In the summer of 2015, Hillary McDaniel spent an impactful week in Los Angeles volunteering at Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls. By the end of that week, she had decided to bring the concept to Salt Lake City.
The premise is simple: gather a group of girls 8-18 years old during summer break, place them together in a camp full of drum sets, guitars, bass guitars, and microphones, and teach them how to rock n’roll. As summer camps go, this brings just the right mix of team-building, physical activity, personal evolution, fun, and education.The campers learn their instruments, form a few bands, write a few songs, and perform on stage together. The result is empowerment, camaraderie, boosted self esteem, and mutual support among the diverse groups.
And for McDaniel, the experience of volunteering at the Los Angeles Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls was life-changing, and transformative. “I was surrounded by femme power and energy all week … Salt Lake City needed a camp like this.”
Upon her return home, McDaniel began a frenzy of establishing the organizational framework and meeting with like-minded locals. She gathered a team and the team moved quickly, setting up a website, a registration process, branding, and marketing, all with the goal of opening their first camp in August of 2016.
“We ended up with 41 campers our first year, forming eight youth bands,” notes McDaniel. A number much higher than expected.
In the wake of that inaugural summer, McDaniel’s organization joined the Girls Rock Camp Alliance–an international network aiming to support programs like McDaniel’s, while propping up youth-centered arts and social justice, and setting the stage for collective liberation.
And it was in the spirit of collective liberation that McDaniel and team made a very important modification to the original concept: they would make it a central part of their mission to include not only girls, but all marginalized genders: specifically transgender and gender non-conforming youth.
The issues they sought to help some of their campers address were all too familiar to McDaniel, whose personal journey toward and through realizing her own queer identity came with many of same deeply traumatic struggles. “Fortunately, I was able to get the help I needed through programs at the Utah Pride Center” — another local organization taking great strides to empower individuals and community builders.
This is an important connection. Community building shares a key thematic undercurrent with Rock n’Roll Camp for Girls: the profoundly human act of amplifying someone’s voice. The act of helping a people be heard. Of elevating voices that, otherwise, are often muted and suppressed.
The rigors of organizing and running an inclusive rock camp have helped introduce McDaniel to other community builders as well. She has since purchased her own PA system which she lends, free of charge, to local activists needing a sound system for rallies. She has held roles with a number of other organizations outside of her sound duties too, helping wherever and however she can, often putting her background as a business analyst to excellent use.
As any great and responsible activist would agree, the work is never done. “I see a lot of activists hanging up their megaphone in exchange for job and family life, often forgetting that many in our communities are still under attack on a daily basis,” admits McDaniel. “I want to do work that inspires others to step up and use their voices to make change. It is our job as community organizers to inspire others to find ways to get involved in movement building. I believe in calling others in, not calling them out.”
Salt Lake City is small enough that community builders like McDaniel can connect, work together, and make actual change. But, as McDaniel readily notes, we have a long way to go. This disciplined ferocity telegraphs through everything she does, including being careful about where funding for any of her non-profit work originates. “I am fierce in my desire to not re-create the systems of power that oppress us … and in shifting leadership power to those who are most oppressed.”
Empowering the oppressed and marginalized is a serious undertaking, well suited for serious times. But by no means does it have to be a dour undertaking, and, being far from dour, it’s no secret that the work McDaniel does at Rock n’Roll Camp for Girls is an absolute blast, a riot, and a rock n’roll joyride of unparalleled verve.
Her enthusiasm for the program is impossible to overstate. “A day at Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls is MAGICAL! We start with some power stretching and talk about things we are excited about and nervous about.” From there the campers get their blood pumping with a set of punk rock aerobics, and then they separate into instructional groups, by instrument (all of which are generously donated from the local music community).
They practice, they talk about music theory, they get together with bandmates and jam. This is all peppered with a well-rounded mix of life education, including media literacy, self-defence, body-image, healthy boundaries, and zine making. And at lunch they are treated to Tiny Lunch Concerts from a diverse and intersectional mix of local musicians.
All of this culminates in the Camper Showcase on Saturday afternoon. This is performance day. It’s a concert unlike any other, wherein the campers get on stage, be brave together, and completely rock-out for the local community.
“The songs they write still blow me away,” says McDaniel, “no matter how many camps we have done. Working with youth gives me hope for the future more than any other community building work I do.”
It’s as inspirational a concept as any we can imagine, and the program is also proving to be monumentally effective.
So it is no great surprise that Hillary’s role in developing the greater SLC community is expanding monumentally, too. In 2019, she will be working with the Utah Pride Center as the Utah Pride Festival director.
We can think of no one more perfect for the job.
For more information about Rock n’Roll Camp for Girls, visit their site at: http://www.rockcampforgirlsslc.org/And you can learn more about, and support, the Utah Pride Center here: https://utahpridecenter.org/