and joyful place.” There are 104 kids enrolled in cities across the US, including Denver, Minneapolis and Washington.

Just as in Girl Scouts, Radical Monarch troop members earn badges to show they’ve mastered specific skills. But these aren’t your typical certifications for first aid or painting.

The first, called Radical Roots, requires delving into history. For the troop in Richmond, California, this could mean a stop at Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park to learn how Black women helped the cause in World War II. In Minneapolis, they learn about Native environmentalist Winona LaDuke, who in 1985 helped form the Indigenous Women’s Network whose members focus on empowering themselves and others in society.

Other badges teach consent, self-defense and respect for those who are plus-size or disabled. It takes four sessions or troop meetings to earn a badge, and scouts must attend 90% of the related workshops or field trips. Each badge takes three months to earn; the goal is to earn three per year.

There’s time for fun, too, whether it entails camping trips or making s’mores and slime. “There’s no cookie baking like GSA, but play is a big part of our work,” Martinez says. “At the end of the day, these are children. We’re not just talking about social justice stuff all the time.”

Hollinquest says the group tries to emphasize the positive, which isn’t what usually happens when students are first exposed to social justice in college. “No one is out there training [people] how to talk about equity in a way that makes you feel like you’re joining a winning team,” she says. “It can be really overwhelming if you just focus on what’s wrong—and what’s different about us is we’re very solution-oriented, very much steeped in hope. We study the wins a lot.”

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Troop member Sahar (left) at the Radical Monarchs San Francisco troop’s meetup on Oct. 29. Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun for Bloomberg Businessweek

The idea for Radical Monarchs first came up when Martinez’s daughter, Lupita, expressed interest in joining a local Girl Scouts troop. She was 9 years old at the time and attending fourth grade in San Francisco. Some of her friends and classmates were joining.

Martinez hesitated. This wasn’t a part of her own upbringing, and after seeing the troop’s makeup, she didn’t want her daughter to be one of the only girls of color. The Girls Scouts have made efforts to become more inclusive, but overall membership remains majority White and non-Hispanic, according to the organization’s 2022 stewardship report.

“I wished there was something that existed that centered young girls of color and their experiences, where they could earn badges based on social justice issues, not just making a fire, sewing or selling cookies,” Martinez says. “When I had that idea, I was like, ‘Hey, Lupita, what if I were to do this for you and your friends?’ ”

Lupita was on board, but a year passed: Martinez was a busy mom of two and working as a full-time organizer at a local nonprofit. Lupita, then 10, wasn’t letting go of the idea and nudged her mother to bring it to life. Martinez reached out to Hollinquest, who had more than a decade of experience teaching and had developed a social justice curriculum.

For Hollinquest, the concept of a troop dedicated to girls of color wasn’t far-fetched. “Our Black and Brown communities, from the Brown Berets and Black Panthers, always had schools for our children,” she says, referencing the 1960s Chicano Movement, which started in Los Angeles, and the Black civil rights organization that was born in Oakland. The Radical Monarchs uniform is inspired by these movements: A brown beret and brown vest symbolize empowerment and visibility.

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Radical Monarchs co-founder Martinez. Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun

Martinez and Hollinquest had met in the ethnic studies Master’s program at the San Francisco campus of California State University in 2005. They became instant friends; they share a birth date (Nov. 16), and both identify as queer women of color. They didn’t anticipate that nine years later they’d create and run a nonprofit organization for young girls that would operate in eight US cities so far.

Radical Monarchs are named after the butterfly in order to symbolize transformation and migration. Each troop consists of three adult volunteer troop leaders, an assistant and at least 10 girls in third, fourth or fifth grade. For three years, the troop has met twice monthly, with breaks in the summer and from mid-November to January; each year culminates in a graduation ceremony for kids who’ve completed the program.

The women didn’t realize how popular the idea could become until they brought their initial troop of 10 girls to a march in Oakland that was aimed at raising awareness about state violence after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. When a story about the event appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Martinez and Hollinquest were flooded with inquiries. “It was our first public appearance since starting,” Martinez says, “and we were taken aback by all the community interest. Everyone was running up to us and asking, ‘Who are y’all? How do I get my kid in this?’ ”

As the founders prepare to mark the Radical Monarchs’ 10th anniversary in 2024, they’re also in the middle of interviews to determine the location for the next troop. Applications have come in from Columbus, Ohio; Long Beach, California; and Brooklyn, New York.

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The Radical Monarchs troop in San Francisco attends a workshop at Western Addition Library on Oct. 29.  Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun for Bloomberg Businessweek

Despite the expansion and interest, funding still comes in piecemeal from foundations of various sizes. As one of a small minority of nonprofits in the US led by women of color, Radical Monarchs draws funds from families, parents, guardians, teachers, schools and youth workers—not from those in positions of power. “It’s been an extreme challenge just because we’re Black and Brown, queer women of color,” Hollinquest says.

Radical Monarchs has an annual budget of $900,000. There’s a full-time staff of five, a part-time grant-writing contractor and a part-time event coordinator. Volunteer leaders are trained quarterly. The founders fly to visit troops at least twice a year to observe the kids and meet families.

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Troop member Kayhan enjoys the Radical Monarchs San Francisco meetup. Photographer: Gabriela Hasbun/Photograph by Gabriela Hasbun

For its 10-year anniversary, the group is starting a fundraising campaign called Radical Futures, which aims to pay for a full-time alumni coordinator who can stay in contact with the growing number of graduates and organize ways for them to contribute as mentors. It kicked off on Nov. 2.

There are risks. Every time Radical Monarchs is featured in the press, for example, the group receives bomb threats, and sexually inappropriate messages to the minors show up on the organization’s online accounts. For safety, the troops don’t post their locations in real time on social media, and they bring in additional parents and guardians when they attend marches. “It’s like cilantro: Either you love it, or it tastes like soap,” Hollinquest says. “People either love what we do, or they’re like, ‘You’re raising little racists.’ ”

For Cinthya Silverstein, a parent turned troop leader in Los Angeles, it’s been a lifeline. A first-generation Mexican American, Silverstein recalls growing up in the not-very-diverse Orange County of the early 1990s. She wanted a different experience for her daughter, Laila, who’s set to graduate from LA’s first troop in June.

“It’s been healing for me as an adult—to be in a room and to see children have conversations that internally, I was having at that age but didn’t know it was OK to have questions around these things,” she says. “It gives me hope.”

To contact the author of this story:
Lebawit Lily Girma in Baltimore at lgirma1@bloomberg.net

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This post originally appeared on Bloomberg Businessweek and was published November 16, 2023. This article is republished here with permission.

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