Creating Rooms of Our Own: Women Writers at Work at Girls Write Now

Ninety years ago, Virginia Woolf spoke to the young women of Girton and Newnham colleges in England on what women needed in order to become writers. These talks were to become her famous feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own, and in them Woolf explained why there were so few great women writers, why Shakespeare could not have been Shakespeare had he been born a woman: “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” She was speaking of the importance of predecessors. It is hard to become a woman writer, she argued, if few have gone before. The lack of successful models demoralizes and dissuades.
In the intervening decades, women have excelled in many realms once off-limits, and many more dazzling female literary models have made themselves known—from Flannery O’Connor to Zadie Smith, Joan Didion to Jhumpa Lahiri.
Still, in this season of great hope and change, we have also witnessed staggering sexism and the status quo. Pollsters worried over so-called Bradley effects, but more amazing than this breed of covert racism, is the way in which, culturally, we feel no need to cover over gender biases. It seems it’s not embarrassing to be sexist: voters unabashedly told news sources during the primaries that they were not sure they’d be comfortable with a woman as their Commander in Chief. These biases are visible in the hallowed halls of all our highest offices. In 2007, only 86 of the 535 seats in Congress were held by women—a mere 16.3%.
Such dismal percentages permeate the culture well beyond politics. We see similar figures throughout the media landscape. A 2007 study found that only 15% of behind-the-scenes talent (directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors) on top grossing films in the U.S. were women, and the number has in fact decreased in the last ten years. The White House Project, an organization devoted to increasing the number of women in positions of leadership, reports that in 2005 women accounted for just 14% of guest appearances on the Sunday morning television talk shows. The table of contents of our most revered magazines and journals bear the names of fewer women than men. According to Editor & Publisher, 2007 saw a 0.1% gain in the number of women opinion columnists at the eight largest syndicates—from 24.4 to 24.5%.
Media, then, clearly reflects and perpetuates the inequality of opportunity for women in this country, and the lack of successful women role models no doubt demoralizes our young girls as much as it did in Woolf’s day. But youth media organizations are uniquely poised to serve as a corrective to that inequality. Not only can youth media offer girls the opportunity to thrive as creative and flexible thinkers, and in so doing train them to be our future leaders. We can also provide them with the successful role models they cannot find elsewhere.
Training the Next Generation of Thinkers and Leaders
In “What Feminism Means to Me,” essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick explains the epiphany delivered to her at the hands of “women’s libbers” of the ’70s: “The lifelong inability to take myself seriously as a worker: this was the central dilemma of a woman’s existence.” This central dilemma persists today, and millions of cracks in the glass ceiling aside, there is an urgent need now, as then, for girls to see themselves as thinkers and workers, valued for the quality of their intellect.
As those who work in media, we know it is about making. This act of creation is inherently empowering—by making media, young people learn the tools and the hunger to make something of their lives. It falls to youth media organizations to make our next generation of media makers a more fair and accurate reflection of our 21st-Century world. Girls Write Now (GWN), a small and burgeoning non-profit mentoring organization, is one potent example of the role youth media can play in that kind of change. GWN pairs teenage girls from New York City’s schools with professional women in writing-related fields, and with an age range of 14 to 80, the women of our community come together as working writers with the purpose of sharing their work, and growing as workers.
Through the program, pairs meet once a week, developing both their writing and the bonds between them, and the whole community of 80-plus women writers meets once a month for workshops in memoir, poetry, fiction, editing, journalism, playwriting, and songwriting. Our curriculum challenges and stretches these young writers—each mentee completes the season with a seven-genre developmental portfolio of her writing. But these portfolios are evolving works-in-progress that encourage process over perfectionism, creativity over caution.
In addition to full participation in our monthly workshops and weekly pair meetings, GWN requires that the girls practice all facets of what it means to be a working writer, preparing them now, when the stakes are lower, for challenges ahead: at public events throughout the year they read their work aloud to large audiences; they must submit their writing to contests. Last year our mentees took home 13 Gold and Silver Key Awards from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. For those girls who did not take home awards, we talked, too, about the reality of rejection in the life of all successful writers, and the need to try again.
