Agnes McLaughlin, 16, of the 16th Bethnal Green Girl Guides unit, has been selected to represent North West London Girl Guides for a European event, and is showing that this Victorian institution is as relevant today as it was when it was founded 110 years ago.
When the Girl Guides established in 1910 as an offshoot of the Boy Scouts, you could earn badges with names like House Orderly and Needleworker. And no doubt, some of the skepticism towards this group stems from its Victorian origins – and fear that it still, perhaps, perpetuates those values.
But as times have changed, so have the Guides. Nowadays, they are more focused on challenging and developing the minds and abilities of young girls, having retired badges like House Orderly. Instead, the Guides do activities and earn badges to help them be more independent and socially aware.
When Agnes arrives to the interview in our Roman Road offices straight after school, still in her uniform, this is exactly what seems to excite her the most in her eight years of guiding: the feeling that the organisation has helped her be more confident, more altruistic – more herself.
‘I did this badge a few years ago which was about individuality. I made a pledge to be myself, and to respect other people’s differences as well.’
These badges arguably, are a better reflection of the values and causes of today, and embody ‘the Promise’ that all Girl Guides make when they are initiated; to be an active citizen, to help others. The pledge is embodied in the everyday activities the guides perform.
For instance, McLaughlin describes how she, along with her team, the Bethnal Green 16th, learn about different issues and how they can take action.
‘Recently, we did an anti-plastic badge. To get that, I had to make a pledge to take a reusable water bottle to school. We also did another environment badge, where we did some planting.
Last year McLaughlin was selected to represent North West London at the Girl Guides European Jamboree in Poland: an annual gathering of representatives from guides all over the continent. There, on a camping ground, they will be challenged through tasks and activities testing their teamwork and problem-solving skills in a strict, disciplined environment.
She will then bring her new skills back to Bow, giving talks and running sessions on what she has learnt.
Over the past year, McLaughlin has been busy raising the £1,350 she needs if she is to go on this trip.
She lights up as she tells me about the experiences over the last year raising the funds – of which she has already raised over £1000. These activities show how the Guides has challenged her and helped her confidence.
After all, over the past year, Agnes McLaughlin has run a hair-braiding business, completed a 10k marathon (no small feat for a 16-year old), and even partnered with Roman Road businesses to provide prizes for a charity raffle, with all proceeds going to her cause.
‘I went around the shops in Roman Road asking if they want to donate anything as a prize for the raffle. SNAP store gave me some candles, and they went down really well in the raffle as prizes.
Traits of fierce independence and entrepreneurship are no surprise coming from someone with McLaughlin’s background. After all, she grew up in a family with three sisters, surrounded by Sylvia Pankhurst’s spirit. Her house was once the toy factory opened by Pankhurst to help women living in poverty.
With McLaughlin’s dedication to social causes and her fearless drive, why does she feel there is a need for a girls-only organisation? After all, the Scouts, the Girl Guides’ originally male-only counterpart, is now completely open to all genders at all levels.
‘I don’t think there should be anything wrong with the Guides being open to girls and boys…but, there may be girls who might get put off going to Guides if they think they have to wear make-up for the boys. A lot of girls would feel more comfortable just being in a group with girls and there are very few opportunities to have that.’
Does McLaughlin feels that being part of an all-female organisation has helped her as a teenage girl?
‘Definitely. It’s a safe space to share things. So I think I’ve become more confident through that.’
If you or anyone you know are interested in joining the Girl Guides, McLaughlin’s 16th Bethnal Green unit meet every Thursday of the week, excluding school holidays. Helen Kimber is the current leader.
And click here if you would like to donate to Agnes McLaughlin’s fundraiser.
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