Outgoing chief diversity officer shares thoughts on BSA’s diversity journey

Elizabeth Ramirez-Washka (seated left) and her fellow members of the Owl Patrol at Wood Badge.

The former senior vice president, deputy general counsel and chief diversity officer reflects on her efforts to develop a culture in which every youth, volunteer and employee feels included and welcomed.

When Scouts go camping, their goal is to leave the area better than it was when they first arrived.

Elizabeth Ramirez-Washka, the BSA’s former chief diversity officer, has recently left the organization, but her past accomplishments will continue to shape and guide the BSA as it moves forward.

“I’m proud of the progress we’ve made on our DEI journey and very much look forward to seeing the progress the BSA continues to make,” she says. “To Be Prepared to grow our impact, we should continue to identify new opportunities to expand our relevance and reach with families and communities. This will reinforce our commitment to ‘help other people at all times,’ and continue to prioritize the cultivation of a culture of belonging for all Scouters.”

During her time at the BSA, Ramirez-Washka worked with professionals and volunteers to enhance the organization’s environment so young people could ask more difficult questions to learn and understand others’ points of view. That began with the Eagle-required Citizenship in Society merit badge, but it didn’t end there.

Her efforts reached into every element of Scouting, including:

  • The introduction of DEI training for employees and volunteers.
  • A commitment to recruiting families from all walks of life.
  • An effort to attract diverse candidates for professional positions at the local and national levels.
  • An emphasis on supporting current professionals through diverse BSA workforce groups.

“A large part of my role has been helping people at all levels of the organization see the BSA in a future state, to help us realize what we need to do to have the greatest impact on our youth,” says Ramirez-Washka. “Every individual’s journey is unique to them. We’ve made progress on our journey, but we need to keep up the momentum. What’s important is the commitment to the journey and moving in the right direction.”

How we started the discussion

Conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) aren’t as physically demanding as, say, a high-adventure activity like rock climbing or backpacking, but they can be just as intimidating.

Young people might worry that they’ll say the wrong thing, offend someone or be criticized for sharing a perspective that differs from those expressed by others.

After arriving at the BSA in 2017, Ramirez-Washka strived to be open and understand the BSA culture, to learn how best to work with professionals and volunteers to create an environment where everyone is empowered to ask difficult questions and learn about others’ points of view.

“It’s not about giving them the answer,” she says. “It’s about making them think about the conversation and how it works with the Scout Oath and Scout Law. Once they take the first step, they see, ‘OK, I can have these conversations.’”

People are at different places on their DEI journey,  and the terminology often means different things to different people. But to Ramirez-Washka, the core principle of DEI work — understanding, including and treating others with respect — shouldn’t be controversial. It’s aligned with what is written in the Scout Oath and Scout Law.

The Scout Oath reminds us “to help other people at all times,” while the Scout Law’s 12 points include being friendly, courteous, kind and brave. By applying these principles to DEI, Ramirez-Washka says, we ensure that the Boy Scouts of America is a place where all Scouters feel welcome and supported.

“You can be part of the change,” she says. “It’s incredible what we can do, together.”

Not a “typical job”

When Ramirez-Washka joined the BSA and started meeting with professionals and volunteers, she discovered pretty quickly that she wasn’t at a typical job.

“I met volunteers who said, ‘Oh, you don’t have any Scouting background?’ And I say, ‘No, can you help walk me through it?’ And they did,” she says. “That’s part of being inclusive, and this organization has included me.”

Before long, Ramirez-Washka’s conversations went deeper than discussions about proper patch placement or the trail to Eagle.

“Establishing relationships with professionals and volunteers out there helped me to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to DEI,” she says. “I saw how the commitment is there for diversity.”

Ramirez-Washka has stressed to BSA volunteers that conversations about DEI are more productive when they aren’t focused on what’s “right” or “wrong.” Instead, they should be designed to help people educate themselves, listen to others and respect views that are different from their own.

None of that is easy, she admits.

“Even I struggle with it,” says Ramirez-Washka, who is Hispanic. “Just because I’m a minority doesn’t mean that I’m the expert on everything DEI. I’m not comfortable in every space, but I’m always open and willing to learn.”

The work continues

The BSA originally invited Ramirez-Washka to join the movement as associate general counsel. Before long, in a move most volunteers will appreciate, she was asked to wear an additional Scouting “hat.” In 2020, she was named the BSA’s vice president of diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, becoming the first Hispanic woman on the BSA’s executive team.

“Scouting has been a great experience — its rich heritage has stood the test of time for more than 110 years,” she says. “It’s been a pleasure and privilege to be part of this incredible organization and help BSA continue to grow and evolve with the changing times — while always holding true to our core ideals and values — such as kindness, integrity, respect, courtesy and care for others.

“Ideals like the Scout Oath and Scout Law have prepared millions of youth for a lifetime of leadership and success, and our goal is to prepare millions more well into the future.”

The BSA’s DEI work is essential to achieving that — by helping every family envision themselves thriving in this life-changing movement called Scouting. After all, there’s no top of the mountain or end of the trail with DEI. There’s no point where you can say, “I’m done. I made it.”

But you can absolutely make progress. Each step toward including everyone is something to celebrate.

“People want to do the right thing,” Ramirez-Washka says. “Those words do resonate: to treat people with kindness, courteousness and friendliness.”

“Scouting reinforces the values of your family. You learn how to be a leader, how to deal with conflict and how to understand different perspectives. We need to continue to lead by example and build communities where every person feels respected and valued to Be Prepared to welcome all interested families to take advantage of the many benefits that Scouting provides.”

Elizabeth Ramirez-Washka, top left, with Chief Scout Executive Roger Mosby (green shirt), and several of the BSA’s youth members