By giving girls the opportunity to take risks and try new things, and in so doing both succeed and fail within the safe space of our community, we can teach them not just to become better writers, but to become more fully and resiliently themselves. By focusing on girls, now, we can change the face of leadership in this country, and make sure our future Shakespeares are not limited by their X chromosomes.
Providing Successful Models
Like Woolf, GWN believes in the vital role successful models play in creative development. Through those that have gone before, we learn what we might be capable of. In the world of media, models of course can be living or dead, young and old, present in the flesh, or merely on the page or screen. The growing versatility of media allows all youth media programs even greater freedom—and demands greater imagination—in giving girls many varied “mothers” to “think back through.”
At our Poetry Workshop this November, we read and were inspired by the 19th- and 20th-Century models of Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks. One of our mentors shared a sestina she had written. Then the girls from widely disparate neighborhoods of New York City became models to each other: they read their own poems, crafted that day in that communal room of our own, receiving both thoughtful feedback and riotous applause. Finally, at every workshop, there is the culminating craft talk by a highly regarded female author working in the genre.
At our Screenwriting Workshop last spring, the girls listened to Jenny Lumet talk about conceiving, writing, and selling her screenplay for “Rachel Getting Married.” The star of the film, Anne Hathaway, stopped by, and the two talked not about the usual staples of celebrity media (boyfriends, diets, clothing), but about the demanding and rewarding collaborative work of making this movie. At our Memoir Workshop this fall, Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, spoke of the long process of revising her book, and read to us from her early drafts, demonstrating the equal importance of talent and tenacity. “If your first draft is perfect, congratulations! You may be the first person in the world to whom this has happened,” Erlbaum told us.
Lyn Pentecost, Director of the Lower East Side Girls Club, wrote last year in YMR of the importance of cultural exchange in youth media programming, of the need for “new people, new experiences, new ideas, and new environments.” This seems to me another way of articulating the importance of introducing a range of models—different ways of being, of living, of working. Though one can find such vital newness in Chiapas, Mexico, as Pentecost’s girls did, we can also build it into the spaces—virtual and actual—we create for the young people we serve.
Through on-line social networks or face-to-face workshops, chat rooms or brick-and-mortar rooms, youth media programs should provide girls with a diversity of mentors and models, and encourage them to be mentors and models to one another as they discuss and develop their work.
Using this approach at GWN, we are teaching young women not only what one needs in order to become a writer, but also what it means to be a professional woman in the world. As PinChang Huang, a GWN alumna, told The New York Times last March after a reading at The New School, “I was so nervous when I stepped onstage. I was shaking. But now I feel like I can say or do anything.”
Making Room—and Rooms—for Girls
This paradigm of teaching skills and practices, and providing successful models can be easily repeated in the many different types of media, and of course will benefit boys as much as girls. But it is easier to find those models of professional men, and indeed we often stumble upon male-only “rooms” when we turn on the Sunday news shows, or open newspapers to the editorial pages, or watch our presidential debates.
If we in youth media do not give girls rooms in which to practice the work of making media and to hear and learn from their predecessors and contemporaries today, we are guaranteeing they will inherit a media landscape with little room for them tomorrow.
Maggie Pouncey is Co-Curriculum Director of Girls Write Now, and a fiction writer. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught undergraduate writing.

Interview: Byron Hurt

Byron Hurt is the New Jersey-based producer of the award-winning documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes, regarding hyper masculinity in Hip-Hop and violence towards women. Hurt, 35, is a former Northeastern University football quarterback and long-time gender violence prevention educator. He is the also former associate director of the first gender violence prevention program in the United States Marine Corps. Hurt was the recipient of the prestigious echoing green public service fellowship in 1999, an award given to ambitious young activists devoted to creating social change in their communities. Over the past decade, Hurt has lectured at more than 100 college campuses and trained thousands of young men and women on issues related to gender, race, sex, violence, music and visual

YMR: A youth media educator who led me to your work uses your documentary, Beyond Beats & Rhymes for high-school youth and college students. He says that young people are very resistant to critiquing hip-hop and feel personally attacked. But ultimately, the film helps to create light bulbs. How can young people resist those critiques and expand on their realizations?
