The Girl Scouts and How to Save Democracy
Think locally. Act locally.
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1. Range Widely
I’d never read David Epstein before this week, but this essay from his Range Widely newsletter hit me where I live:
[M]eet Frances Hesselbein, who turned 106 earlier this month, (and who still goes into the office in Manhattan to run the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute).
Frances took her first professional job at the age of 54, and went on to become the CEO of the Girl Scouts — which she saved. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, society changed dramatically, but the Girl Scouts did not. Girls were preparing for college and careers in unprecedented numbers, and they needed information on thorny topics like sex and drugs. The organization was in existential crisis. Membership fell off a cliff. The CEO position went vacant for nearly a year.
Frances took over the position in 1976 and transformed the organization. She tossed the sacrosanct standard handbook and replaced it with four handbooks that targeted different ages. She hired artists and told them that a six‑year‑old indigenous girl near an ice floe in Alaska who flips through a handbook had better see someone who looks like her in a Girl Scout uniform. She commissioned research on messaging to invite girls of all backgrounds. It culminated in poetic marketing posters, like one targeting Native Americans which read: “Your names are on the rivers.”
She presided over a tripling of minority membership. Under her watch, membership overall grew by a quarter million, and the Girl Scouts added 130,000 volunteers — people paid in a sense of mission, not money. The cookie business became a $300 million operation and kept growing from there. . . .
Her predecessors as Girls Scouts CEO had ridiculous leadership qualifications. The previous CEO, Dr. Cecily Cannan Selby, went to Radcliffe College at 16, got a PhD from MIT, and applied wartime technology to the study of human cells. She held leadership positions in education and industry. Another former CEO, Captain Dorothy Stratton, had been a psychology professor, a university dean, founding director of the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, and the first personnel director at the International Monetary Fund. Frances, meanwhile, had one semester of junior college education (she dropped out to take care of her family when her father passed away), and — after years of community volunteering and doing odd jobs in her husband’s photography business — had been head of a local Girl Scout council.
I’m speculating, but I think her background may actually have helped Frances. She was keenly aware that she couldn’t magically contain all the knowledge it would take to turn around the organization. As soon as she arrived, she leveled the hierarchical leadership structure in favor of what she called “circular management.” Rather than rungs on a ladder, staff at all levels would be beads on concentric bracelets, with multiple contacts who could advance ideas from local councils toward the national decision makers at the center.
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I have a very soft spot for management theory and this essay on Hesselbein is very much my jam.
But the real take-away isn’t the management stuff, but the call to local-ism.
Several times a week I get emails from readers saying some version of:
Everything seems terrible! What can I, personally, do to help save democracy?
And my advice is always the same:
(1) Help with local voter registration efforts.
(2) On Election Day, physically drive five people you know to the polls.
As David Frum says, the only protection we have against rising authoritarianism is more democracy.
You don’t save America on Twitter. You save it in your neighborhood, with the work that’s right in front of you.
Which is Frances Hesselbein’s deep wisdom.
2. The Browser
My only real complaint about the Browser is that it gives me too much stuff to read. It becomes the email equivalent of the New Yorker: Piling up, waiting for me to admit that I’m going to hit delete without having read all of the stuff I want to read. Mocking me. And judging. Always judging.
But it gives you so much great stuff! Like this conversation with Queen Space Nerd Maggie Lieu:
Maggie Lieu: So I think the first bet would be around space. Are humans going to get to Mars?
I think that this is very likely, and much sooner than we expect. China have started developing tools to go to Mars and get humans on Mars. Their predictions are 2030, and I think this is a pretty reasonable goal to achieve. Definitely, by 2035, I think we will see China be the first to win the space race to Mars.
(3) Rigid Thinking
My man Damian Penny looked up this week and realized that once upon a time Lara Logan was a serious journalist at CBS.
Logan used to be on 60 Minutes, which I admittedly haven’t regularly watched after their dubious reporting almost destroyed Audi in the mid-eighties. But from what I had heard, Logan - who was sexually assaulted while covering “Arab Spring” protests in Egypt - had a solid reputation. It makes you wonder if some kind of brainworm infected her in the past decade - God knows, she wouldn’t be the only one - or if she just hid it really, really well when she was working for CBS.
(To be fair, she wouldn’t be the only CBS journalist to go off the deep end. Insert your own Dan Rather reference here. Even Walter Freaking Cronkite flirted with 9/11 trooferism in his later years.)
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Look, every news network has their problems. At NBC Matt Lauer and his weird secret door-closing button. At CNN there’s Chris Cuomo doing crisis comms for his bro-ski on the side. At Fox they have [gestures broadly] all of this.
And at CBS they incubated Lara Logan. And Sharyl Attkisson. And Ben Domenech.
But while it’s tempting to think that someone like Logan simply got brainworms for some reason, I wonder if that’s the truth. Or if she was always unhinged and had just managed to pass as normal.
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In all of the Domenech scandals, I’d forgotten this one, per Wikipedia:
“In a 2010 post written for CBS, Domenech wrongly described Supreme Court Justice nominee Elena Kagan as potentially the ‘first openly gay justice.’ Dan Farber, editor in chief of CBSNews.com, later said in a statement that ‘after looking at the facts we determined that it was nothing but pure and irresponsible speculation on the blogger's part.’ Domenech said in an addendum to his column, ‘I have to correct my text here to say that Kagan is apparently still closeted—odd, because her female partner is rather well known in Harvard circles.’ In fact, however, numerous reports confirmed that Kagan was not gay, forcing Domenech to issue a public apology to Kagan ‘if she is offended at all by my repetition of a Harvard rumor in a speculative blog post.’