Maybe you’ve never even held an instrument before. When you show up to a Girls Rock! DC afterschool workshop or summer camp, we will put one in your hand. You’ll learn bass, guitar, keyboard, drums, or the power of your own vocals. We’ll put you in a band with four other musicians who may or may not have ever played their instruments either. By the end of the week, you will have written, recorded, and performed a song on stage together.
When young people come to Girls Rock! DC, they learn not only what amazing things they are capable of on their own, but also how to channel that energy, passion, and skill into creative collaboration and community activism. We bring youth together from different schools across all eight wards of the District. We intentionally center and uplift students who are Black or brown; native Washingtonians; female, transgender, or gender non-conforming; or who live in wards east of the river. We are not just limited to girls, but welcome all young folks ages 8 to 18.
We’re a community that values what people bring to the table as their whole selves. Both youth participants and adult volunteers describe the space we create as magical and sheltered from the outside world. At Girls Rock! DC, people can live in their identities in a way they might not be able to at school or with their families. Girls Rock! DC can make a musician out of anyone, but more importantly we nurture confident, creative human beings.
Our volunteer instructors meet each young person where they are, whether they have no musical experience, a little musical expertise, or have played for years. Each day participants receive lessons, focusing on building confidence and enthusiasm rather than technical skills. We want everyone to make some sound with their instrument to contribute to their band’s performance. Later, young people join their bands and a band coach for the process of collaborative songwriting. The coach teaches musicians how to work through conflict, make decisions by consensus, and share their musical visions to create something together.
After each session, we offer participants the chance to buy their instruments at low cost–or occasionally no cost–if they want to continue learning. Our community includes great instructors who provide private lessons at low cost. Many campers play music year-round and return to camp to share their music, or expand their horizons with a new instrument.
The arts and activism are inextricably linked at Girls Rock! DC. In addition to working with musicians, our young people meet local activists. In our justice workshops organizers and advocates working in our community, young people explore racial equity, food justice, transit justice, the labor movement, and more. Young people can dream big about what they would like their city to become and discover what they can do right now to make a difference. Our partners in social justice include The Mutual Aid Movement DC, DC | Byp100, Sunrise DC, and the DC Labor Chorus. Music is the vehicle we use with our young people, but the real goal is to help them find ways to express themselves and their feelings about and hopes for their community and the world around them.
Origin Story and Opportunities for Growth
The original Girls Rock! camp started in Portland, Oregon, and the movement spread across the country. Now our programs are all different, although we are connected by a national network. Girls Rock! DC was founded a decade ago by a group of educators, musicians, and community members who wanted to create the opportunity for young people to express themselves in music in a community of like-minded people.
When I moved to DC, I wanted to meet people, get involved, and play music. I joined a program called Hat Band, where anyone–regardless of musical ability–threw their name in a hat and were instantly in a band. When we performed, I discovered it was a benefit for Girls Rock! DC and I signed up to become a volunteer. When the organization hired staff, I was the first one hired.
Only two of us make up the staff, and we’re both part-time. We have a team of independent contractors and volunteers. Our tuition is based on a radical sliding scale, which goes down to zero. Basically it’s pay what you can, anywhere from nothing to the full cost plus a donation that enables other young people to attend. With more funding, we would hire more full-time staff to grow the organization. It’s important to fairly compensate people who are doing the work.
Girls Rock! DC also runs a weekend version of our camp for adults, which includes the same activities as young people do, and serves as a kind of retreat for adult musicians. Our adult band camp is integral to bringing new volunteers and young campers into our community.
COVID Challenges and Silver Linings
Pre-pandemic, our summer camps included about 60 participants. Then during the pandemic when we offered online camp, that dropped to 26 participants per summer. On the other hand, our afterschool participation increased from 14 young people per session before the pandemic to 21 per session during the pandemic. We’ve been operating virtually since the pandemic started, but we’re planning to run our summer camps in person this year. We often use practice and community space at Seven Drum City, which provides equipment for us and includes a performance space. We’ve held programs at various schools and we’re currently talking with the DC Department of Parks and Recreation to see if we can use recreation center space this summer.
There’s a lot that’s still in flux because of the pandemic, but there have been some positive innovations over the past two years. We’ve connected with new networks, such as the DC OST Coalition, and strengthened connections with community partners. We’ve added new tools and resources. In the past, the flow of our instruction culminated in live performances on stage. It’s beautiful to see an eight-year-old with a guitar as big as them take the stage at the 9:30 Club. But when that wasn’t possible, we shifted to a focus on recording and mixing. Using a program called Soundtrap, kids can collaborate virtually. They record tracks, drop them in, and add effects and loops to create a song. Adding that area of learning has been valuable to create something more long lasting for the young people.