Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #131Subscribe to our print edition here!

Unforgivingly valiant and distinctly DIY, Girls Rock! is breaking down the barriers keeping young women and trans youth from realising their musical potential. We unpack the camp’s powerful and pertinent ethos with the badass women behind it.

Words by Louise Inkster. Photos by Jess Eddy, Katie Dutton and Natalie Pestana.

Imagine this: you’re a young girl, trans or non-binary person growing up in Australia, interested in the exciting world of music and passionate enough to chase your dreams... Where do you go from there? Well, thanks to the work of Chiara Grassia, Shannon Driscoll and the global Girls Rock! Camp Alliance network, young people in Australia now have a place to take their next steps into the world of music. Spread out all over Australia, Girls Rock! camps provide a safe space for these young groups of people – who may not feel welcome elsewhere – and works to empower, inspire and encourage their passions in all areas of the music industry.

When Grassia, founder of Girls Rock! Canberra, finished her Undergrad and went over to America, she had already heard about the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp For Girls – the very first camp that focused on empowering young girls, trans and non‑binary kids to explore their passions of music.

“I was really interested in the concept of Girls Rock! camps. I’d heard about them as a teenager and I thought they were this amazing punk rock utopia that I wanted to be a part of, so I’d kept it in the back of my mind. After uni, I saved up some money and went over to the States and volunteered at the one in Portland, Oregon – the first Girls Rock! camp – for three sessions as a band coach. It was just the best thing.”

“After the third year, I was really determined to start one in my hometown of Canberra. So I got a grant to go and research some other programs; I went back to America and visited the camps in Austin and the Bay Area, and also the one in Portland again. I just wanted to learn as much as I could. All the camps follow a similar kind of structure, but they’re also so unique to their own area. That’s the great thing about the camps – their response and catering to the local community.”

Through previous work organising arts events in Canberra, Grassia found a lot of support in her community, and was able to secure a space to host the first ever Girls Rock! camp in Australia. Through determination, stubbornness and the power of word-of-mouth, the camp happened, succeeded and, in the process, inspired others who were involved to begin their own camps in their own cities. Within that year, Girls Rock! Brisbane held their first camp, with the inaugural Girls Rock! in Melbourne taking place not long after.

Driscoll, co-founder of Girls Rock! Melbourne, was one such individual who heard about Grassia’s work in Canberra and decided she wanted to be involved. Although originally from the United States, Driscoll hadn’t heard about Girls Rock! camps until the documentary Girls Rock! The Movie aired on SBS On Demand. Her fellow co-founder Sally Balhorn had seen the documentary first, and after googling if these camps existed in Australia and seeing Grassia’s work, they sent off a life-changing email: “How do we learn from you and how do we do this in Melbourne?” Shortly after that, Girls Rock! Melbourne became a reality.

While each camp caters to its community and the people involved, making all of them slightly different, the core values remain the same. Basic concepts such as inclusion, open communication, encouragement and never turning away a child because of financial or geographical limitations are shared across all camps throughout Australia. That’s the Girls Rock! spirit, after all – that music is for everybody.

At Girls Rock! Melbourne, Driscoll’s team stays focused on their values through creating the right framework from the beginning for both kids and volunteers, while continuously offering opportunities for the kids to be involved in decision‑making, creative thinking and taking action.

“We do things like having an orientation for the volunteers. We make sure that everyone understands the mission and values and they all know how to enact them in the space, and how to let that mission guide their decision-making process. We do a little orientation with the kids as well, where everyone contributes to what kind of space they wish to create for the week. We write it down, and all agree to follow that set of agreements.

We also run a little morning meeting every day, where we might show them a skit of something, like a band that’s really outspoken, but there’s one person who’s really shy and she’s getting ignored, so we ask the kids what’s wrong with the situation. They tell us what’s wrong and how to fix it, and then we reenact it with their suggestions. I think just having that framework from the very beginning keeps everyone in the right mindset.”

From simply providing a space that prioritises women and gender non-conforming kids, to the active learning style they embody as opposed to passive acknowledgement, the kids who take
part in these camps are constantly reminded that what they have to say is genuinely valuable. And while the focus of the camps will always be first and foremost on the kids who take part, having the right representation in mentors – not just in bands but teaching, production and all aspects of the music industry – drills in the message that representation is how gender equality goals can be achieved.

By seeing adults just like themselves, these kids learn that music is for them and that they are welcome within a space that they previously may not have felt comfortable within. As Driscoll puts it, “It’s the whole, ‘You don’t know what you can be until you see it’ kind of thing.”

Always looking to strengthen their communities and provide further experiences for the kids involved, Girls Rock! Canberra began an internship program last year. An opportunity for former campers between the ages of 16 and 18, who have already done a Girls Rock! camp, the program offers these young adults a chance to become a teacher and a mentor to the next generation of campers.

After running the program for two years, 2019 will be the first year that Girls Rock! will have mentors who had once been campers, continuing to be supported as well as supporting others.

So how can we, the Australian public and music fans, help contribute to such an important and worthwhile cause? The answer, according to both Grassia and Driscoll, is better representation and taking steps yourself to ensure that the change you want to see happens. But how do we do this?

“I think what would be great is if people made the effort to reach out and educate themselves and find new bands,” says Driscoll. “The world is at your fingertips with the internet – you can search for bands in your area through Bandcamp, Spotify, Facebook... There’s all these ways that you can look up music in your area and find more diverse bands. If you find a band that has women, gender-diverse folks, and/or people of colour in it, and you see a gig poster, pay attention! Support those bands so that they do have the chance to go places and make enough money to tour and put out an album. Supporting from the grassroots community level is how people can make a really big change.”

Striving to diversify the culture within the Australian music scene, and create exposure for groups that may otherwise be overlooked, the selfless work of incredible people like Grassia, Driscoll, and all the members of the global Girls Rock! Camp Alliance network have laid the groundwork for what we as a community can achieve. Not only to abolish inequality in the music industry, but to create communities for the large number of kids who are already out there playing music and looking for others they can connect with. To cherish and encourage friendships that will last a lifetime and inspire positive change from the very beginning.

With camps already in cities all over Australia, and more joining the cause in the near future, Girls Rock! are quickly gaining the traction that they need – nay, deserve – to continue their mission of providing a safe space for young girls, trans and non-binary kids, encouraging them to express themselves through music and be inspired by positive mentors and, most importantly, each other.

But this mission is one for us all. It’s not enough to rely on others who are embarking on camps, awareness events and organisations. Take your owns steps to be an active fighter for change; support your local bands and communities, make your voices heard and be the representation that inspires all those around you. If we can all help others like the Girls Rock! group does, then there’s no limit to what we can achieve.

For more information on Girls Rock! Australia, head to their website here.