Hurt: When I was 18, I didn’t want to hear critiques of hip-hop. But young people are more receptive to critiques if it is coming from people who are more like them; [someone who] understands it, loves it, can speak truthfully and present clear evidence as to why it is problematic. [In] presenting very clear, visible examples, there can be moments for these light bulbs to go off. That is how I made the film—to be very clear about perspective.
YMR: If you had an opportunity to see your film and have access to youth media as a teenager, how would that have changed your life?
Hurt: I think it would have blown me away and I would have listened to hip-hop very differently at 15 or 16—at least that is what I would like to believe. In college, I watched Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustments by Marlon Riggs, and those films completely changed the way I watched television. I wanted to have that kind of impact on the minds of young people because I saw how powerful film can be in transforming people.
YMR: How can youth media educators best support young people to make their own media and hip-hop?
Hurt: Support their ideas and vision; give them room to make mistakes [and] not be perfect, [and] help develop their concepts. I really push, prod and challenge people to think critically. One important function of educators is to get people to be more media literate. Because nobody wants to be mislead and nobody wants to be fooled. When you present people with information—real solid, strong information—then young people can make new choices. But not everyone is going to do [something with that information] or want to be a conscious rapper; maybe two or three from one particular group. But those two or three really need to be supported and nurtured.
That is what happened to me. There were people around me—older educators—who identified me as someone with a great deal of potential. This wasn’t from a hip-hop [or media] context [but the same story applies].
When I was a sophomore in high school my coach saw something in me and took a risk to give me a chance. He had other athletes on his team that were better than me. But they didn’t work as hard, disciplined and focused. He could have made an easier decision. But he gave me an opportunity because he saw leadership potential. You know what? Prior to that, I wasn’t doing the right thing. I was hanging out, drinking, and doing crazy things. But when he gave me that opportunity, I stopped doing all of that. I realized that this was an opportunity. I didn’t come from a lot of money and I realized that if I wanted to go to college, one of the best ways to do it was to get a football scholarship.
We need an older person—educators—to have a pivotal role in young people’s lives.
YMR: Would you say that young people—who have easy access to media—have the potential to make a film like yours at their age?
Hurt: They need somebody to help them in the right way. They need a model and someone with skill sets that can help them. You can make a film, but if the story is not good, nobody is going to watch it. You need mentors that can help youth realize their vision and to do it in a way that is powerful. Young people are creative and capable of doing things that they don’t get enough credit for. We need to give young people the chance to let them flow.
YMR: How would you suggest mentors take your knowledge—on hip-hop, hyper-masculinity, and misogyny—and apply that in working with young people? How can they go against the grain? What tools do or should they have?
Hurt: When it comes to hip-hop, the educator in the room needs to be someone who has the ear of the students. If [a] teacher recognizes that they are not within their realm of expertise, than they should bring in people who do and can be an inspiration or role model. All you have to do is google search “hip-hop activism” or “hip-hop educators.” Educators can expose young people to the books, websites, and even invite people like Kevin Powell, Jelani Cobb, Quentin Walcott, Ted Bunch (speaking against violence and masculinity), Tricia Rose, bell hooks, Joan Morgan, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Monifa Bandele, Aisha Durham, Tony Blackman, and Jean Grae to speak at their schools. [In addition], many hip-hop and rap artists are willing to come in to schools and inform youth about the industry and educate people around hip-hop in positive ways.
Educators need to be very challenging to their students. That is the [main] role of educators—to challenge their students. What makes it so difficult is that popular culture is so pervasive and it is everywhere. Youth are being bombarded with very glamorous and romanticized images and representations. Outside of class, young people go back into that space. So teachers have to reinforce and repeat the counter-message. The bottom line is that sometimes the message you are sending will not have an immediate change. It could happen years later, but you need to plant that seed [in] people. [Educators] have to be very, very patient. Because change happens incrementally—it doesn’t happen over night.
