.Summer camp can be one of fondest memories from childhood, where we make lifelong friends, learn new skills, and have experiences that help define ourselves. Girls Rock DC combines all of these through its summer music program. For the past 10 years, Girls Rock DC has been on a mission to empower young girls, gender-non conforming and trans youth aged 8 to 18 through music instruction. In a week long program, camp participants are taught how to play instruments, attend workshops, form a band, and perform an original song or musical impression at the 9:30 club to exhibit their new skills. The 2017 Showcase next will occur tomorrow, Saturday July 1st.
A Woman’s Bridge was fortunate enough to speak with Katie Beckman-Gotrich, communications committee member and volunteer, and Annie Lipsitz, one of the founding members of the organization, during this year’s camp session.
This week, Girls Rock DC is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Can you go into detail about how the DC branch of Girls Rock was founded? How has the program grown over the years?
K: There are four founding members that are still a part of the leadership team Jen Fox-Thomas, Tiik Pollet, Shelly Rush, and Annie Lipsitz. Almost all of the founders come from an community organizing or education background. The whole founding of Girls Rock DC is from a feminist slant,[and] in this moment we are very much focused on inclusion. All movements are tied together.
I’m very excited to see people who look like our campers showing up to volunteer today. It’s a very diverse group. We’ve always had diversity of various sorts but this year you can feel the difference. We meet as a team for a morning meetings, then an afternoon meeting when all the kids are in assembly, and then after the kids go home in the evenings. We have some great conversations about how we conduct our camp and having those diverse voices are so vital.
A: Our first camp was the summer of 2008. The organization was founded in October 2007.
I’ve been on the leadership team for 9 ½ years. I also do a lot of our fundraising for grants, financial donors, and benefit events. At camp, I’m a band coach though I don’t have much musical experience. We’ve made space for folks who don’t have musical experience to play that role and be involved.
Your mission statement says that the camp provides a supportive space for all girls regardless of socio-economic class, race, gender identity, or sexual orientation, to become self-empowered while learning about music. Can you give examples of how girls are taught these skills and given an inclusive space?
K: On the first day of camp, during their first assembly, there’s a list of non-negotiables. These are our values and the youth add on to the lists. [It’s] a guideline of how they’ll treat each other and what’s important to them to feel represented. To me, I feel honored that they share that their name has changed, that their pronoun has changed. I guess to me honored is the best way to phrase it.
The other things that we do at camp is show that there is support. If somebody needs a quiet space or a personal space there is a place for that. There’s also a volunteer counselor who is trained and a nurse. So we can be amenable to all sorts of needs and there’s the proper support to have space and feel things without feeling ostracized.
A: Over the last couple of years we have started asking volunteers and campers which pronouns they like to use and also if they have a preferred name that maybe isn’t their legal name or the name they go by at school. We’ve always asked that but this is the first time we’ve put their pronouns and preferred names on their name tags. We’ve done a lot, starting on day one, introducing what a gender pronoun is, why it’s important to ask people what their pronouns are, and not to make assumptions about that, and to ask people what they want to be called. That, I think, has taken root with a lot of the campers. It’s also been really important with a lot of our campers, some of whom are returning using different names or pronouns than they used last year.
It’s really important introducing kids to more than two options as to what a gender identity can be or what a pronoun can be. Even though we introduce it on the first day of camp, we constantly reinforce it at the beginning of workshops and with name tags. We’re in a school that is lending us space, so the multi-stall bathrooms are labeled boys and girls. Maybe you saw the Gender Liberated bathroom [signs]. Then there are single stall bathrooms for folks who don’t want to use a Gender Liberated bathroom, but we didn’t want to have that separation between only boys and girls which is really uncomfortable because a lot of our kids and volunteers don’t necessarily fit into that binary. Those are a couple things that we’ve done.
What are do you hope your campers will learn from this experience? What values do you hope campers will walk away with after camp ends?
K: Our hopes for our campers are that they feel comfortable being themselves. I’m an educator [and] I taught ESOL for adults. The biggest barrier when trying to help someone learn is fear. Once you create a safe space where they [are not] afraid, [even though] there can be a lot of stuff that’s happening in their life, when they enter that community space, if they feel safe, anything can happen. I’d say our hope is that they still feel that community support after camp. Once they’ve tapped into who they really are, they don’t want to stop and they’re going to tell people about it. They want to keep being who they are, they want to be inclusive [community with] other people. And that’s incredible, because then their talents are going to shine. They excel. So our hope is that we’re changing the world through these youths.
A: We have year-round programming. Summer camp is our biggest program and definitely how the organization was founded, but we have an afterschool program, GR!ASP, that was running at two schools in DC last year. We have our adult camp which won’t be until 2018 next year, called We Rock! Camp. After this [summer] camp we have a lot of organizational work to do, right now we’re primarily run by volunteers. I think we still have some visioning and mission building to continue this social justice thread, to continue with this equity, inclusion, and value based work we’ve engaged in over the last couple of years. We take a little bit of a break in the fall but it’s time to regroup and reground ourselves in our mission, our values, and our principles to see how we can continuously connect with our campers from the summer and how to build our organizational structure in a more sustainable addition.
How do you think camps like this one will impact the music industry?
K: I think a large part of it is taking up space so that they will feel comfortable about making choices and not being differential. I think they’re going to make their own choices about what they consume, whether it’s musical media or media-media. By being themselves, they’re going to take more ownership of their choices, whether it’s relationships, consumerism or learning.
One of our volunteers is going to WAMU and is a former camper. That’s part of the beauty of this is that we bring people who are different together to be inclusive and then they take that back out into the world. All these kids do amazing things with their instruments in this very short time and then they don’t have to be afraid of other things. Hopefully this diminishes their fears of trying other things like math, science or art. You can do a lot from where you are by being who you are more honestly and openly.
Tell me about the showcase. What have the campers been working on?
K: So the campers have been working on their songs, or musical expressions. They get 5 minutes and can do pretty much whatever they want. Our job is to just facilitate the creativity. Sometimes they perform more than one song. They’ve been working on their instrument and getting tight with their band or DJ crew.
What changes have you seen over the years?
A: Even just in the past year or two has put in some very concrete things, like messages about equality and equity. We changed our mission statement to include not only girls, but also gender-non-conforming, gender non-binary, and trans-youth, and we added some additional language [about] accepting people from all diverse backgrounds, racial, ethnic, social economic, all-across the board.
Last year we committed to offering stipends to all of our volunteers, which we’ve never done before. We saw that as a really big step to making our camp more accessible to a wide and diverse range of folks who can offer their skills, talent, time, energy, expertise, and spirit to the camp, our programing and especially also to our youth. It’s been a really huge goal of ours to continuously offer and provide our kids with youthful and relevant role models. Since day one we’ve been saying that, and I think in the past year, year and a half, we’ve done a lot of really concrete things to make that more possible for them to see themselves reflected in the people here at camp.
Tickets for the 2017 Camper Showcase can be purchased here. The camper showcase is on Saturday, July 1st at the9:30 Club. Doors open at 10:30am.
To volunteer or donate to Girls Rock DC or any of the other programs, please visit the organization’s homepage.
By Jessica Flores