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INTERVIEW

Charting a Course for the Girl Scouts

Leadership, diversity, values. For Marsha Johnson Evans, the goals of Girl Scouting reflect her commitment to service and a respect for potential

By Laura Ferguson

Marsha Evans with Girl Scouts When Marsha Johnson Evans, F77, retired after a 29-year career in the United States Navy, she could have enjoyed a well-deserved rest. She could have reflected on a military career in which she held key leadership roles including head of worldwide recruiting, chief of staff at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, and superintendent of the Naval Postgraduate School. She could have been justifiably satisfied to have achieved the rank of Rear Admiral, only the second woman to attain this prestigious position.

But instead, Evans went back to work. In January 1998, she was appointed executive director of the Girl Scouts, the largest organization for girls in the world. The Girl Scouts, says Evans, is not such a far stretch from the Navy as it first seems: it makes good use of her experience in training, budget and management, and recruitment within a large organization. But perhaps more important, it allows her to continue her passionate involvement with ways of empowering women. Throughout her Navy career, she was at the forefront of efforts to increase opportunities for women, including heading a task force after Tailhook to improve the status of women in the Navy and Marine Corps. At the Girl Scouts, Evans could focus on a new age group-from 5 or 6 to 17. In troops across the country, the goals of leadership, diversity, and personal values aim to help scouts develop confidence, learn critical life skills, and deepen a sense of their own possibilities. For Evans, these ideals are close to her own commitment to patriotism, service and respect for others. "When I saw the opening for a director of the Girl Scouts of the United States, my first response was 'How exciting!' " recalls Evans, 51. "I was ready to try new things, and being part of such a respected organization was very appealing."

A native of Springfield, Illinois, Evans, known as "Marty," grew up in a military family: her father was a chief petty officer in the Navy. She was an active Girl Scout from the second to the ninth grade, and fondly remembers her mother's support as a troop leader. After attending Occidental College in Los Angeles and serving in the Navy for nine years, she earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1977. If much has changed for women over the past 30 years, Evans has witnessed it with a grateful eye. But at her desk at Girl Scout headquarters in New York, she remains impatient for more awareness of gender issues, particularly of the obstacles that confront young girls and teens. "Girls and young women are under tremendous pressures these days, and it's organizations like the Girl Scouts that are working to inspire them to believe in themselves. How they perceive themselves today can make a tremendous difference in how they take charge of their lives as women."

I wanted to talk first about your Tufts connections. You'd been in the Navy for nine years when you came to Tufts to earn a master's at the Fletcher School. What brought you to Fletcher?
At the time I was a Naval officer, and I had been given the opportunity to go to just about any school in the country on a fully funded Navy scholarship. I had known a couple of people who had graduated from Fletcher, and the more I checked on it the more appealing it was in terms of what it offered and the research I could do. I was favorably disposed on the basis of alums, and once I got there it was wonderful.

What do you remember from those years?
I would say my classmates. They were people of so many perspectives and they tended to have worked in business, the State Department or various nongovernmental organizations, so they were a source of diverse thinking and it was great. Also, the faculty were terrific, very concerned about students and our progress.

Were there lessons from graduate school that stood you in good stead throughout your career?
I think in terms of the range of courses, from international law to diplomatic history to economics, the curriculum was extremely valuable for a military officer who knew she was going to be assigned to different parts of the world and have different responsibilities.

What motivated you to strive for greater responsibility within the Navy?
I always felt that the Navy gave me an opportunity to do interesting and exciting things, to be involved in very current and fast-moving issues, and I suppose I thrived in that environment. I loved the fact that I wasn't doing the same thing year after year; the world was changing and I had the chance to change with it. And you know, the Navy believed in me. I was given wonderful opportunities. As I accomplished those things, I had more ahead of me. When I was contacted by the Girl Scouts, it seemed that the position was a natural follow on. In the Navy, in addition to my primary responsibilities I had also been fairly involved in expanding opportunities for women, so I saw the Girl Scouts as a way to continue in that work in an organization that prepares girls and young women for all the opportunities ahead of them. It's a nice connection.

Do you see a common thread between your career in the Navy and serving as the national executive director of the Girl Scouts?
They are both value-centered organizations and they are both focused on developing the potential of people I think are critical to the nation's success--from different perspectives--but still equally critical. It's been, in the last 20 years, at least in my career, an exciting time for women. Things have opened up. So there is certainly confluence between the Navy and Girl Scouts; I don't think of them as disparate organizations as some people might. They are also large organizations. The Navy has some 400,000 people in it and now the Girl Scouts has 3.5 million. They are both large organizations with structures to support their needs.

Were there challenges you faced in the Navy because you were a woman?
There were views, especially in the late 1960s and 1970s, about the role women should play, and gradually, because of the end of the draft and the need to recruit more women to meet their requirements, the Navy began to take a more enlightened view of what women could and should be doing. But sure, there are always challenges. When I joined the Navy, women were about 2 percent of the total force and now women comprise 13 to 14 percent. As long as you are in a minority, there are stresses and strains. It was only in 1993 that the law was changed to open the full range of combat assignments to women. We had, all the way to 1993, a legal barrier to women serving in some of the most significant roles.

Why choose a career in the Navy?
Although my father was a Navy careerman, he actually didn't influence me. I made a very hasty decision during the last six weeks of college to go into the Navy; I had no inkling of opportunities there, really. I made a quick decision that I would take two years for the Navy and then go back to graduate school, and 29 years later I decided to leave!

What attracted you to a Navy career?
Well, two things. I enjoyed the work; I was changing assignments roughly every two years and it just seemed that every assignment was more interesting and exciting than the previous assignment. And the benefits; the fact that the Navy selected me to receive a fully funded graduate school education, that was pretty nice. I love the travel; I lived in Tokyo and London and had a chance to travel all over the place, spent a lot of time in Germany. I also enjoyed working with the people in the Navy. They are a very talented group of professionals, very committed. That was always a source of satisfaction, that my colleagues were first-rate.

Have you identified specific goals that you'd like the Girl Scouts to accomplish?
The first and foremost goal is that, while we have about 2.8 million girls who are scouts-the rest being adults-I would love to see a time when more girls are Girl Scouts. I strongly believe in the program and how we help girls become successful in life. Right now about 11 percent of the girls in this country from ages 5 to 17 are Girl Scouts. I'd love to see that percentage grow. We want to reach more girls who are from disadvantaged socioeconomic situations, more girls from racial, ethnic, and minority groups who perhaps in the past haven't had the chance to be part of Girl Scouts. So that's our goal, to make Girl Scouting available to every girl. It's a safe place, where girls are working with caring adults. I think that's very important.
Another thing I'd like to see is a breakthrough in terms of how the public sees Girl Scouting. They certainly equate us with cookies and candy and crafts. We are so much more. We have girls who are doing incredible things, from learning about computers and auto maintenance to learning all kinds of life skills such as financial management.
For instance, many people probably don't know that we now have projects for girls in homeless shelters and juvenile detention, as well as for girls whose parents are migrant workers or whose mothers are in prison. So I hope in the coming years we can help the American public appreciate that today Girl Scouts is a lot more than what their limited views of Girl Scouts might have been in the past.

You've been a passionate advocate for the advancement of women in the military. What are your hopes for working women?
Your question is interesting. Today, as more women enter the workplace, I hope that they will have the skills and confidence to meet life's challenges head-on; that they will have enough self-esteem to go after nontraditional jobs, in, for example, the fields of science and technology, where men have dominated; and that they will have the tenacity to break through the glass ceiling. In my opinion, opportunities are starting to come for women, so women need to be ready. If you can dream it, you can be it.

