Girls Rock Charleston: A look at the group's less publicized activist underpinnings

Radical chicks


Have you ever had one of those days where you just made an off-the-cuff tweet in the middle of a busy workday only to discover that in the process you had become as vilified as George R.R. Martin? 

Yeah. Probably not. You have better sense than to kill off Jon Snow.

But that's what happened to me a few weeks ago when I posted what I thought was a fairly mild dig at the Charleston Girls Rock Camp: "Remember when Girls Rock Charleston was about, you know, just getting young girls to pick up a guitar and rock out?"

Accompanying that tweet was a link to a document on Girls Rock's May 30-31 Political Education and Skillshare Weekend. During that event, members of Black Lives Matter-Charleston, the LGBT activist group Southerners on New Ground (SONG), the S.C. Progressive Network (a statewide coalition of various activist groups), and others were scheduled to speak about, one would imagine, the political causes near and dear to their hearts.

I don't know about you, but to me it seemed rather odd that Girls Rock Charleston would be hosting a political education conference featuring speakers from across the activist spectrum and that some of the topics that would be covered would be police violence and labor issues. What, I thought, did any of this have to do with teaching girls to release their inner Joan Jett?

Apparently, for the folks at Girls Rock Charleston, this broad spectrum of activist interests has everything to do with Girl Rock's mission.

See, the organizers behind the our local Girls Rock camp are strong believers in intersectionality, i.e. the belief that all the various forms of oppression are interconnected. Simply put, what happens to gays affects what happens to women, and what happens to illegal immigrants impacts the trans community. And the followers of this particular line of thought believe that no oppressed group is truly free until all oppressed groups are free. 

In the case of Girls Rock, its organizers and volunteers believe that teaching intersectionality is key to lifting up young girls and trans youth. And in the case of the Charleston camp, the very core of what the campers are taught is based on intersectional theory. In fact, its organizers will be the first to tell you that it's always been this way; it's just that the media — and that includes the City Paper — has always avoided the camp's more political side, instead preferring to focus on the fluffy "little girls with guitars" angle.

In fact, Girls Rock Charleston spells out exactly what they believe on their "about page":

Our Mission

Girls Rock Charleston empowers girls and trans* youth through music education, DIY media, and creative collaboration.

We envision a Charleston in which girls and transgender youth…

Decide what it looks like and feels like to be a girl.

Trust and support each other.

Engage each other in a process of collective healing.

Recognize the power and pleasure of their own creativity.

Use music as a powerful way to communicate and exchange ideas.

Have full control over their own bodies, sexualities, and reproductive health and are given all available tools and information to support that end.

Are safe and encouraged to explore their identities.

Are able to bring every part of themselves into every moment and are continually affirmed in their wholeness.

Voices are valued in a collective community dialogue in which we decide what a safe community would look like for everyone.

Are celebrated in their state of beings

We envision a Charleston in which …

The current models of domination, violence, and punishment which enforce the current set of rules are replaced by the development of practices of consent and collective accountability.

Collaboration and community are valued above competition and isolation.

On that page, I was surprised by two things: 1. That music was only referred to twice in those three sections and 2. The organizers of Girls Rock Charleston apparently believe that "domination, violence, and punishment" govern society, specifically Charleston.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that institutional racism still plays a part in the governance of Charleston and the day-to-day lives of everyone who lives here. A city can't just shake off 350 years of history that easily. One need look no further than the shooting of Walter Scott and the installation of Glenn McConnell, a Confederate flag supporter, as president of College of Charleston to see that. However, the very words used by Girls Rock struck me as more radical, if not revolutionary, than I would think necessary, especially for a camp focused on helping girls and trans youth as young as nine years old.

At the time, I posted the offending tweet I wasn't aware of "intersectionality" the term — nor Girls Rock Charleston's "about page" — but I knew of intersectionality as a concept thanks to Elias Lyles, a Girls Rock Charleston founder and a SONG member who wrote for this very publication as Jenna Lyles. It's a laudable philosophy, although I tend to think that it doesn't have much real-world applicability. The truth is progress is almost always made incrementally, and make no mistake, we are making progress. 

I was also aware that several Girls Rock organizers and/or volunteers were involved in the two Ravenel Bridge protests, the first which was inadvertently thwarted by a City Paper report and the latter, which successfully shut down traffic — and pissed off a whole helluva lot of people.

Based on all of this — the Political Education Skillshare, the connection with the Ravenel protests, and the statements on the group's "about page" — I began to wonder if Girls Rock was becoming more politically active, and I shared my thoughts on Twitter. Like I said, a shitstorm followed, and I spent the better part of two days in a Twitter fight with Girls Rockers and their supporters.

It was grueling and, admittedly, tedious. After all, my muses were based on a error — Girls Rock Charleston had evidently always been this politically radical — and I was unable to convince many GRC supporters that I was honestly questioning whether radical politics had any place in Girls Rock — not because I supported the patriarchy, but because I supported Girls Rock and had intended to send my own two daughters there.

Following that online skirmish — and a few heated back and forth emails — I interviewed an organizer for the local Girls Rock camp, a local supporter who sends her daughter there, City Paper columnist and feminist scholar Allison Piepmeier, and one of the leaders of the national Girls Rock alliance. 

In the end though, the organizers at Girls Rock Charleston were kind enough to answer a few questions. Their answers below are not attributed to any one member, at their request, but to the group as a whole. The questions and answers are presented with only the most minor of edits.

1. I understand that many involved in Girls Rock believe that Girls Rock is fundamentally political in nature because it’s a fundamentally political/radical act to get young girls to pick up instruments, form a band, and cooperate. I don’t personally see that as a political act — but I understand that many GR supporters/organizers do. The question then is, do you believe this is fundamentally a political act and if so, does that act open the door, or create the expectation, that GR will and should engage in other political matters, whether it’s addressing income inequality, institutionalized racism, police violence, etc.?

It is not fundamentally but conditionally a political act. Current conditions are such that we believe it to currently be a political act. This is because: 1. Music is a powerful form of expression, which we believe all people should have access to, and which is currently being eliminated from public schools; 2. Women and transgender people’s voices are often silenced for political reasons (i.e. maintaining the current power structure); 3. Because youth lack more formal ways to express themselves and tell the truths about their lives, DIY media such as songs, lyrics, and creative projects are a powerful tool for them to do that.

Girls Rock Charleston sees it this way: young people have things to say about the world, about themselves, and even about things that we call "politics"— like what it feels like to be young and female in this society, or gay, or Black, or Muslim, or from an immigrant family. In a world dominated by adults who know everything, we feel that it is radical and/or political to give youth a platform and tools to say these things, and to place value and importance on what young people have to say about the world around them.

2. With the Political Education/Skillshare and the participation of current and/or previous Girls Rock Charleston organizers/volunteers in recent Walter Scott related protests in mind, is there a push within Girls Rock Charleston to become more openly politically active? Does Girls Rock Charleston discuss issues like the police violence, livable wages, unequal pay, etc. with campers because of a belief that all of these things are related and in particular because of all these things impact women and the LGBT community?

Girls Rock Charleston has, since its inception in 2011, been a feminist organization that values intersectional work. Camp was born out of a vision for a more hopeful and affirming Charleston for girls and trans* youth, which we know requires strategic political work within and outside of camp. In this way, there has been no push to become more “openly politically active.” We have been politically active from the start, and we are proud that our organizers and supporters are involved in other liberation work in the South. As our vision states, we are working to build a world where girls and trans* youth are able to bring every part of themselves into every moment and are continually affirmed in their wholeness. We know that realizing this dream requires an intersectional approach to our individual lives — including our work as activists — and to the work we do as Girls Rock organizers. That’s why you have seen, and will continue to see, Girls Rock participants, organizers, and volunteers engaging in conversations and actions that challenge inequities like unequal pay, police brutality, homophobia, gender oppression, and more.

Part of our job is to figure out how to engage youth around issues like these in a way that facilitates them talking to each other about their lived realities and provides a space for them to learn about current local, national, and international issues that impact their lives every day. Topics that are considered controversial, such as racism or LGBTQ issues, are often not brought up in schools because of the conservative environment.

GRC discusses relevant, current and historical social justice issues in our programming for one primary reason: these issues impact the lives of our campers deeply and daily. To use your example, Chris, we find it relevant, entirely appropriate, and in fact very important to discuss economic issues such as livable wages because, as the P&C recently reported, “More than 25 percent of children in Charleston County live below the federal poverty level, and almost 20 percent are living in areas of concentrated poverty.” We talk about living wages and unequal pay because those issues are very real, everyday issues for many of our campers. We have to figure out problems like this: some campers bring lunches from home to camp, but some can't afford to, so we provide lunch. How do we establish an environment where it’s not cooler to bring your own lunch to camp? Or, conversely, where it’s not cooler to be eating what the volunteers are eating? How do we make this visible site of economic difference a place where campers can actually talk with each other and ask each other honest questions, or have honest questions answered, instead of pretending like everyone is coming from the same place, or discouraging the campers from asking questions? It may seem trite, but it’s not to the campers. They notice that half the camp brings a lunch and half the camp eats a provided lunch. They want to know why. We don’t launch into poverty statistics but we do use it as a learning moment. "Where does your mom shop for groceries?" can become a question that means a lot of things all at once.

