In an airy, sun-drenched hall, small circles of young people are sprawled across the floor. Pens, pencils and sheets of paper surround them. Each group’s attention is focused on the task at hand: creating logos for the bands they formed together just two days ago.
We’re at Ainslie Arts Centre, a heritage-listed ex-school turned community events space, for Rock Camp – a week-long school holiday music program run by Girls Rock! Canberra, one of this year’s Bank Australia community customer grant recipients.
Rock Camp is a place where girls (cis and trans), trans-boys, gender-diverse and intersex young people aged between 10 and 17 can learn new skills, be part of a supportive community, and unapologetically make some noise. In the old classrooms and school assembly hall, participants swap out studying their times tables and long division for learning to sing vocal scales, hammer drum kits and play the rousing riff of Sweet Child O’ Mine on the electric guitar.
Rock Camp’s co-directors, Chiara and Phoebe, believe in the transformational power of music to help young people connect with their identities and each other. “Music is a really big way for us to feel a part of a community, not just as fans, but as participants,” says Chiara.
It’s a place where young people can break existing stereotypes and build their own culture around music; one that values inclusivity, equity and respect.
“The youth is the future of the music scene,” says Nelly, a former camper who has returned this year as an intern. “When we're given access into that music scene, especially women or people who are gender diverse, we bring a whole different perspective to the mainly male-dominated side.”
Rock Camp participants are grouped into bands at the start of the week, then do all the things bands do – learn how to play instruments, create logos and merch, have band practice, and collaborate to create music. At the end of the week, each band performs an original song at the Saturday showcase.
The Rock Camp model is a version of similar camps Chiara attended in the US when she was younger, before founding the Canberra chapter back in 2016. Phoebe got involved a few years later, and the two have fallen into the rhythm of a natural partnership ever since. Along with the participants, Rock Camp also comprises mentors in educational roles and a passionate team of interns who have all attended the program in the past. Chiara’s mum even runs the kitchen, feeding hungry campers between their instrument instruction and band practice sessions.
“One of our values is do it yourself, or do it together,” Chiara says. “We try to lead the organisation as collaboratively as possible, and we're also learning the whole time.”
“There's so much intergenerational knowledge sharing that goes on at Rock Camp,” Phoebe agrees. “Something we hear from young people a lot is that they’re able to see a future for themselves, particularly for a lot of our transgender, gender-diverse and non-binary young people who might not see a lot of visible adults. There are a lot of queer – and visibly queer – adults at Rock Camp. Just having that sense of future is really powerful.”
Girls Rock! Canberra chose to bank with Bank Australia due to shared values. “I didn't want to invest more money in companies that I think are ruining the planet or harming people,” Phoebe says. “I like to know that the money that I have in the bank is supporting good things.”
As customers, Girls Rock! Canberra were able to successfully apply for a Bank Australia community customer grant to support their work on this year’s Rock Camp. The funding has helped them with more material things, like mental health first aid training for staff, paying a diverse range of artists to perform during lunchtime sets, and increasing access through program scholarships, which benefitted around one-third of this year’s 35 participants.
Crucially, the grant also meant Chiara, Phoebe and their team could shift their limited focus and energy from fundraising to more useful things.
“We’re a small team running a small, not-for-profit arts organisation,” Chiara says. “Having the grant this year has taken a huge weight off our shoulders. It’s allowed us to put a lot more energy into running a really good camp, and make it the best week that it can be for our campers and mentors.”
Ultimately, that’s what Rock Camp is all about. “Everyone here is creating this amazing space that feels so collaborative and supportive,” Phoebe says. “That's not the kind of energy you get from the world most of the time, so it feels really, really special.”