NEW YORK | Sylvia Acevedo, who earned a science badge as a Girl Scout and later became a rocket scientist and entrepreneur, was appointed Wednesday as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. A top priority, she said, would be to stem a sharp decline in the organization’s membership.
Acevedo had been serving as the interim CEO since last June while the GSUSA conducted an extensive search for a new permanent leader. In the end, the national board decided she was the best choice, depicting her as “a long-time champion for girls’ and women’s causes.”
Acevedo grew up near Las Cruces, New Mexico, and joined a Brownie troop there in the 1960s. She says her Mexican-born mother got help from troop leaders in practicing her English and passing her U.S. citizenship test.
The science badge was earned by building and launching a rocket. Says Acevedo, “It completely changed my life.”
After graduating from New Mexico State University with an engineering degree in 1979, Acevedo worked as a rocket scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and earned a master’s degree at Stanford University. She later worked for several technology-related corporations, served as White House commissioner on the Presidential Initiative for Hispanic Educational Excellence, and became a leading advocate of expanded opportunities for girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
She became a member of GSUSA’s board in 2009.
The Girl Scouts, founded in 1912, are among several major youth organizations in the U.S. experiencing a sharp drop in membership in recent years. Reasons include competition from youth sports leagues, a perception by some families that they are old-fashioned, and, in the Girl Scouts’ case, complaints from some conservative families that GSUSA’s approach is too liberal. Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic archdiocese covering the Kansas City, Kansas, region said it is severing ties with Girl Scouts because of philosophic differences.
As of March, GSUSA reported 1,566,671 youth members and 749,008 adult members — down from just over 2 million youth members and about 800,000 adult members in 2014.
Acevedo says she wants to stem the decline with a multifaceted strategy, including intensified outreach to girls from minority communities and rural areas. She wants to offer diverse, balanced programming that ranges from camping and hiking to robotics and civics.
Acevedo replaces Anna Maria Chavez, who resigned last June after a sometimes rocky five-year term. There were rifts between leadership and grassroots members, an uproar over efforts by many local councils to sell venerable summer camps, and budget problems that prompted numerous layoffs at the national headquarters in New York.
Several problems persist, including lawsuits filed recently against GSUSA by two of the 112 local councils.
The Farthest North Girl Scout Council, based in Fairbanks, Alaska, is challenging the legality of GSUSA’s decision to raise individual membership dues from $15 to $25 next year. The national headquarters’ operating budget relies heavily on the dues.
The other lawsuit, filed by the Heart of Michigan council, challenges the GSUSA’s handling of a long-running dispute over its pension plan. The Michigan council stopped making contributions to the plan several months ago, contending that the increasing pension costs were an unfair result of a realignment plan that GSUSA imposed on the local councils.
The GSUSA has declined to comment on the substance of the two lawsuits.
Suellen Nelles, CEO of the Farthest North Girl Scout Council, said in an email that both lawsuits could have been avoided “through honest dialogue, compromise and genuine caring to do what is right.”
Jan Barker, the long-serving CEO of the Heart of Michigan council, said the national headquarters needs to do a better job of listening to the local councils’ leaders and supporting their efforts, rather than turning defensive when questions are raised.
“It’s the councils that do the heavy lifting,” she said. “There’s some very good wisdom in the field that GSUSA staff and leadership need to take into account.”
Acevedo depicted the lawsuits as aberrations, and said the GSUSA’s current plans and policies have strong backing from most council CEOS.
“Girl Scouting happens in the councils, in the communities,” she said. “Our role is to support them.”