Girls gone wise

Troop 1500 at the Gatesville Hilltop Prison northeast of Austin. The girls visit their mothers at Gatesville once a month.

'TROOP 1500' is the story of Girl Scouts whose lives are filled with law enforcement badges and tough cookies

"I was actually kicked out of the Girl Scouts," laughs Julia Cuba, leader of Austin-based Troop 1500, recalling a youthful aversion to the organization that carried over into young adulthood. "It was clear the relationship was not going anywhere." Cuba's mother, San Antonio writer Nan Cuba who founded the literary school and community Gemini Ink, was a troop leader and encouraged her daughter to stay involved, but the younger Cuba didn't see the Girl Scouts as a crucible for female empowerment. That perception changed when, in 1997, the Austin-area council hired Cuba to supervise a new troop.

This is not your mother's Girl Scouts. Cuba's troop of more than 40 girls is unified by a common obstacle: Their mothers are in prison. The members of Enterprising Girl Scouts Beyond Bars Troop 1500, age 6-17, meet weekly for group therapy, life-skills classes, and support. Once a month, they travel to Gatesville Hilltop Prison, 90 miles northeast of Austin, for visitation with their mothers, which includes more therapy, communication skills and literacy workshops, and team building.

"It's actually this amazingly progressive organization that is incredibly empowering to girls," says Cuba, who earned a degree in women's studies at the University of Texas at Austin and is completing a master's in social work at the university while working with the Girl Scouts. Girl Scouts USA sponsors 50 similar troops nationwide, a drop in the bucket when one considers the scope of the problem. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that in 1998, 950,000 women, approximately 1 percent of the female population, were under correctional supervision. Darlene Grant, an associate professor of social work at UT-Austin who works with Troop 1500, has reported that 80 percent of incarcerated women in the U.S. have daughters, and those girls are six times more likely to end up in jail than children whose parents have not been incarcerated.

The 7-year-old troop would make a compelling story even without the impressive statistics: 96 percent of the 51 girls who have belonged to the troop since its inception have not been pregnant before age 18, 93 percent have remained in school, and none has been arrested. So it's not surprising that almost immediately the story caught the eye and heart of pioneering documentarian Ellen Spiro, whose 1988 Diana's Hair Ego broke new ground on AIDS coverage and brought inexpensive, low-tech filmmaking to the big screen. On February 11, the first cut of the ITVS-sponsored film, TROOP 1500, will premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A finished version is scheduled to screen at the SXSW film festival in Austin on March 12, and later this year it will air on PBS.

Spiro and Cuba met in 1998 through their mutual friend, gubernatorial candidate and oft-published wag Kinky Friedman. The filmmaker was interested in making a documentary about the program, but it wasn't until she hooked up with producer Karen Bernstein of Mobilus Media, that she was able to secure funding and jump the bureaucratic hurdles of the Girl Scouts and the Texas criminal justice system.

Spiro then spent a year getting to know Troop 1500. She introduced the girls to the process of making a documentary, and they served as crew members as well as subjects, sometimes getting behind the camera to interview their mothers. Cuba says this allowed the girls to ask tough questions.

"A lot of the girls didn't even know why their mothers were in prison," she recalls. For the parents, this often meant confronting their fears and shame. "Moms would ask counselors, 'How do I answer these questions and still be a good parent?'"

For the troop members who participated in the filmmaking, Cuba believes the experience added yet another layer of understanding. "I think it made it much more realistic to them, the goals we are trying to accomplish."

By Elaine Wolff


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