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How Do You Say "Thin Mints" in Khmer?
Philadelphia's Troop 971, the First Cambodian Girl Scout Troop
in the United States, Brings Out the Best of Two Very Different Cultures
Eighteen girls file into the Bra Buddha Ransi Temple, located in the rough-and-tumble heart of South Philadelphia. They bow three times to a statue of the Buddha, bow to a saffron-robed monk, then settle down in a loose circle on a floor covered with brightly colored oriental rugs. Girl Scout Troop 971, the first Cambodian Girl Scout troop in the United States, is in session.
Familiar to millions of Rocky fans, South Philadelphia also is home to the one of the largest communities of Cambodians in the United States. The girls among its estimated 20,000 members are under tremendous strain: Like most immigrants, they are caught between the traditional customs of their parents and grandparents and the pressure to assimilate and become American. Cambodians, however, shoulder particular stress.
"The Khmer Rouge murdered many of the educated people in Cambodia [in the 1970s], so the people who came to this country are mostly unskilled," says Ann Meredith, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania. "Of all refugees, the Cambodians are among the 'most who came with the least.' Mothers and fathers are working so hard to make ends meet that they usually have only 20 minutes of face time each day with their daughters." Girls of middle-school age are typically in danger of unhealthy behavior stemming from low self-esteem, and, with limited ties to their ethnic roots and uncertain how to fit into the broader Philadelphia community, Cambodian girls are particularly at risk.
Troop 971 grew out of a chance meeting Meredith had two years ago with Robert Koch, co-founder of the Bra Buddha Ransi Temple and a community activist. A German American married to a Cambodian woman and father of twin girls who were 12 years old at the time, Koch was familiar with Girl Scouts and immediately saw the benefits Girl Scouting could bring to the Cambodian community.
He also knew the challenges involved. The basic problem was that organizations like Girl Scouts don't exist in Cambodian culture. When he was living in Cambodia and tried to form a troop there, he recalls, "no one got involved because they thought it was a military group."
Koch and Meredith realized that to persuade parents to let their daughters join, the Girl Scout troop would have to be based in the temple. "People really listen to something coming from the temple," Koch says. "They know we don't promote anything that's violent or drug-related. They see that the motive is to help children."
"We try to educate the girls so they have a better understanding of where they came from. Why should they bow when they greet people? When they dance, what does each movement of the hand or foot mean? What is the difference between an Indian and a Cambodian Buddha? Why do monks wear orange? This helps promote their understanding of their background." —Robert Koch, founder and co-leader, Troop 971
Meredith spent many hours in South Philadelphia, meeting Cambodians in their neighborhood to discuss their concerns and needs. "You have to take the time to listen," she says. "There's no one-size-fits-all solution. Luckily, the beauty of Girl Scouts is that the model is not just replicable but flexible, too."
With a location assured and the community giving its backing, volunteers quickly came forward. "When you share a goal of providing girls with a healthy, safe environment in which to blossom and a place to celebrate their own culture, it's just a question of finding the right paths for participation," says Meredith. "The key is a willingness to work toward shared ends."
It was less than three months from Koch and Meredith's initial conversation to the first meeting of Troop 971. The group's founding members were Koch's daughters, two of their cousins, and another girl from the community.
Koch's daughter Monique, now 14, says, "I thought Girl Scouts would be just the cookie thing, but my dad said we'd learn more about our culture. I learned more than I expected." The members of Troop 971 study Cambodian dance, play Cambodian games, and are learning to read and write in Khmer (the language most of the girls speak at home). Troop 971's three adult volunteers are all from Cambodia, all deeply familiar with its culture and customs, and eager to share their knowledge.
Diang Thach, a 24-year-old who has volunteered with the troop since its beginning, is a Cambodian who was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. in 2001. "Girls here know more than girls in Cambodia," she says. "Girls here can be independent and go to a good school." She says she enjoys teaching the American-born girls about Cambodian arts and practices. "We don't want to mix up who they are, but if they know both cultures, they can make a choice and take the best from both."