You've mentioned that you enjoy encouraging people "to do extraordinary things." How do you motivate people for success?
You have to try to inspire people and you have to help them focus on what's at stake if they don't do extraordinary things. Certainly, in the Navy there is no prize for second place. Either you win or you lose. And I think in Girl Scouts it's the same; if girls are going to have every opportunity to be successful and to rise above their own particular circumstances, as a nation we have to band together and figure out how we can give girls, and boys, too, the opportunities to be in a setting where they can develop, to know that people care about them, and to really get a good start in life. I don't think there is a prize for second place in that business either. To say that we're going to let one girl or woman slip through the cracks and get involved with drugs or pregnancy is a loss. I think we have an extraordinary challenge and the stakes are very high. And when I say "as a nation," what I'm really talking about is that it's a national issue. We're losing too many today to all the problems of our culture and I think Girl Scouts plays a role, and many other youth-serving organizations-there is more than enough work for every single organization to do, and we all have to do a better job of reaching young people.

Do you see yourself at heart as a diplomat or a leader?
I've been given those roles, and fortunately, I've been given a lot of support to try to do the best I can do. That is how it plays out: to use the resources you've been given. In this case, at the Girl Scouts, to access resources, including public support, increase funding from a variety of sources, inspire the people who work on the Girl Scout staff and our volunteers, and organize them for success. It's about taking what you have, looking at what you can develop, pulling it together, and moving forward.

Are there requisites for visionary leadership?
I do a fair amount of speaking on leadership, and I've always said if you don't know where you're going, if you don't know what's important to you, if you don't have a plan you want to accomplish, any road will take you someplace, but it may not be where you really want to go. I've always approached things with a goal in mind and with Girl Scouts that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to change the public's perception, we're trying to develop new strategies to bring scouting to more girls, to develop new sources of funding. We have a clear picture of where we want to go. If you don't have that, I think you tend to flounder. You may be lucky, but you won't be lucky many times.

Do you have heroes?
Oh, yes. Our founder, Juliette Gordon Low was an amazing woman. In 1912 she had this crazy idea about organizing girls. She lived in Savannah with the genteel set; so she had a fairly radical notion. She also had a disability, hearing problems stemming from a disease, and so from the very beginning she had a vision that Girl Scouts would be inviting to all girls with all kinds of disabilities. She was a pretty extraordinary woman when you think of what resulted from her idea: more than 40 million women have been Girl Scouts.
I also admire General George Marshall, and every now and then I ask myself how he would have approached a particular issue. He was a man of extraordinary character, and character for me is one of the very important, immutable requirements for life. By character I mean trying to do the right thing, trying to be morally strong, having the courage to make the tough choice, even though it's tougher to take that particular stance. Eleanor Roosevelt also was someone of great character and ability.

What message would you give to girls who are in Girl Scouts or considering it?
I always tell girls they can do anything or be anything they set their minds to. Nobody can make them feel that they can't except themselves. I always try to leave them, especially the older girls, with the notion that nobody can make you feel like a second-class citizen unless you let yourself be one.

Do you find that they look up to you as someone who has set an example of what can be done?
I guess some have looked up to me, in the sense that they've never met a woman admiral before. There is something unexpected in that. Certainly it was unexpected in my own life. I never set out to be an admiral. I always set out to do the best I could do. And I've always felt that I tried to live a courageous kind of life. If I saw something that needed to be changed, I would take a position of speaking up for change. You know, there's the idea that you are never rewarded in large organizations for standing up for a particular issue that may be unpopular. But I have stood up for women's issues. I headed the task force after Tailhook to change the culture and climate in the Navy and Marine Corps and nobody was more surprised than I that I later became an admiral. We tend to have preconceived notions that large organizations don't reward or validate people who try to work within the system and change things. I'm living proof that people who raise difficult issues can succeed. So if girls do look to me as an example, I hope they see that by believing in themselves and by trying to do the right thing, it is possible to change the world from within.

   

 

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