Girls Rock Detroit empowers local girls to get loud

Growing up in a strongly feminist household with musician parents, Bia Cassano says she's "honestly shocked" at how much she's learned from Girls Rock camp.
Every summer since 2010, the 18-year-old Pontiac resident has attended the female-empowerment-oriented band camp in either Brooklyn or Chicago, both of which fall under the loose organizational umbrella of the international Girls Rock Camp Alliance. But this summer Cassano will become the lead junior counselor at a new camp much closer to home: Girls Rock Detroit, which runs July 13-18 at Michigan State University's Community Music School in Detroit.
Although individual Girls Rock camps differ slightly in their approaches, the basic idea is what Girls Rock Detroit co-founder Melissa Coppola describes as "a fusion of activism and feminism and music education." Campers aged 8 to 16 receive introductory instruction in songwriting and playing a musical instrument, forming bands and developing original material together. But they also participate in workshops on body image, self-esteem, and women's music history. The camp week culminates with a public concert showcasing the campers and their music.
But Cassano says the most important benefit of the class is perhaps also the most intangible.
"Girls Rock Camp is motivation," she says. "It's motivation to get together and work on this project and do this thing, which you would never think you'd be able to do otherwise. But once you've done it once, there's the idea that maybe you could do it again on your own time."
Girls Rock Detroit was co-founded last fall by three Detroit-area musicians: Coppola (of Junglefowl), Cassano's mother Ros Hartigan (of Blue Pontiac) and Willa Rae Adamo (of Ms. Willa Rae and the Minor Arcana). The trio originally met in 2011 as volunteers at Girls Rock! Chicago. Coppola says she was intrigued to get involved in the organization after discovering Girls Rock NC at a benefit concert in North Carolina.
"I definitely wish there had been something like that when I was younger," Coppola says. "Seeing the girls come in and totally break out of their shells just by picking up a guitar and not being apologetic about it -- and being loud and being able to express themselves in a way that's not usually encouraged for little girls -- was just so inspiring."
As with other Girls Rock camps, Girls Rock Detroit will be entirely volunteer-run. A group of 40 women will staff the camp, including notable local musicians like Allison Hanna of The Gator and Erin Norris and Dina Bankole of Casual Sweetheart.
Hartigan says that in a male-dominated music world, volunteering for Girls Rock is deeply rewarding.
"It's a very similar experience as for the campers," she says. "It brings together all these musicians from throughout the area to work together in a space they don't normally have access to."
In its inaugural year, the demand for Girls Rock Detroit has been overwhelming. The camp was fully booked with 25 girls just two weeks after opening its application process, and almost 25 more are on a waitlist. Hartigan says the majority of the campers come from within Detroit city limits, and many will receive tuition assistance. Camp tuition is determined on a sliding scale ranging from $0-$200. The camp is currently conducting a crowdfunding campaign to help cover remaining costs.
With such a strong response to their first offering, Girls Rock Detroit organizers are looking ahead to bigger initiatives down the road. Coppola envisions Girls Rock Detroit volunteers leading songwriting workshops in Detroit public schools, or a "Ladies Rock" camp for moms. But the annual summer camp will continue to be the group's main focus, and next year it's almost certain to expand to at least two sessions.
"It will probably double or triple in size, which will mean a more complex organization for us," Hartigan says. "We'll need to recruit more people to be involved in a long-term way, but I don't think that'll be a problem."

All photos by Sheri Fucinari.
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