The troop also engages in traditional Girl Scout activities—selling cookies, going camping, and doing community service. Those activities have been especially valuable, says Robert Koch, because they offer a supervised way to learn about American culture. That's important, he says, because "Cambodians are typically shy. They stay within their own culture. Girl Scouts has helped the girls do things they've never done before and expanded their horizons in a safe way."
Jasmine, Koch's other 14-year-old, concurs. "I'm much more social since joining Girl Scouts. I barely talked before—only if someone asked me a question. But in Girl Scouts, you have to share ideas about how to help your community, so you can't be shy. It's really helped me develop as a person."
Since its modest beginnings, Troop 971 has become a growing dynamo, not just in the Cambodian community, but in the neighborhood. When the girls are performing Cambodian dances at cultural festivals, sprucing up the local park, or selling cookies, other girls see an alternative to joining a gang.
"When I came here, I wanted to know what the U.S. was like and what its culture was like. The girls who are born here, whose parents are Cambodian, they want to know what Cambodian culture is like. So this is an opportunity to help our people and our children. I also wanted to be a leader so I could teach the kids to be independent. —Diang Thach, co-leader, Troop 971
The troop's 18 members now include girls who aren't of Cambodian descent, and they're also learning to speak Khmer. "It's become a real cross-cultural opportunity," says council CEO Meredith. "I believe if our children can develop their multicultural understanding muscle, we are truly equipping them to operate in the global environment of the twenty-first century. Not to give our girls cross-cultural experience would be to deny them a very important component of leadership development."
The troop's success is inspiring other Cambodian communities around the United States. Long Beach, Calif., home to the largest Cambodian community in the country, was hoping to be awarded a troop number this past summer.
"In Cambodian culture, women are usually looked at as being lower than men, more like, 'You're only good for housewives,'" says Koch. "I'm constantly telling Cambodian parents and kids that Girl Scouts is a good program, that it will take girls and help them gain more respect for themselves and become leaders."
Troop 971 is living proof of that.
Leadership in Any Language
The success of Troop 971 has one overriding lesson: "The Girl Scouts model works," as Ann Meredith, CEO of Girl Scouts of Eastern Pennsylvania, puts it. "It's flexible enough that we know we can replicate it dozens, if not hundreds, of times."
Girl Scouts has always been popular among recent immigrant groups that are beginning to assimilate, notes Michelle Tompkins, external communications consultant for Girl Scouts of the USA. "People see Girl Scouts as being a big part of American culture and want their girls to learn about that culture in a safe environment. What better group is there to join?"
Yet until recently, the essential Girl Scout philosophy of diversity and inclusivity often ran up against a pervasive, if unspoken, belief among immigrants that if you want to succeed in the United States, you have to give up who you are. Gladys Padró-Soler, director of membership strategies for GSUSA, says that's why "a big emphasis is that we don't want to take anything away from anyone. It's not an issue of assimilation. It's an issue of being a girl in the United States yet doing it in a way that appeals to the way parents want their daughters to grow up."
"We had to learn to adapt," Padró-Soler notes, adding, "It's just a question of speaking with parents beforehand, being prepared to address their concerns, and ensuring our program is within the context of their experience, culture, and faith." For example, she says, Latino families often need to be reassured that camping doesn't mean sending their daughters into the forest all alone. Muslim cultures prize modesty and frown on conventional swimsuits, so "we had to make sure they knew that the girls could swim in whatever attire was good for them," says Padró-Soler. Adds Tompkins, "We're learning to speak everyone else's language, in both a literal and figurative way."
Some troops speak only Spanish—or Vietnamese or Ukrainian—some speak only English, and some speak a combination of languages, depending on what their members want. That's just fine, says Tompkins. "Girls say they want to change the world. Our job is to help them do that." Teaching girls to become leaders in their own lives is a goal that transcends all cultural boundaries—and requires no translation.