Educators need to be determined and committed to providing young people with examples of where you would like to see them go.
YMR: What about global youth who are only exposed to mainstream western/U.S.-based hip-hop? And what do you advise to youth media educators around the globe in working with youth that value hip-hop as a social change agent? Or, to youth who do not have access to such programs?
Hurt: It is problematic. And it comes down to the grassroots people who have to roll up their sleeves and educate. If institutions are not providing for youth, it is going to come down to people locally who have the ear of their communities.
It is very difficult to change the direction of hip-hop. Are people doing enough to promote hip-hop that has alternative messages (and therefore unpopular) like Stickman? Sure, youth buy into what they see on television and the mainstream. But I’ve been traveling all over the country and young people are telling me that they aren’t listening to mainstream hip-hop; that they don’t listen to the radio anymore and cater to old skool hip-hop. Young people are tired. A lot of them are finding what they like in alternative spaces (like the internet, MySpace and YouTube) to find what they want. And [young people] can determine good music.
YMR: But the media changes very fast. Earlier you mentioned that hip-hop may not be the source of the kind of socially conscious media that comes out but in fact, will play out in different forms. Can you elaborate?
Hurt: All hip-hop is not the same. You have some that is completely reductionist hip-hop, retrograde hip-hop, and then you have hip-hop that has kernels of truth, wisdom, honesty, complexity and nuance. But you have to have a hip-hop ear in order to identify and be able to use it as a teaching tool. Just because lyrics may be saying “bad” things does not mean you can’t use it. And I think the best educators are people who know and understand what people are listening to and use that form to think more deeply about what they are consuming.
I really wish I had a crystal ball to see what hip-hop will be like in the next two years. I am not really feeling hip-hop right now. It is different from the kind of hip-hop I grew up with. But like I said before, with the upcoming election with Obama serving as such a powerful example of (male) leadership, I think the paradigm may shift in terms of what young people believe they can be and what the options are for themselves.
All of what we are seeing in the culture now—increase in crime, police brutality, and people struggling with the day to day—still, hip-hop is timely and necessary. For example, the rapper The Game (who has a lot of street credibility) after the Sean Bell verdict commented in a very clear, thoughtful, and intelligent way, jumping out of the box completely. And he spoke his mind, revealing that he is a deep thinker concerned about social issues and unafraid to speak his mind. It was stunning to me because I had never seen that side of him before. I think we have to give people like him credit.
The way I listen to hip-hop is very different than the way a 16 or 17-year-old is going to experience it…maturity, wisdom and education happens slowly. It is my responsibility and that of educators to raise the bar for them, challenge and educate.
Educators need to raise their game [and] stop blaming young people for not being what you want them to be. Don’t be a lazy educator. If you [pursued] teaching to influence young people’s minds, don’t let yourself be in the position of a babysitter. And don’t be afraid of your kids. Get in there and engage. If hip-hop is what your kids are into than learn everything you can about it. Ask young people questions—because they will most likely educate you.
YMR: What will it take to raise the bar?
Hurt: Look at examples like Kanye West or Lupe Fiasco. Fiasco has been very successful in having his music played and supported by commercial radio but also having a different message. His video for “Dump it Down” he explains how record companies and his label asked him to dumb his music and lyrics down, have girls and cars in his video, and how he refused to do it. He is talented and intelligent and strong minded. It is going to take strong minded individuals to flip the script and make the cool, “cool.”
There is yet a young person [to] emerge to be that person. I don’t know who that is but we’ve had examples of that in the past. There was a whole era in hip-up (and you know this) where it was cool to be smart and have pro-social messages; to talk about reading books, knowledge and the knowledge of self and all those different things.
