*Ace Canessa, one of the article’s subjects, has asked for they/them pronouns are used in place of gender specific ones. While not considered “grammatically acceptable” in certain circles, we respect each person’s right to be referred to as they wish. Language is a forever slow moving vessel for expressing thought. Perhaps with the shifting landscape of how we perceive sexual orientation, language will naturally shift in order to more accurately reflect identity.

When they say girls, they mean all girls –- transgender, gender nonconforming, or anyone who identifies as a girl or falls outside binary gender lines –- are welcome at Girls Rock Camp Jacksonville (GRCJ). The organization is one of 43-networked camps around the world focused on empowering girls and women by using the tools of music education and performance.

The social justice component to the organization’s work is hard to miss. The Girls Rock Camp Alliance (GRCA) website has an inclusive and prominent Statement of Diversity/Non-Discrimination Policy:

The Girls Rock Camp Alliance values diversity of age, race, economic status, gender expression, size, physical ability, developmental ability, musical interests, learning styles, nationality, religion, thought, citizenship status, and sexual orientation. We promote respect and do not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, or other discriminatory behavior or expression.”

Founded in 2007 in Portland, Oregon, the international camp now puts instruments in the hands of more than 3,000 girls every year. GRCA hosts an annual conference (in rotating cities), allowing every member organization (regional camps) to send staff and board members for training, skill sharing and self-governance.

After attending the 2011 conference in Charleston, South Carolina, Ace Canessa, Summer Wood, and Sarah Humphreys produced Girls Rock Camp Jacksonville in 2012, hosting 27 girls. The camp has grown each year. In 2014, more than 60 campers attended. That means over the past three years, more than 100 campers have performed an original song on an instrument that many picked up for the first time that same week.

“Obviously, the end of camp is aimed at this wonderful showcase,” says Canessa, camp organizer. “They use music to form peer advocacy, about building each other up & not tearing one another down. It’s a non competitive model. It also demystifies what rocks bands are and what music is.”

 Canessa also sees it as a form of cultural expression.

“Especially in the south, a lot of youth voices, folks of color, queer voices are kind of erased from certain circles that have always been there…It’s another way for folks’ voices to be heard.

GRCA is conscientious of keeping camp tuition reasonable; most cities have sliding-scale tuition fees and scholarships available. 

GRCA partners with Guardian Ad Litem to create opportunities for children in the foster care system. “This is the one time of year they go somewhere and they’re not the foster kids,” says Humphreys, camp coordinator. “They come to camp and they’re just with all of the other [girls]. Our kids get valued from wherever they are. The big takeaway is that the only thing that they are, is who they want to be – no matter what.”

Camp begins with group agreements that all campers are encouraged to play a role in creating, giving structure around expected roles of behavior and accountability. The mornings begin with general assembly discussions focused on issues like consent, personal space, safety, etc. Heavy issues are addressed through a role-playing group, ‘The Skittles.’ Workshops teach instrument instruction, stage presence, [maga]zine publishing, screen-printing, experimental sounds, how to start a band after camp, and rap workshops.

During lunch, professional female musicians perform and Q&A with the campers. Some local performers that have visited include: Canary in the Coalmine, CHOP, Tomboi, Little Books, and bands traveling from Gainesville to South Carolina. More than 50 volunteers donate their talents to camp.

Camp concludes with a public performance of the bands. This year, GRCJ’s end-of-camp showcase happens at Underbelly on Saturday, August 1. Nine bands will perform songs they wrote with their band over the course of the week.

“It’s not about them winning a Grammy or about them coming up with the song of their generation,” says Canessa. “It’s about collaboration…no one person is going to stand alone. You can’t have a song without the other (band mates), and that’s the amazing thing where camp comes from.”

One of the pressing long-term goals is create a new generation of GRCJ leaders. Many of the campers are returning, some as alumni volunteers. Music is the message as drumsticks became batons for future leaders – They got the beat.


For showcase information: