My hometown of Athens, Georgia, a blue dot amidst a sea of statewide conservatism, attracts attention for more than University of Georgia football — music is just as big here. Nationally-recognized names such as the B-52’s, REM, the Drive-by Truckers, of Montreal, Kishi Bashi, Monsoon, and Modern Skirts all call Athens home.
Girls Rock Camp Athens (GRA), a local nonprofit, combines the progressive environment of the Classic City with the vibrant music scene to offer several programs throughout the year that aim to empower female, transgender, and non-binary people by teaching self-expression and leadership, especially through music. Girls Rock Camps are international, but each exists as its own, separate organization.
I participated in GRA as a camper for 3 years, and this summer will volunteer with them for the second time as a bass instructor and band coach. I interviewed Executive Director Jennifer Weishaupt over email about the organization, focusing on feminism, gender fluidity, and self-esteem.
Emily Rose Thorne: To start, could you just give an overview of what happens during a session of Girls Rock Athens (GRA) and Ladies Rock Camp so readers can have some context for the next questions?
Jennifer Weishaupt: Girls Rock Camp is a week-long day camp that welcomes girls, transgender, and non-binary youth ages 9-15. Campers receive instrument instruction, form bands together, practice together, create their own band logos and perform together at the end of the week for the community at a music venue. Throughout the week, we also provide workshops that are fun and empowering.
A typical camp week looks like this: The participants pick an instrument. On the first morning, we set group agreements for the camp. This is when the participants create the rules for the week. We let them know this is their camp and it is important they make the camp what they want and need it to be. We let them know we want them to be heard and to express themselves. They often actually try to make much stricter rules for themselves than we would suggest. They think raising their hand and being quiet is important because it is what they are used to in other settings. We let them know that we are open to much more if it is done respectfully in consideration of their peers and the people giving their time to help them make camp a great experience.
Other mornings we do a group activity together, whether icebreakers, punk rock aerobics, or analyzing a music video. The participants then go to instrument instruction where they break up by the instruments they have chosen to play. Throughout the day we have a number of workshops and then, at the end of the day, the kids have band practice together. After a week of this, they play a show for the public on the Saturday following the week of camp.
Ladies Rock Camp is a condensed three-day version of the youth camp for adults. This camp is run completely by volunteers and functions as both programming and a fundraiser.
ERT: What do the workshops focus on? Some subjects GRA stands for could be touchy for young kids, so what is included, left out or approached delicately?
JW: We try to facilitate workshops and let the kids lead any discussion. Our workshops have included topics like Self Defense, Healthy Relationships, Body Image and Media Literacy, Stage Presence, Hip Hop Elements, DIY Merch (where the participants create logos for their bands and then screen print them onto shirts or patches) and more.
Workshops are generally focused on empowerment. I would say the core component to all of the workshops is allowing the campers space to realize that they are brave, smart, and capable. Basically, the goal is for them to see that they are worthy just by being themselves. We strive to provide our campers with opportunities to strengthen their self-confidence — whether through leadership, teamwork, experiencing both success and failure in a supportive environment, or educating themselves and each other through facilitated discussions.
We implicitly touch on the topic of gender identity and expression just through the concept that we exist to give kids a separate space to be themselves outside of how they are sometimes expected to be in everyday society. Growing up, treated with the expectations placed on a girl in my time, it never occurred to me that I could start a band with my friends. I thought I could be a pop singer, but never that we could get together and get loud, play instruments, and express ourselves freely. This separate space allows the campers to explore doing something that they aren’t necessarily usually encouraged to do without the distraction of gender expectation. We hope the realization that they can be loud and express themselves by creating music with their peers transfers over to other areas of their lives and they realize they can do anything without gender-based limitations.
Explicitly, we may have conversations where we discuss the way ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are perceived in society by talking about the perceptions of “what boys do” and “what girls do.” For example; asking “what sports do boys play?” Stereotypical answers would include “basketball” or “football,” but we would then ask “do you think girls shouldn’t be allowed to play those sports at all then?” to which most would answer, “of course they should be allowed to play!” So, basically, we would discuss not putting ourselves and each other into these boxes.
We hope that if we can facilitate self-confidence in an atmosphere that requires teamwork, that that love for oneself grows into a love for each other.
We hope through this experience they learn patience with themselves and each other. We hope to inspire thoughts such as “I’m worthy as I am and so everyone else is worthy the way they are as well!”
ERT: It’s great to see that GRA’s mission has expanded to include transgender and non-binary people along with women and girls. What influenced the decision to include these gender identities explicitly on your website?
JW: First of all, whether everyone likes it or not, many people identify on or outside of a spectrum of gender. It is exactly because some people do not support this that we find it important to explicitly invite transgender and non-binary folks to our programming. We do not want a person who identifies with a marginalized gender to wonder if they are welcome or not. We have heard of groups who claim they are inclusive only to actually end up rejecting people based on their identities. We knew that we had to explicitly invite transgender and non-binary individuals instead of using blanket statements of inclusivity because those general statements have been proven to be untrustworthy to the transgender community by other organizations and groups.
Secondly, as Girls Rock camps started out with missions to serve girls specifically due to their marginalization in society, it has made sense to our camp to expand our mission to serve all marginalized genders. They all benefit from this camp for the exact same reasons it was previously understood girls benefit from this camp. It is a place and time outside of the everyday to be yourself without expectations.