I was asking myself while listening to the radio the other day. “Will conscious hip-hop ever return?” Are old skool hip-hop fans being naïve or nostalgic of the golden era of hop-hop?” I think hip-hop is always going to change and whatever is going on in the culture is what hip-hop is going to sound like. But things aren’t going too well right now in America. I think we’re going to hear a lot of that in the music. Time will tell. We need to be patient.
YMR: Do you think it is possible for young people to make social change?
Hurt: Absolutely. [Young people] are the people that create change—[those who] are unafraid, who don’t know what they are getting into (laughs), who don’t have a lot to loose…I think most social movements are spurred by young people—civil rights, immigration—Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. did incredible things as young people. It is always adults that resist change.
YMR: Do you think youth media is part of the solution to social change?
Hurt: I think they have to be because the youth are what drives hip-hop. They are and have to be part of change. They have tools at their disposal, but need to be clear and strategic in how they use them. That’s how hip-hop got started. Making something out of nothing.
YMR: So if adults are helping young people in the field of youth media, what advice can you give to them?
Hurt: Keep doing what you are doing, take care of yourself, don’t get burnt out/over-taxed, stay optimistic, and identify the great things about your students.

Explorers of Exchange: Girls Traverse the Digital Divide

We live in a digital age where it is assumed that all young people—a generation targeted to consume and use media—have access to media and media making. From cell phones to iPods, MySpace and YouTube, young people seem to have multiple ways to communicate with one another and express themselves freely.
For example, a recent Yahoo! News article describes a technological utopia in which the rosy-cheeked youth of the world pirouette from social networking websites to digital file sharing in a global dance of communicative bliss. According to Yahoo! “The My Media Generation is the first to fully leverage the freedoms that new technology has provided, and they are putting it into practice in all aspects of their lives.” It’s no news to youth media educators that this vision appears only to those whose eyes are already accustomed to gazing at monitors glowing with the limitless promise of the Internet. However, the reality of globalization and communication technologies is a digital divide between those who have access to information and resources, and those who don’t. This clear digital divide in the United States also exists in communities around the world, where access to media and technology access hinges on an imbalance of gender, race, and class.
Building Access on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City
The Lower East Side (LES) Girls Club was founded in response to a grave discrepancy in access based on gender, race, and class in our own neighborhood—the Lower East Side of New York City. Founded in 1996, we sought to address the egregious disparity in programs for youth in the community, particularly for young women of color from low-income backgrounds (there were three “boys-only” clubs in the neighborhood at that time and no comparable programs for girls).
One of the first programs offered was photography because of its power to capture an individual perspective and share this viewpoint with others. Initially darkroom-based, we quickly turned digital and, by the end of 1999, our students were exhibiting their own “day in their life” work at museums and galleries throughout the city. Our “digital diaries” approach was born.
This approach works by connecting young women with technologies to examine, document, and display their lives and communities, providing them with a safe, all-female space in which to do so. Each girl who joins the Girls Club takes a quick, one-on-one, “Tech 101” class that gets her up to speed on blogging, pod casting, creating quick-time movies and slide shows, zipping around on Google Earth, exploring Second Life, and more. Using technology education, we encourage girls to become part of the digital age.
Girls need safe spaces to explore technology and be part of the digital landscape, particularly when mainstream media pressure young women to remain absent from such landscapes. Advertisements, mainstream films, television, and even institutions perpetuate gender-coded messages that can make girls feel objectified and voiceless, valuing appearance over skill or action. We seek to increase girls’ confidence in using technology by placing cameras in their hands and paying attention to their stories.
This attentiveness encourages young women to speak, to share, and observe the world in which they live in, starting in the Lower East Side. But we quickly realized that low-income young women of color needed to be part of a global dialogue—and what better way to do so but with other young girls from a different country. The LES Girls Club embraces and values perspectives of the “other”––new people, new experiences, new ideas, and new environments––while using photography and digital media to cultivate a critical gaze in local and global communities.
