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Perspectives on a global movement from Girls Rock Philly / by Grace Ambrose

Illustration by Supriya Gunda

It is 4:00 on a Wednesday afternoon at an art school in downtown Philly. I’m watching a newly formed rock band of young girls practice, when a call goes out over the counselors' walkie talkies. Down the hallway, DJ Crew ATM wants an audience for their set. After a quick band meeting, my campers decide they can spare the practice time to go dance, but just for a little bit. A few classrooms away, the soundtrack is cycling from "Cherry Bomb" to "We Are Never Getting Back Together" to the "Cha-Cha Slide" and back to Taylor, only this time it's "I Knew You Were Trouble When You Walked In." I am suddenly caught in the middle of a raucous dance party. And then just a few minutes later, it's back to practice – working on song lyrics, learning guitar chords. This is the third day of Girls Rock Philly, an annual weeklong summer camp, and there is a lot to be done before the week is through.

Girls Rock Philly is one of over fifty rock camps that make up an international movement of empowering girls through music. In addition to our summer programming, which is in its sixth year, we also offer year-round after school programming at our headquarters, which is home to two practice spaces, offices, a lending library, a craft room and lots and lots of musical instruments. But camp week is what we all look forward to most. This year, I was lucky enough to volunteer as a counselor and band coach, helping guide a group of thirteen and fourteen year old girls through the rollercoaster that is rock camp.

Rock camps worldwide share a basic structure: girls learn how to play an instrument, form bands, and perform original songs at a showcase at the end of the week. Campers arrive with various levels of experience and many have never touched their instrument before Monday morning, but by Saturday afternoon, they are playing in front of 700 screaming fans. What seems frightening to us is second nature to them. They succeed at playing music and making noise and taking up space because no one has ever told them that they aren't supposed to.

This year, for the first time, we had a camp theme: time travel. We looked to the the past, to the hidden histories of women in music and the events that helped shape who we are today. We looked at the present, at the ways in which we respond to the pressures that surround us. We looked to the future and imagined what future sounds might be and what future worlds might look like. Together, we built an alternate reality, a space where the rules were different from the everyday. 

Rock camp is not like the real world (but the real world should be more like rock camp). It is a place where campers, volunteers, and staff alike wear their preferred gender pronouns on their name tags, where young girls learn self-defense and how to practice self-care and hip-hop free styling, where rooms are named after notable feminists and musicians. On the first day, we gathered in a large black box theater in the university building that housed us and came up with a list of group agreements, an alternative to rules. The campers wrote a code of conduct together, which we referred to throughout the week, including my personal favorite, "be a croissant, not a bagel" (i.e. be open, not closed). On the last day, we sat in that black box theater again and asked each other to not let this alternate reality disappear. It was there that one camper said that returning to school was like returning to a "bagel shop."

I do not remember much about being a thirteen-year-old girl, but I do remember that feeling of isolation, of yearning for acceptance. I turned out alright without rock camp, but this past week made me wish more than ever that it had existed when I was growing up. The transformation in the girls throughout the week was remarkable. As one of my campers said, "I am naturally a defensive person. The world makes you have to be defensive. Halfway through the week, I realized that you don't have to be defensive here, that everything you do, mistakes included, is supported by us all." My heart broke and soared simultaneously.

Some of the most poignant moments of the week came in our "What is a Girl, anyway?" workshop where the campers discussed what society says a girl is and is not. The campers talked about how often the idea of the "right kind of girl" comes up, and how none of the 22 young folks sitting in the room, all of whom looked and acted differently, came close to meeting that standard. They told us how strangers on public transportation have told them, at age 12, to close their legs. They led a conversation about science and biology, about the idea of "insides and outsides" matching or not, about gender between your ears and sex between your legs. It was remarkable that these teenagers took the conversation to a place where trans* and genderqueer topics were included, but more remarkable than that was the way that they explained it to one another, free of judgment and full of patience. As a quiet observer in the back of the room, I suddenly felt hopeful for the future.

There were lots of moments of "posi-crying" at rock camp, but there were also the purely joyful parts: the dance parties and sing-alongs, the séance to summon the spirit of Amelia Earhart, the spontaneous renditions of the camp song in the hallways, and the mutinous chants of "skit, skit, skit" that came when the girls wanted the counselors to perform for them. I will never forget the smiles that spread across my campers' faces when they realized that they were going to make it through their song for the first time. Their band was called An Awful Lot of Running and they wrote a song about Dr. Who that sounds like the Wipers which I will put on every tape I make for the foreseeable future, and maybe forever. I love it so much.

Folks of all kinds come together to make rock camps happen, but the movement has its roots in DIY and punk, ways of life that also often purport to offer alternatives to reality. More often than not, however, they end up reinforcing and propping up the systems they claim to resist, just dressed in different clothes. At Girls Rock Philly, I saw the transformational potential of building a true alternate reality together. The question is, "how do we carry this new reality forward?" The lessons in my own life are innumerable. 

Looking more broadly, it is difficult to say how we will make the Girls Rock reality a more present one. The state of youth in the city of Philadelphia is dark. The last academic year ended with twenty-three of our public schools closing and it was just announced that the next may not begin on September 9th as scheduled due to a funding crisis. If they do open, it will be without counselors, aides, or any support staff, including music and art teachers. At the same time, we've just built a $400 million prison, an hour outside of our city. The smart, brave, curious young women that I met this week were a reminder of the need to reinvest in our youth, of the potential to help young folks resist oppression from a young age, of the possibility for our everyday reality to take a different shape and of the hard work that it will take to get us there. It will be worth it.

To find a rock camp near you, check out the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. There isn't a rock camp in your town? The GRCA conference always features a session on how to start your own. The 8th annual conference will be held in Philadelphia in Spring 2014. Come visit. You can sleep on Grace's floor.

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