ERT: How does gender or gender fluidity affect camp, your life personally and/or social and political environments? Similarly, what about sexual orientation?
JW: These topics affect all of our lives. There may be some people who think it does not. I think of people whom, I am sure, think they do not know anyone whose identity is within the LGTBQ community, and I am sad to know these people think that because no one in their lives has trusted them to let them know or see that part of their life.
ERT: Your website describes camp as being “intersectional-feminist based.” How do you personally, or GRA as an organization, define feminism?
JW: We, as an organization, want to be conscious of intersecting identities within feminism. I define feminism as fighting for the liberation of all people of marginalized genders and taking the intersecting identities of those people into consideration in seeking that liberation. This term, intersectionality, was introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw. I think it is important — as an able-bodied, white person, who is usually perceived by strangers and acquaintances as cis and straight — to think outside of myself and my own problems. I try to read writings by and listen to people of color, LGTBQ folks, people with disabilities, and anyone else with a perspective outside of mine or outside of those in power.
I do not believe that anyone will be liberated until we all are, and this is because people of marginalized genders are comprised of these other identities as well. You cannot fight for ALL women without fighting for women of color, women with disabilities, women in poverty. You cannot fight for ALL women if you exclude trans women, as they are women. We can not fight for gender and sexuality based liberation if we do not fight for people of color and folks with disabilities because LGBTQ folks include these identities.
No group that needs liberation is “cookie-cutter.” These identities overlap/intersect with each other, and that needs to be considered when addressing the liberation of any one oppressed identity group for true liberation.
ERT: Why is it important to instill feminism and female empowerment in young people?
JW: “Young people” as a group, like any other age, have intersecting identities and so this definition of feminism will naturally be a part of their lives. There is a commonly known study about girls losing confidence in themselves around the age of nine. Lately, there are articles going around that it may begin to happen as young as six. The empowering experiences we are trying to enable at camp is our work to battle this loss of confidence in youth participants.
ERT: What has been the most rewarding/enriching part of GRA to you?
JW: Seeing the change in the campers in just one week. Many come in quiet and shy and by the end are comfortable sharing their creativity and their ideas. Knowing the experiences at camp are lasting and impact their lives, the things they will do, and the way they will treat themselves and others by the end of that week and on into the future is the most rewarding part to me.
ERT: What do you hope these programs will bring to the individuals involved and/or to our community?
JW: Even if a camper does not want to be a musician someday, the experience of learning an instrument, being part of a band, being on stage in public, and participating in the workshops create a number of opportunities for empowerment. Personally, I am grateful for the opportunity to teach kids to deal with failure or being shy and unsure in a safe environment. This has always been the thing I am most proud of: encouraging kids to overcome their reservations about putting themselves out there and then understanding once they do, it doesn’t always go the way they want it to and that is OKAY. They survive and they try again. They fail in an environment that doesn’t shame them out of ever trying again… It is more than OK, we will celebrate our accomplishments of what we have learned and how we have grown over the time of camp. We will celebrate our self-expression, our bravery, and our hard work. This lesson is transferable to anything the campers go on to do. Living that lesson over and over is empowerment.
The campers go on to realize they have the right to be at the level of musicianship they are at any given time, and that transfers over to understanding that they have the right to be who they are at any given point in time. That they can be proud and confident and open to continuing to learn and participate no matter what the focus or environment.
ERT: What ideas do you hope to put in motion in GRA’s future?
JW: This year we have started looking at adding other programming, including February’s Uke Rock series, where participants met weekly for two hours and built their own ukeleles that they then learned to play. We also have recently adopted the VIP Girlz Dance and Leadership Program that had existed in Athens previously. It remains under the direction of local activist and leader, Mokah Johnson, but is supported by Girls Rock Athens. We also started a Girls Rock Athens Youth Board this year with older teen campers who have aged out of the programming. The goal is to let them run their own programming, and they just recently produced a showcase of their peers. Their current goal is to promote and encourage their fellow young musicians.
We have a number of ideas of other programming we would like to do. This includes other themed series, adding a second week of camp, doing genre specific programming, and eventually doing after school and weekend programs.
ERT: Is there anything else you want to mention about any of these topics?
JW: It is very important to me to mention to readers that these things I have said are not at all my unique ideas. These ideas I’ve mentioned about identity and liberation are based on things that I have read. These ideas come from a long line of feminists, especially feminists of color, and are available in their books, articles and blog posts. I am so thankful for their work and its influence on the world. If you are reading this online, you can search for feminist writers very easily right now, and I think you should! Your life and our world will be forever changed with each piece read.
I am fortunate to benefit from my fellow members of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance, an organization that organizes a yearly conference for all member camps from all over the world to attend and to share experiences, ideas, and information. The alliance is a major factor in my awareness and commitment to continually educate myself by seeking out thoughts and opinions and work by people who are different than myself or have different ideas than myself. I get to experience it in person at the conference and then go home and keep working and learning.
Click here to learn more about the Girls Rock Camp Alliance and look for (or start!) a chapter in your area.
For more information about Girls Rock Athens, click here.
*Responses have been lightly edited.