In summer 2010, I was looking forward to my eleventh birthday and to starting the sixth grade, but I was nervous about enrolling at a private school across town where I didn’t know anyone. I spent my time comfortably at the top of my class, reading, handwriting feminist novels, and drafting my own songs with a goal of becoming a musician like my father and grandparents.
My parents, looking for things to do to fill up my summer free time, came across an ad for Girls Rock Athens (GRA), a nonprofit organization offering a five-day, intersectional feminist-based summer day camp serving girls between 9-15. GRA focuses on music education and the empowerment of marginalized identities, especially the female identity. Students select an instrument — usually vocals, guitar, bass, drums, or keys — and spend the week learning the basics of that instrument from a local female musician, forming a band with other girls, and working to create at least one original song that they perform at a showcase at the end of the week in a local venue. Each day during lunch, a local female-fronted band or other female artist performs for the kids in hopes of helping them identify positive female role models in an industry so often considered male.
Throughout the week, kids design band logos, learn to screenprint, form and work with a band, take photos with a professional photographer, record in a studio to create a compilation CD, and more, as well as attend workshops focused on other aspects of music or life as a woman in our society.
I was immediately enamored with the creative process: my band of six middle-school aged girls came to be called the Social Butterflies and wrote a song inspired by my nerves regarding my new school.
Writing about my new-school blues exposed me to the true purpose of music and other art forms: a creative outlet to harness and deal with negative emotions, turning them into something tangible, beautiful, and purely your own.
I participated in GRA for 3 years, discovering in my second year that my true talent and passion lies not with my voice but with the bass guitar. By the time I was 16 I had performed upwards of 20 times in local venues in Athens. Music, as cliché as it may sound, gave me the confidence I needed to overcome barriers that surfaced in my teenage life, from my mental health challenges to stress and school or family drama. My strongest, longest, and most meaningful personal relationships are those that I formed within the music community.
This year, at the age of 17, I’m heading into my freshman year of college at a private school across the state where I don’t know anybody. Having tapped into my musical potential, I feel equipped to handle it, and reflecting on how much music has given me prompted me to spend one of my last weeks at home giving back to the organization that started it all: from July 31 to August 6, 2017, I had the opportunity to volunteer with GRA.
I worked as a bass instructor in the mornings, an assistant band coach in the afternoons, and a daily blogger in the evenings while doing anything I could in between to help camp run smoothly. I helped other volunteers move and set up gear, worked the front desk for sign-in and sign-out, supervised during workshops and free time, and even performed for the kids with a band comprised of GRA volunteers.
On Monday morning, we greeted our 18 campers — the biggest group we’ve ever had — and gathered in our main room to set the Group Agreements for the week. Not only do instructors work to empower kids of all identities, we also try to dismantle adult supremacy and challenge authoritarianism. For that reason, rather than establish arbitrary rules such as “raise your hand before you speak" or the dreaded “just be quiet," we prefer the kids work together to come up with agreements that they all feel will provide them with the best camp experience.
After we’d agreed on our ground rules, campers assembled for instrument instruction; they chose from guitar, keyboard, bass guitar, drums, and rap. This is the first year we have offered rap, which was part of our effort to make camp more welcoming towards different genres and tastes as well as expose campers to diverse cultures.
Then they headed for the first workshop of the week. Topics include body image and media literacy, the herstory of women who rock and rap, poetry and other creative outlets, gender roles, and other topics to advance a progressive society. They attended three poetry workshops, where they discussed not only the basics of the art but also the ways in which creative expression can provide an important outlet.
One of the highlights of the entire week was the three-day Hip Hop Workshop. Anti-discrimination activist, dancer, and community leader Mokah Jasmine Johnson, along with two students from her VIP (Virtuous Intelligent Phenomenal) Girlz Dance and Leadership Program, led the workshop and taught dance routines to the campers.
VIP Girlz’s messages also align with those of GRA; it’s “designed to develop future leaders by encouraging students to use their voices and/or their bodies to make a positive impact in society" with aims to “build self-confidence, encourage teamwork and … [help students] identify their purpose and develop lifelong skills needed to succeed in today’s society."
We started off Tuesday with a workshop called “Don’t Box Me In," which is more of a group conversation about what boys and girls are generally expected to consider “for boys" or “for girls" and why it’s okay to break out of that “box" we create for ourselves. What amazed me was how many of the kids already seem to be feminists. We asked them to gender certain activities in an attempt to dismantle what we assumed would be internalized gender roles, but they came back with shrugs and declarations that “they can do whatever they want."
Thursday morning opened with a workshop on body image and media literacy. Campers discussed how women are portrayed in advertisements, movies, and other media and thought about society’s expectations for how women and girls “should" look as well as why those expectations are generally extremely unrealistic. They also identified areas where different identities aren’t represented at all in media and society. One camper then started a hashtag campaign, #represent, and many of them participated to show what they want to see better represented in the media we consume:
Photos Credit: Daelynn White (Collage Credit: Emily Rose Thorne)
During lunch, some of the volunteers — myself included — performed for them. As a former camper, I remembered the bands that had played for us during my time there, and to be able to turn around and be one of these role models for the next generation of girls was an irreplaceable experience. I was following in the footsteps of the powerful women I’d once looked up to, sitting in those same seats.
Photos Credit: Girls Rock Athens (Collage Credit: Emily Rose Thorne)
Friday began with a punk rock aerobics workshop and later involved one called The Herstory of Women Who Rock and Rap. They discussed how the music industry is dominated by men and how there is an expectation that successful artists should have some kind of white, male presence.
They split into groups and chose some of their favorite non-male artists, looked up more information about them that they may not have known before, and shared with the rest of the group in an attempt to educate one another on female artists and to combat a) the way that the history we learn is saturated with mostly white, mostly male people and b) the way that the music scene in particular is dominated by mostly white, mostly male artists. Both are problems that lead to a lack of self-confidence in young folks who don’t have white or male identities, so by having this discussion we hoped to help the campers break through the social barriers of music and the world at large. Some favorite artists they picked were Lucinda Williams, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Auli’i Cravalho, Avril Lavigne, and Rihanna — as well as David Bowie, because, as one eleven-year-old pointed out, “he is considered androgynous, and he wore women’s clothes."
Girls Rock is founded on a set of goals that promote the advancement of a progressive, equal society. By engaging young people in conversations about social inequity and positive change as well as equipping them with creative outlets, we hope that they will come away from camp with a strong foundation for empathy, acceptance, and personal development as they grow up and make a mark on the world. It was an honor to work with an organization promoting these themes, especially after it had such a positive impact on me that still lingers after seven years.