Last week I joined a cult. My friend Renee Handley fundraises for Girls Rock Denver, a volunteer-run, summer music camp for girls and gender-nonconforming youth ages 8-17. She is practically evangelical about it, and floods her friends' social media feeds.
She says: "I love the Girls Rock Movement because it has helped me find my voice and my purpose. It's given me the confidence I still struggle to find as an adult. Volunteering with Girls Rock Denver has helped me make a career change, given me some of my best friends and allowed me to find a place here in Denver."
I've been playing bass and guitar since I was a teen, so I felt qualified to volunteer as a bass instructor and band coach. As a veteran of music scenes often dominated by straight cisgender dudes, I agreed with the mission of the camp, to "empower girls and gender-nonconforming youth through music education, creation, performance and community, working to put instruments in their hands to unveil what they already possess in their feet, fingertips, vocal cords, hearts and minds." But I assumed it would be a regular volunteer experience.
Over six days, campers learn to play an instrument: guitar, bass, keys, drums or beats (electronic music). They form bands and, over the course of the week — as many of them play their instrument for the first time — they write an original song. On the final day, each band performs its song onstage in front of an audience of parents, friends and volunteers. In addition to instrument instruction, campers take part in workshops on gender, zine-making, beat-boxing, creating DIY spaces, and consent and healthy relationships.
Because of its sliding-scale fee structure, Girls Rock Denver brings together campers from a wide variety of backgrounds, and many receive scholarships. This allows the camp to serve youth from low-income homes and foster care settings.
As a teacher, it's always rewarding for me to help people learn new skills and gain confidence in their abilities. Teachers plant seeds, and seeds usually take a while to grow. Within the compressed timeframe of camp, however, you get to see that personal growth in real time. It's like living through some beautiful time-lapse video of girls realizing the possibilities of their own potential, many of them for the first time.
Growing up in the punk and hardcore scene of the late '90s/'00s, I rarely saw women in bands, but fell in love with performers like Liz Phair and Ani DiFranco, or bands like Rainer Maria and Discount. As a guy in my teens and 20s, I had male privilege and all the benefits that entailed, but I looked up to the women in the music scene when I could find them.
During camp I was surrounded by the kind of cool, talented women I had spent most of my life not just looking up to, but wishing I could be. They were now my peers, and I felt accepted and welcomed in this awesome, empowering space in a way that is often difficult for trans women to experience.
One of my favorite camp experiences: Campers and volunteers taped construction paper hearts to their backs, and then we milled about the gym writing compliments (none of which could be based on appearance) on each other's hearts. As an awkward person and a first-year volunteer, I didn't have much in the way of expectations, but the campers and volunteers I'd been working with all week filled both sides of my paper heart. A week after camp, I still can't look at it without tears of gratitude. And just as my fellow volunteers welcomed me into their ranks, the campers bonded with each other.
I can only imagine how incredible it must be as a camper, to have all these supportive, talented women showing you not just how to play an instrument or write a song, but how to be part of a creative community, build and hold space, and assert and advocate for yourself.
Girls Rock Camp Alliance, the parent organization of Girls Rock Denver, operates camps across the country and all over the world. I feel humbled and grateful to have been a small part of that.
It's difficult to describe the rush of pride and joy I felt when the band I coached all week took the stage at the packed-to-capacity Oriental Theater and performed their original song, but after that week I am a Girls Rock acolyte, and it's just 51 more weeks until I get to do it again.