Village Voices/Virtual Journey
The notion of cultural exchange has been integral to the LES Girls Club from the start. As an anthropologist, I have been working in Mexico for over 25 years, where I met the director of the Indigenous Photography Archive in San Cristobal and realized the similarities of our goals. The Archivo was training young indigenous photographers to document their communities using disposable and 35 mm cameras, technologies that, like the LES girls, these young women would otherwise not have accessed. The meeting was both logical and organic and took place at a time when our needs coincided. As a result, the opportunity to initiate the Village Voices/Virtual Journey project presented itself.
The Village Voices/Virtual Journey thus began as a collaborative project between the LES Girls Club and young women from the Indigenous Photography Archives in Chiapas, Mexico. The project (2000-05) built a working relationship between our organizations and entailed, among other things, LES girls introducing digital technology to young women in the Chiapas program. In addition to creating this technological exchange, the first four years of the program also included two exchange trips, with LES high school girls going to Chiapas and young Mayan women coming to New York City. These four trips were complemented by exhibitions of the visiting girls’ photography of their experiences in the host city and a published photography book combining both their projects. These exhibits and the book documenting the lives of teens in New York and Chiapas are only the by-products of what has been an ongoing lesson in global exchange and girls’ empowerment.
This partnership has resulted in the founding of a sister girls club in Chiapas run by our Mayan photography partners (described below) and a blogging site called “Girlville.” Like all cultural exchanges, one’s impression of the “other” hinges on which “others” one meets, and what access beyond the standard tourist experience one has. In this case, access was extraordinary for both groups of young people. Because the project unfolded over time, it fostered rich dialogue as the young girls, linked by a digital global platform, grew into and out of adolescence.
Girls Documenting Shared Culture
The sustained combination of photography, travel, and conversations revealed powerful similarities among the young women of Chiapas and the LES Girls Club. The process of documenting cultural differences, even the obvious and superficial, quite literally generated an expanded collective vision of the world.
Key to the collaboration was that each group had the experience of being both a visitor and a host. This allowed us to observe significant similarities in our own communities regarding, for example, gentrification and globalization—that we come from places where we, the indigenous (or marginalized) cultures, are the subjects of outsiders’ gazes. In Chiapas, buses daily bring tourists into town squares and markets viewing the way of life of the “native,” which tourism has greatly affected. On the Lower East Side, patrons stare from the security of new and expensive bistros and bars, or gaze down from double-decker buses at poor girls of color, often unreflecting about the changes that have challenged our communities and neighborhoods.
Since the publication of our co-produced photography book in 2006, our relationship has continued to deepen. When we returned to Chiapas with copies of the book, the Mayan women said “We want to continue working with the Girls Club.” In fact, they envisioned creating their own girls club based on our program to engage young women in environmental, ethical, and entrepreneurial projects with a strong digital and technological skills component.
After continued collaboration and fund development, there is now a thriving young girl’s club—Club Balam or “the little jaguars”—in San Cristobal de las Casas. This group meets every Saturday at Na Bolom, a prestigious research center that acts as the sponsoring cultural institution. Participants go out on digital photography trips and post photos and blog entries to the website, Girlville, shared with our LES girls, who then respond in kind. Thus, the partnership continues on the web.
Exchange and Technology for Young Women
For youth media organizations or efforts interested in global projects, international exchange is crucial. The Girls Club introduced young, marginalized women face to face with one another, using photography as a starting point for continued communication and sharing of perspectives. This exchange provided fertile ground for exciting collaboration that continues on the web, extending the girls interaction with technology.
As the LES experience makes clear, digital technology can serve as a powerful vehicle fostering discussion and growth. Just as the young women of the Village Voices/Virtual Journey were able to see their shared experiences with gentrification and globalization in their photographs, any young person making media—photography video, music, or radio—can use technology to bridge real or perceived differences. What greatly enhanced the Village Voices/Virtual Journeys collaboration was that each organization was able to travel and meet the other and to witness first-hand their shared circumstances in terms of poverty, race, and gender.
We must continuously challenge the role of women by becoming independent actors in our own cultures—and it may just start with the click of a camera. It is critical for young women to engage in digital media and technology, for these technologies are part of the new global experience. With them, young women can become 21st century explorers, with cameras and computers, participating in shared ethnography of their own, and others,’ experiences.
