A typical scene from a Girls Rock Camp goes something like this: a band of five young girls stand in rocker poses holding their guitars and drumsticks and giving attitude to the camera for their official band picture. They look like seasoned rock stars but in actuality started playing their instruments only a few days ago and in 24 hours will be playing their first ever concert in front of upwards of 100 family members and friends.
This is a snapshot of the incredible experience that Girls Rock Camps provide cis, trans and gender non-conforming girls ages 8-18 of any culture, ability, musical tastes, experience, and economic background.
The first Girls Rock Camp was started as a day camp in 2001 by a Portland State University student; since then Girls Rock Camps have flourished from a single program into a movement with unbelievable momentum, with an impressive number of camps across the U.S., Canada, Europe, and South America. Camps operate across Canada in Toronto, Mississauga, Kitchener, Peterborough, Ottawa, Montreal, and Vancouver, with additional camps planned to start soon in other cities.
For the most part, Girls Rock Camps are run by communities of dedicated volunteers that include women (cis, trans, and gender non-conforming) who are professional musicians, social workers, teachers, lawyers, designers, marketing professionals, and more. Volunteers act as mentors and work with girls through instrument instruction sessions, as band coaches, and workshop leaders.
Some camps also invite involvement from male-identified allies in non-leadership volunteer roles, who recognize the importance of leadership by women in this space. Additionally, a conscious effort is made to keep costs to campers and their families as low as possible, with scholarships and financial aid available to further increase the accessibility of these programs.
The mission of Girls Rock Camps is to build girls’ self-esteem through creative expression while encouraging them to believe in and assert their own power, agency, and build meaningful connections with each other. These programs build supportive musical communities where girls are mentored by women musicians in spaces that value diversity and promote respect for all. Though “rock” is in the title of the camps, girls with any and all musical tastes are encouraged to attend and explore any style of music that appeals to them.
Overall, these camps aim to amplify the voices of young women with an eye towards facilitating positive social change. These spaces run counter to a culture in which girls are pushed to tear each other down, and instead teach girls to understand discrimination they may face and learn constructive ways of responding to it in their own lives.
In addition to technical musical skills, girls can take workshops on topics like media literacy to build critical thinking skills in addition to confidence and creative expression. Girls Rock Camps help girls to develop, hold onto, and assert in their own voices in a world that systematically silences the voices of young girls as they grow up.
As a volunteer organizer of the Girls Rock Weekend program through the Kitchener YWCA, it was so rewarding to see the incredible amount of learning, teamwork, and musical creation that can happen for the girls in such a short amount of time. The girls even seemed to surprise themselves with how much they could accomplish in just the span of one weekend or one week.
Building on programming for girls, Ladies Rock Camps represent the next evolution of rock camp programming. The movement has recognized that many women are also hungry for safe spaces for creative expression and to connect with others who share similar passions for music and positive social change. As an attendee of Ladies Rock Camp in New York City in 2011, I can vouch for the powerful impact of these camps.
The experiences I have had and the connections I have formed with other musicians through these programs are immeasurable. Having that extra push and encouragement to write and learn songs, perform, and be exposed to incredible women musicians I would not have otherwise has irreversibly changed my perception of my own creative capacities. These experiences run counter to a larger culture where women’s musical contributions (particularly women of colour) often go unrecognized or are under valued in favour of their white male peers, and where in certain genres women have a tough time finding role models or getting a start as a career musician at all.
To learn more about Girls Rock Camps, see Girls Rock! The Movie, a 2008 documentary that follows four girls through their experiences at rock camp. To see if a Girls and/or Ladies Rock Camp exists in your city, see the Girls Rock Camp Alliance for registered camps who are looking for volunteers and aspiring musicians.