Indies Arts Awards: Girls Rock NC shifts the rock band dialogue, one summer camp at a time | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Indies Arts Awards: Girls Rock NC shifts the rock band dialogue, one summer camp at a time 

Whether you're at a benefit for Girls Rock NC, one of its summer camps or a showcase for the bands that form during those weeklong programs, don't be surprised to hear shouting.

"Hey girl, what's your instrument?" someone will yell.

Invariably, instantly, the crowd hollers: "It's my voice!"

Since its 2004 inception in Chapel Hill, Girls Rock NC has functioned nominally as a music camp for girls between the ages of 7 and 16. The local wing is part of the large Girls Rock Camp Alliance, which includes camps in Iceland, Brazil, London, plus dozens more across the United States. Co-founder Amelia Shull estimates that 1,200 area girls have participated in the program during the last decade. No musical experience is necessary, but by the end of each camp, organizers have sorted the girls into separate bands. They learn to play an instrument and, collectively, write their band's first song.

But that's only the surface lesson of Girls Rock NC, the sales pitch. The ethos at the organization's core is a message of empowerment and confidence, meant to challenge a culture where women are told how to behave. Sure, some girls learn to sing at camp, but the goal is for all of them to become comfortable raising their voices as young women.

In the decade since its first week of summer camp in Chapel Hill, the organization has expanded to include events in Durham and Raleigh, after-school programming and a women's rock retreat weekend for those older than 21. At the start, logistics were the real challenge: Where could they find the space that wouldn't mind hosting a noisy rock 'n' roll camp, let alone enough room for the sheer amount of gear necessary for several electrified rock bands to function simultaneously? As the organization has evolved, so have those hurdles.

"Now that we are larger, or we have more to organize in terms of the logistics, there's a very real way that we need more community support in order to stay afloat," Shull says. "It takes a different structure than just one person's idea for 12 kids."

Even after a decade, fundraising and finances remain a constant struggle for the homegrown program. In late October, for instance, the IRS informed Girls Rock NC that their nonprofit status had been revoked because they didn't file proper tax paperwork. They quickly informed their donor base of the change and have hired an accountant and attorney to correct the problem. But that will cost them money they had planned to put toward programming.

The setback hasn't curbed Girls Rock's ambitions. They hope to expand the organization's financial and racial diversity, to reach girls well outside of mainstream, middle-class families. Heather McEntire, one of Girls Rock's two new full-time staff members, works as director of outreach and development. She says that reaching new corners of communities is an important if overlooked component of the organization's social justice crusade. McEntire, who leads the band Mount Moriah, played a few songs for campers during a lunch break six years ago. She stuck around, and she wants to find ways for the most at-risk girls to have that opportunity.

"I look at the girls that I teach, and I think about myself when I was that age. I was so lost and so scared of the world," she says. "I was clueless about my voice."

In the camps themselves, workshops tackle topics like body confidence and the history of women in music. There are more implicit lessons, too, like the notion that people who aren't men can be inspiring, successful leaders. Only women or gender-nonconforming instructors engage directly with the students. Men can enlist for behind-the-scenes positions, but Girls Rock wants to demonstrate more than declare.

"We try so much to work as a collective that shows the girls how to work together," Shull says. "But we need them to see women in positions of authority and in positions where they have responsibilities and people listen to them."

Georgia Young—a junior at Carolina Friends School, where Shull teaches visual art—never went to a Girls Rock camp, but she's become a volunteer. Even that position has taught her to be more comfortable with herself. Young notes that Girls Rock instills such positivity even in its smallest participants.

"The confidence that it teaches girls at such a young age is really important," she says. "As they grow up, that confidence that they learned at the camp stays with them."

In fact, in teaching the students, McEntire is even reminded of important concepts that she carries into her own life and rehearsal rooms.

"I have changed from the bravery of those girls that I teach. Collaboration teaches us a lot about ourselves and a lot about how the world works," McEntire says. "I find myself going back to some of the things I would tell my girls about sharing and listening, and I apply that to my adult bands."

So what happens when the girls leave camp and then high school, when they become women? Shull says that every summer, at least one girl per session continues playing the instrument after the week's showcase ends. Girls Rock constantly receives follow-ups about people who kept playing music for years after the camp. Hannah James, one of the earliest graduates, is now 21. She lives in Asheville, where she is the volunteer coordinator for that city's new Girls Rock outpost. Her three younger sisters have since attended camp, too.

"There's something very special about fighting for your own equality and knowing that you are completely in the right," McEntire says. "You have this power with numbers to really transform an issue and transform minds."

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