Lyn Pentecost is the Director of the Lower East Side Girls Club in NYC and is currently leading the Lower Eastside Girls Club Capital Project to build the first all ‘green’ state-of-the-art Girls Club and Center for Community in New York City. The center will allow the Lower Eastside Girls Club to greatly expand their innovative digital arts programs: film, photography, podcasting, physical computing and interactive telecommunications- while also offering computer training and free wireless service to the surrounding community. For over a decade, Pentecost was an adjunct professor of “Ethnographic Film Theory” at City College and developed and taught courses in “Teen Culture in Urban America” and “Urban Schools in Crisis” for the Metropolitan Studies Program at New York University.

An Alliance for Young Women Who Rock

The Girls Rock Camp Alliance—comprised of representatives from across the globe who run rock n’ roll camps for girls—met for the first time last month to brainstorm ways to organize what has become a grassroots movement of burgeoning non-profits. The alliance is dedicated to empowering young girls through music-making as well as an enhanced understanding of gender and political identity. It is a great example for youth media professionals to learn from, as many of these campsites across the nation, and now the world, work to maintain a collective mission that unites and supports young women in music.
The founding member camps of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance (GRCA) are from the U.S.—Portland, OR, New York, NY, San Francisco, CA, Philadelphia, PA, and Murfreesboro, TN—as well as from Sweden and the United Kingdom. The alliance met in Portland, Oregon—home base for the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls—the first rock camp founded in 2001. The non-profit was created in response to the social oppression female musician’s face, in which girls are not encouraged to play instruments and have female role models that share their same experiences. Unique to this non-profit are the hundreds of volunteers dedicated to the rock camp mission, so much so that they work for free during the summer (or throughout the year depending on whether or not local campsites have year round after-school programs like in Portland, OR) motivated by their deep desire and dedication to the cause of empowering young women.
I met with the GRCA in Portland, Oregon late February and had the opportunity to interview STS, a friend, colleague, and program officer at camp. She explains, “every decision [we make at rock camp] we put up next to our mission statement. We serve girls and follow an empowerment model that examines power. We are a community and resource that builds self-esteem and empowerment for young women through media education.” She continues, “Girls need to have access to music education and female mentors who speak to them as peers. At rock camp, we provide great opportunities for young girls interested in music and them to lead in their own ways in a safe and empowering space.”
Many of the 8-18 year old girls who attend camp every summer say that the week long experience changed their lives, opened their eyes, and encouraged them to better handle a sexist and ‘identity-boxing’ world. These girls often sign up for the Girls Rock Institute, an after school version of camp that occurs year around, and often make up the camps’ youth advisory board, who form internship programs, teach skills, act as role models, and build upon the camp community.
Having volunteered at the rock camp in Portland, Oregon and being a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, I know first hand what STS means when she explains, “camp is powerful—it is all inclusive, embracing, and [evokes] positive energy. It’s a punk, anarchist organization that values music, esteem, and life skills.” Rock camp thrives on sharing, collaboration, and giving back along with a very attractive do-it-yourself (D-I-Y) approach and progressive model of leadership, which has become a fast moving grassroots movement.
The energy and empowerment of rock camp in Portland has influenced the creation of several rock camps across the nation and over the world. Around 15-25 rock camps have existed to date—a number that is growing—which Portland’s camp saw as an opportunity to create an alliance amongst.
At the first meeting of the GRCA, the group wrote their mission statement, which defines the alliance as an “international coalition of organizations whose shared mission is to empower girls and women using the tools of music education to foster self-esteem and confidence.” To this end, the GRCA “promotes, strengthens, and expands services provided by its members.”
Overall, the alliance is a professional organization that provides accreditation, resources, and networking opportunities for its members, and promotes the establishment of like-minded institutions worldwide. The alliance works to provide support in the development and quality of programs, financial stability and transparency, and accountability to the rock camp mission.
