• Girl Scouts can now earn a brand new badge for experiencing some of the best of Newark

    by Andaiye Taylor/October 7, 2016 Featured image by Fred Stucker

newark celebration 350 cardFor the United States’ nearly 2 million young Girl Scouts, the badge is an outward symbol of various accomplishments and interests: from business to writing, cooking to outdoor activities.

As of last weekend, Girl Scouts were able to aspire to a brand new award of this type: the Newark Badge. For girls who earn it, the Newark Badge represents cross-disciplinary exploration of one of the country’s oldest cities.

The Newark Badge is the brainchild of Erin Sweeney and Vicki Hernandez, Co-Service Unit Managers for the Newark Girl Scouts. Faced last year with the soon-to-come 350th anniversary of the city, the pair came up with an idea to get the Girl Scouts involved by creating the new badge and working with local Girl Scouts to create the requirements and the badge itself.

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What a girl will have learned upon completing the requirements for the Newark Badge. Source: “Council’s Own Badge: Newark,” Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey.

Stakes were high, because getting a new badge approved is neither easy nor a sure thing, and the pair had to sweat it out before they got word it was approved back in May of this year by Girl Scouts of USA Headquarters.

Years ago, Sweeney told me, badges were a lot easier to create and to earn. Individual troops could make their own badges without consulting the national Girl Scouts’ organization, and some badges a girl could earn in her bedroom, say, by calling up her grandmother and chatting with her for 15 minutes as a way to earn a badge for engaging with senior citizens. The national Girl Scouts organization eventually tightened control over who can create them–they now have to be approved by national–and introduced stricter guidelines for how girls can earn them. Now, youth Girl Scouts more often have to do something “out in the world” to earn a badge.

Girl Scouts harvest produce at the Greater Newark Conservancy's Hawthorne Avenue Farm on Saturday, October 30th, as part of the requirements to earn a Newark Badge. Photo credit: Fred Stucker

Girl Scouts harvest produce at the Greater Newark Conservancy’s Hawthorne Avenue Farm on Saturday, October 30th, as part of the requirements to earn a Newark Badge. Photo credit: Fred Stucker

Those two principles created the context for an unforgettable Saturday last weekend when more than 200 girls from Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey (GSHNJ) gathered in Newark to step through the requirements for earning the Newark Badge, and experience Newark for themselves in the process.

Getting the idea backed wasn’t without a little wrangling, said Sweeney. Some were concerned that girls and their families wouldn’t travel to Newark. But by two weeks before the event, all 225 slots had sold out.

To earn the badge, girls need to complete activities involving learning about the city’s history, engaging with local arts organizations, immersing themselves in one of the city’s cultural enclaves, participating in community service, and then sharing those experiences with other people.

Last weekend’s event, called “Girl Scouts Take Newark: A Day of Exploration and Celebration,” was the official debut of the new badge and provided a structured program that allowed participants to hit all the requirements in a single day. The girls, some with family members in tow, completed the activities with Newark-based community partner sites, including the New Jersey Historical Society, Don Pepe restaurant, Sports Club Portugues, Gallery Aferro, the Barat Foundation, Greater Newark Conservancy, and HELP USA’s Broadway Genesis.

Girl Scouts explore Newark's Military Park with the New Jersey Historical Society. Photo: Fred Stucker

Girl Scouts explore Newark’s Military Park with the New Jersey Historical Society. Photo credit: Fred Stucker

By all accounts, the event was a success. “[The girls] were helpful, energetic, and engaged, and their enthusiasm was contagious,” said Emmanuela Mujica, Director of Special Projects for Greater Newark Conservancy, which welcomed more than 100 girls who helped harvest 280 pounds of produce at Hawthorne Avenue farm. The produce will be sold through the Conservancy’s Youth Farm Stand program, and will feed senior citizens via their Healthy Seniors Social Program.

Idalya Bonet-Rodriguez, Social Service Coordinator for the Broadway Genesis Senior program, called the experience “inspiring”. The girls visited with seniors in the program.

To fulfill the requirement to share their experiences with others, the girls summarized their day in Newark on poster board and shared the details during a ceremony at Rutgers University’s Great Hall on University Avenue. Sweeney, who leads a troop based out of Chancellor Avenue School, said that at least one Newark-based girl scout troop was included in each of the five groups of girls that fanned out across the city.

Girls and their parents raved about the day, Sweeney said. The reaction from participants, both those from Newark and those who were visiting from other places in New Jersey: “I can’t believe this is all here,” referring specifically to the art and history they encountered. The father of one Girl Scout participant said it was one of the best days he’d ever spent with her.

The celebration and presentation after the Girl Scouts’ jaunt around the city included remarks by Tai Cooper, Mayor Ras Baraka’s Chief Policy Advisor, and Junius Williams, the chair of Newark Celebration 350, who is also the founder and Executive Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute.

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Junius Williams, chair of Newark Celebration 350, applauds as Briana Evelyn and Alena Hutchinson unveil the Newark Badge. Evelyn and Hutchinson ere part of a team of five girls who created all the steps and requirements for the badge. Photo credit: Fred Stucker

“I think the choice of Newark as subject matter for a merit badge is great because some of those young ladies do not come from Newark, and so they get a chance to see some parts of Newark that are definitely not advertised in the media nor in popular expression,” Williams told me during a telephone interview about the event.

“And for the young ladies who live in Newark, it’s a chance for them to see a part of Newark that they probably either take for granted, or that aren’t attributed with the positive vibrations that were engendered by the choice of the Girl Scouts” to approve a Newark Badge and have the launch event in town, Williams continued.

For Williams, the moment brought him full circle in a bittersweet way. As a youngster growing up in Richmond, Virginia, he was denied the opportunity to ascend from a Light Scout to an Eagle Scout because he couldn’t get his swimming and lifesaving merit badges. The reason: racism.

“Instead of integrating the white pools, they closed all the pools, including the black pool in Brookfield Garden where I used to swim.”

While about two hundred Girl Scouts earned their Newark Badge during late October event, girls still have the opportunity to earn the badge indefinitely by filling the badge requirements.

According to Sweeney, many of the girls and their parents have vowed to keep exploring Newark, just for the fun of it.

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