Girls Rock Austin’s Ethos: I’m Not Sorry, I Rock

Trans and nonbinary-friendly camp gears up for Saturday show

A bassist at Camp Rock-A-Rama 2022, held at KMFA 89.5 (courtesy of Girls Rock Austin)

When I asked the executive director of Girls Rock Austin (GRA) to describe the local arts organization, the last word I expected Jamie Bahr to utter was "beast." After witnessing the outpouring of passion and care – and home-cooked meals – that goes into a week at GRA's rock & roll summer camp, Camp Rock-A-Rama, I would later come to realize beast was the best way to describe the program's intensive 16 years of empowerment.

The mantra repeated among campers ages 8-17? "I'm not sorry, I rock!"

Spread across cozy lounges and conference rooms at classical radio station KMFA's Eastside building on a rainy Monday afternoon, an estimated 40 young rockers and dozens of volunteers embarked on a happily hectic first day. Over the following five days, Bahr and other camp leaders will instruct the kids on everything from songwriting and instrument lessons to gear setup and band practices. The kiddos form musical groups leading up to GRA's labor of love, the Camper Band Showcase, scheduled for 1pm this Saturday, June 10, at the ABGB.

The open-to-all showcase provides campers with the opportunity to demonstrate everything they've learned over the week, including the performance of an original song by each band. Former students include Austin blues artist Jackie Venson and cumbia rock sibling trio the Tiarras.

"We encourage them to explore different genres and sounds, and to really make it their own," Bahr says. "It's a wonderful moment to see them come onstage, sing their little lungs out, and feel the power that comes when everyone is standing there listening to you. They've been put into a position where they really had to be brave in every shape, way, and form for a week, so seeing someone get out of their comfort zone to do this is remarkable."

When GRA campers aren't plugged in and practicing their instruments, some for the first time in their lives, they spend a portion of the nearly 40 hours at camp attending workshops designed to foster collaboration and leadership as well as key skills within the music industry. Monday's programming consisted of healthy communication practices and boundary-setting, subjects rarely taught in a typical classroom.

"Our campers get the tools and strategies they need to go through their everyday life without feeling that anxiety of navigating alone," says Bahr, who plays locally in Danger*Cakes and Brand New Key. "We're there with them, and I think that's why everyone's like, 'Oh gosh, I wish I had this when I was young or when I was a teenager.'"

Girls Rock Austin campers in 2022 (Courtesy of Girls Rock Austin)

GRA Program Director Imani Glasco is one of many who wished for a safe space in music while growing up.

"What I really like about Girls Rock, and so much of the Austin music scene, is that there is a very concentrated effort in trying to be a community and help each other grow as people and musicians," Glasco says. "I think that's really heartening to see because the music industry, like so many other industries for so long, has been male-dominated."

Another hallmark of GRA is the welcoming circle it has built for transgender and gender nonconforming youth within its programming, especially at Camp Rock-A-Rama, where Bahr invites music artists of all backgrounds and identities to perform for campers during lunch.

"We have a lot of campers who are trans and nonbinary, and we want them to see people who look like them thriving and living their best life," she says.

Like many organizations, Girls Rock did not receive Cultural Arts grants for the first time this year following restructuring of the city's new Thrive program. Although forces like lack of city funding and Texas' anti-LGBTQIA legislation may threaten the operation of GRA, its leadership remains determined to rock on.

"I love this job," Bahr says. "I see how much of a transformational experience it can be for someone. It's not just our campers that that happens for. Our volunteers, our staff, the organization is more than just a nonprofit. We have our own community now. Many of those same people come back every single year, whether they're campers or volunteers."

With the Camper Band Showcase days away, Glasco says she looks forward to seeing two months of organizing Camp Rock-A-Rama come to fruition at the end of the week.

"I really enjoy getting to see other people, especially young people, learn a new instrument and get to experience the fun of performing," the program director says. "Getting to share something I'm passionate about and enjoy doing so much, and seeing them become passionate and watching their joy, is what I'm looking forward to. It's not just my work, but it's theirs too, the whole community effort and all of our volunteers, and the people who make GRA the beast that we are now."

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