Core Values of the Girls Rock Camp Alliance are the:
• power of music as a means to create personal and social change;
• efforts that actively expand opportunities for girls and women;
• positive approaches to fighting sexism;
• integrity, honesty and respect;
• appropriate sharing of resources, cooperation, and collaboration;
• using collective voice to further the mission of rock camp;
• importance of diversity and not tolerating racism, sexism, homophobia, or other discriminatory behavior or expression
The alliance believes in creating a learning community that empowers young girls, builds strong relationship among women and a network of musicians, fosters an environment for gender and social change, and values collaborative learning. As STS explains, “we do not want to homogenize all rock camps for girls but collectively recognize core values while valuing our differences. We do not want future rock camps to reinvent the wheel. We offer structure, curriculum, and ways to match the sparks and fire we’ve all experienced at rock camp.”
Professionals interested in creating a rock camp for girls can join the alliance to share leadership models, become a chapter, register to become a non-profit, and/or support a movement of empowering girls through D-I-Y music education. The GRCA is a success model for professionals in the youth media field to engage with. The alliance freely supports and encourages the development of programs that value girls, confidence-raising, and music as a vital medium to empower young people.
The goals of the GRCA, such as sharing resources (material, knowledge, and skill) and providing a model for all burgeoning camps, are important ones for youth media organizations and professionals to pay attention to. GRCA has made its own niche directly outside the youth media field, and ought to get incorporated into the great work the field continues to produce. Simultaneously, the field can learn a great deal from the progressive leadership model of the GRCA. The GRCA gives relevance to music in media, theorizing and practicing gendered and social change, and valuing youth voice, empowerment, and creative expression.
Learning upon the ways in which the Girls Rock Camp Alliance provide nonprofit umbrella support for each chapter at the grassroots level is a case study with solutions youth media organizations may draw from—especially those that value centralizing a sharing of resources, collective identity, and the ‘spark’ that keeps movements and effective youth media programs alive.
Ingrid Dahl is a founding member of the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls where she develops curriculum for workshops, acts as a band coach, and sits on the advisory board. She has been involved with the Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, OR since 2004, where she incubated a collaborative workshop on identity, media, and feminism. She is the guitarist in the bands Boyskout and The 303s and plans to write a book on empowering young women through music.

Applications Now for Summer Rock Camp for Girls

Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls (New York, NY)
Founded in 2004, Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is a non-profit summer day camp serving girls aged 8-18 in New York City. The program offers girls the chance to learn how to play musical instruments, write songs, perform, learn about different types of music, and generally “rock out” in a supportive environment that fosters self-confidence, self-esteem, creativity, tolerance, and collaboration.
Rock camp is dedicated to youth empowerment through music. The program is founded on the proposition that music can serve as a powerful tool of self-expression and self-esteem-building for girls and young women, and can help combat racism and stereotypes by building bridges of communication and shared experience among girls from diverse communities.
Session 1: August 6 – 10
Application Deadline: April 16th
Session 2: August 20 – 24
Application Deadline: April 16th
Final concerts are held on Saturday the week camp ends.
Tuition: $50-500, sliding scale. Full financial aid is available
How to Apply:
Applications can be downloaded HERE
Urban Assembly School of Music & Art
Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls (Portland, OR)
Summer Camp is where it all began. Every year since 2001, girls and young women come from all over the world to attend this intense, week long day camp. Over the course of five days, each camper learns a new instrument or improves skills, attends workshops, dances to lunch time bands, and works together in a band to write a song she will perform at a sold out showcase Saturday night!!! No musical experience is necessary, just a desire to play rock, punk, hip hop, country, pop, indie, lounge, blues, reggae, jazz, ska, metal, experimental, hardcore, emo, screamo, alternative, classic, or any other musical genre. No covers, no limits!
Session 1: June 25 – 30
Application Deadline: Apr 30
Session 2: July 9 – 14
Application Deadline: Apr 30
Session 3: July 30 – Aug. 4
Application Deadline: May 5
How to Apply:
Download an application HERE
Girls Rock! Chicago
August 13 – 17th