Some of our campers go home to mansions. Others go home to public housing, and everywhere in between. We want GRC to be a place where youth can trust adults to give them honest answers about the realities of our community. We don't pretend that everyone comes from the same culture, background, home life, family, or religious background. Additionally, we think it is valuable and important for campers to talk with each other about these things. Life is not the same for rich girls and poor girls in our community. That is a fact. We think campers have a lot to learn from talking with one another about the realities of their lives.

Our voluntary program is one of fairly few places in Charleston that provides a positive, diverse space for youth to learn about many social issues at once and provides tools and mentorship for youth to then express their own thoughts, experiences, and opinions (on topics ranging from freedom struggles to beach parties and glitter). Additionally (and not separately), leadership development is a primary priority for our organization. We intend to develop basic leadership skills in our campers and give them access to mentorship and role models who display desirable leadership qualities such as independent thinking, emotional intelligence, willingness to take risks, and empathy for other people. The basis of thought here is twofold, 1. it is important for people to be empowered to discuss and address and eventually impact the conditions that shape their lives and 2. critical thinking is core to the development of leadership qualities in young people.

Here's an important nuance: Political education is a very specific term that means specific things and not other things. We use political education in addition to popular education, both of which are concepts and practices that arise out of mass-based movements. Popular education is most often credited to the thinking and practices of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator. It is a participatory practice that addresses the issues a community faces and is based on the lived experiences, and experiential knowledge, of the people. It also typically includes non-traditional learning methods like poetry, music, and storytelling. Political education is a structured process of study that seeks to create more capacity, sustainability, and focus for groups who are trying to effect social change. Rather than indoctrination and passive agreement, critical thinking and principled struggle are prioritized. It uses historical frameworks, theory, and practice to engage people in a collective learning process. It’s hard to fit all that on a flyer. The point of both practices is to build knowledge, unity, shared vision, and mutual understanding. To put it in simple terms — we want campers to leave camp knowing more about themselves, each other, and the world around them, and to come across differences to see what they have in common and what they agree on or share in terms of values.

3. With that in mind, how does intersectionality both provide organizers with a foundational philosophy and how is that philosophy introduced or to what degree does it play a part in Girls Rock camp, and by that I mean the actual camp itself.

Intersectionality is built into Girls Rock Charleston. We have a very diverse group of campers. They bring a very wide range of experiences, thoughts, assumptions, hopes, ideas, opinions, and expectations to camp. This means that our curriculum must speak to, include, engage, and be relevant to a wide range of young people. We don’t treat them as a monolith. Please consider this statement from the Combahee River Collective: “The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”

Our politics and vision as an organization play a much larger role in the way we run our organization and plan programs than it does in the actual curriculum at camp. Our workshops change every year and are led by different volunteers each summer. The subjects of workshops vary greatly at camp and can include topics such as DJing, recording, dance, zine making, South Carolina social justice history and music herstory. Last year we did have social justice workshops that some campers signed up for (entitled “Grass Roots Rock”), but not all campers participated in these workshops, as there are many options at camp. Because the nature of our programming is so open ended and campers are encouraged to be themselves and express their thoughts and ideas, conversations come up around race, gender, class, and other aspects of our campers’ lives. These conversations would come up in any situation in which a bunch of young people with different backgrounds and experiences are spending time together. Our program differs from other youth programs because we do not silence youth voices about “difficult” topics. Instead of silencing these thoughts or changing the subject, we encourage our youth to engage with each other, to share their ideas, and listen to each other. And we want our volunteers to be ready to facilitate these conversations in a respectful and supportive way so our campers can learn and grow from their experiences. We are obligated to facilitate these conversations so all campers feel they can be honest about who they are at camp.

If you’re asking if we read lengthy academic texts about intersectionality to the campers the answer would be no. It’s just a way to talk about our lives. For example, when we talk about women in the music industry, that necessitates talking about both labor issues and gender issues. Intersectionality is a way to recognize the interconnectedness of those issues in a way that makes sense.

4. Does the Charleston chapter or Girls Rock view itself as more radical than other camps and if so why or why not?

The Girls Rock Camp Alliance is a member organization and each camp is independent, not a chapter. Compared to other Rock Camps, we are more “radical” - but let’s be clear about what that word means.

When we say radical, what we mean is that we believe that social, economic, and political problems must be solved through addressing root causes, as opposed to symptoms. We want freedom, safety, and dignity for all people. If that makes us radical, then radical we are.

5. Is it possible that the statements on the About Page (including but not limited to the Mission Statement and Vision Statements) are not actually introduced in camp and therefore not shared with campers? If that’s the case or not, how so? (What I’m driving at is, are there a conflict between what is presented about Girls Rock on that page and what actually takes place at camp.)

There is not a conflict, but a difference in presentation. The vision is worded for adults. At camp, we strive to be engaging and meet youth where they are at depending on age and previous experience at camp. We introduce basic concepts, or stories, or examples, and encourage them to work through their own thoughts.

We do not directly introduce or discuss the mission statement or vision with our campers - instead, we seek to encourage our values (like inclusion, self-expression, and compassion) through the activities at camp. We do share our mission, vision, points of unity, and values with volunteers and junior counselors, because those statements lay the groundwork for the work we do at camp. The campers are living the mission statement through the week of camp — meaning they are collaborative, using creativity, making music, and creating media. This is what we do at camp. We discuss the vision statement with volunteers to help set the tone of camp, to set guidelines about what kind of space we want to create. There is not a conflict between what is presented on the website because that vision statement defines what kind of space we want our camp to be.

We also include the mission statement, vision statement, non-discrimination policy, and points of unity in our volunteer and camper handbooks, which have been at at camp every year, initially in paper zine format. Last year, we introduced digital handbooks for volunteers. This year, we are planning on sending a digital version of the camper and Junior Counselor handbooks out to the parents prior to the start of camp.

6. I’ve talked to several individuals about Girls Rock Charleston and trans youth, trans volunteers, and many have agreed that hard-and-fast rules about trans boys and their involvement with an all-girls camp such as GR have probably not been shaking out. That’s what I’d like to know at what point does a trans boy — not in any physical sense or self-identifying sense — become a “boy” at camp and no longer welcome? I hope I’m clear with what I’m asking. Personally, if I’m sending my girls to a girls camp, I don’t really expect to have boys there — trans girls are one thing, trans boys are another — since the point is to give girls a chance to by girls without boys in the picture. Like I said, I don’t mean offense.

This is an understandable question. The answer is that youth themselves decide. We don’t have a hard-and-fast rule, nor would we find it appropriate to define criteria that, if met, would cause a trans boy to be disallowed or excluded from camp. The reasons for this are several:

1. We want youth to come to camp because they want to be there, not only because a parent wants them to be there. If any youth feels uncomfortable at camp, we want them to decide for themselves whether they want to be there. For example, if a transgender boy feels uncomfortable at camp because it is called Girls Rock and he doesn’t identify as a girl, then we would want to support his decision not to be there, even if a parent felt that he was a girl and should be at camp.

2. Many transgender youth do not have access to supportive and understanding adults in their lives. We know that it is a risk to be a youth organization that is explicitly transgender inclusive (though it shouldn’t be), but part of the reason we feel it is so important is that all youth deserve safety and support — and we know that LGBTQ youth are at a much higher risk of suicide than many of their heterosexual peers. Because of the risks and lack of institutional and, too often, familial support for transgender youth, we feel that it is important to include and support any transgender youth who wants to be a part of our programming, regardless of whether they identify as a girl or not. This is why our mission says “girls and transgender youth”. We recognize that those terms overlap in some case and not in others.

3. We recognize that in establishing gender-specific programming, we highlight the tensions and failures of the current dominant understandings of gender. We do our best to maximize the possibilities gender-specific programming creates while navigating as best we can the challenges it creates. One of the challenges is the question of where the line is — who gets to be at camp? Because camp is for the campers, we feel it is best to trust each camper and camper family’s judgement on a case-by-case basis of whether or not camp is right for them.

For parents who may be concerned about their girl being at camp with boys, consider this: this camp is an opportunity to learn about people who are different than her in a supportive and encouraging environment. We believe that having trans boys at camp doesn't make it any less possible to emphasize for girl-identified campers how awesome they are and how awesome being a girl is.

7. Has the press failed to adequately portray Girls Rock as it actually is? It seems to me that the press has largely presented a picture of Girls Rock in fluffy articles as strictly a girls empowerment camp where girls are taught to rock out but the press has seemingly ignored the GR’s more all-encompassing political nature/failure to discuss the group’s belief in intersectionality. Would you agree? Why or why not? And if so, has Girls Rock failed in communicate to the press that it has larger political motivations?

The press has simplified Girls Rock Charleston’s work, and after four years of being HIGHLY consistent in our messaging and how we talk about our work, we feel that that is the fault of the press. We don’t see our organization as only a summer camp — we have other programming. We aren’t purely a political organization — to say so would be false. We aren’t purely a music education organization — to say so would be false. The problem seems to be that sometimes people look at us, and they see that we are fun, they see we involve music, and they see we are a youth organization — a girls organization — and they sum us up in this fluffy way that is reductive and ultimately sexist. It is foolish to assume that an organization can’t be fun AND address social justice issues thoughtfully. It is a foolish assumption to see girls with guitars and think that they don’t have anything important or impactful to say, and that is kind of the whole point of our organization. Don’t underestimate the power of our youth because if we don’t take them seriously and believe that what they have to say is important, they won’t either.

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