The first thing I did when I walked into Girls Rock camp was visit the restroom where I was greeted with my first tearful moment of the day. Plastered alongside the oft-dreaded mirrors were messages of self-acceptance and body positivity urging me to “Just be you.” I looked in the mirror and I knew that any insecurities I walked in with today, if only for a short eight hours, could fall away. I never once felt like I existed outside the community that these powerful women and growing girls have created and nurtured. I was welcomed and literally embraced upon arrival.To paraphrase camp counselor Ashleigh Lancaster’s words, it was the “safest space I’ve ever been.” Everyone in the GRC community enters into an agreement to, though at times difficult, refrain from using compliments for one another that focus on physical appearance or material things. All compliments are thoughtful observations of character and every workshop and activity strives to build the girls up from the inside out. It’s hard to nail down why this feels like such a revolutionary task, but when you watch it happening there’s no doubt that revolution is in the air.
When the campers arrived, they responded quickly and eagerly to the familiar call from camp director Mollie Williamson, “CLAP ONCE IF YOU CAN HEAR ME.” We assembled, hand in hand, into a power circle where we went around the massive room, one by one, and took turns screaming as loud as we wished. It was more than an icebreaker. It felt like an initial release of all the strains of the world that we face outside of camp. Girls Rock is another world you step into. With our hands clasped we followed counselor Mila Burgess-Conway in a chant of a quote from Assata Shakur: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains,” again and again until we were shouting it at the top of our lungs. Self-confidence and power lived in that room.
Following the morning assembly, the campers broke up into their groups to attend workshops and instrument practice. I sat in on the bass and guitar instruction and was heartened to find that campers of all ages worked together to help one another learn. The instructors gave them the basic tools to create music and then encouraged them to add their own creative spin. Everyone seemed so eager to learn and rarely did they seem discouraged. Learning a new instrument is hard work and these kids just took it in stride. The focus was not on the music but on the teamwork. It wasn’t about the intricacies of the F chord. It was about asking, “How are you going to use what you’ve learned here to go out there and ROCK?” And certainly, going into individual band practice later in the day, you could see the interpersonal struggles that will inevitably arise given the task of coming together to compose a song. But it seems that in those moments, when emotions were high (and Katie Chatman pointed out to me, “It’s Wednesday. Everyone cries on Wednesday.”) this is when the message of Girls Rock really rang truest. The struggles of the world outside, dealing with others who don’t necessarily agree with you, who don’t see the world as you do, does not take away your ability to react with strength and grace. The posters on the wall reminded the women and girls, “Do not make assumptions. Be kind. Use your words. Have fun.” There is always common ground and Girls Rock is giving these girls the tools to find it.
I spoke with campers, some of whom were new to Girls Rock, some of whom were on their second or third year at camp. The resounding answer I got from every girl I asked, “What is your favorite thing about Girls Rock camp?” was “Meeting my new friends.” It was palpable and contagious. I sat down on the floor of the commons room during snack break with a group of 16 year old girls under the supervision of Lyla Schlon. Their band is called The Diabolical Barbies. I asked each of them what this experience means to them and why it works so well. One of them, Anna, told me that GRC teaches her confidence and how proud she is to see her niece’s confidence building too in one of the younger bands: “My favorite thing is seeing shyness here rock out!” She went on to say that she felt “music is one of the strongest weapons and one of the strongest medicines.” Her bandmate Mai agreed, saying GRC worked so well and felt so good because “everyone here has a singular goal.”
It was a really, really busy day. A deceptively exhausting day filled with coffee. I felt the way one feels when they exercise for the first time in a long time, using muscles they didn’t even know were there, except I was using my heart in ways I had let myself forget to. In a moment of reflection, while deconstructing and subverting fashion magazines to create positive art and expose stereotypes, I asked, rather cynically, of some of the counselors, “But don’t you just get really depressed when this is all over?” Because really, the place is magic. In that space exists all the things we work so hard to create and see in our lives, but made easier by the power of positive, like-minded individuals. And I received a knowing nod, but Kristi Schrader put things into perspective in a reflection of her own time at camp growing up. “It changed my life,” she said. As she struggled through the trials of the school year, the judgment the world will put on us and the judgment we’ll put on ourselves she always knew “camp would be there for me. And because of that it’s all going to be okay.”
Come to the showcase on Saturday at 3 pm at the Columbia Museum of Art. I promise you that the contagious spirit bursting from the young women on stage will astound you. I promise you won’t leave unmoved. I urge you to take what you learn there and spread it out in your life as much as possible. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
by Brittany Braddock