In the first weeks of the Tzedek Fellowship year, Fellows are asked to share a story about how they became inspired social justice workers. Here’s Hannah’s.
By Hannah James
Struggles with Adolescence and Girls Rock NC
My experience of adolescence was not unique. As a kid I was outgoing and confident. I made friends easily; laughed and talked often. I was labeled Academically Gifted in kindergarten, and lived up to that label with self-assuredness. As I transitioned to middle school I started to shrink, preoccupied with my changing body, desire to be accepted by “cool” older kids, and increasing sense of difference. Like many pre-teens, my expressions of individuality were awkward, confused, and urgent. I felt each of my feelings with the intensity of a hurricane. I occupied my own body, tall and gangly, with such discomfort that I could only bring myself to dress in oversized black t-shirts. I drew crayon-thick rings of black liner around my eyes, because I thought it made me look as sophisticated and misunderstood as I felt. My taste in music was expanding to alt-rock, punk and grunge: genres that expressed a moodiness that resonated with me, without me having to express those feelings myself. I withdrew from academics. I withdrew from my old friends. I possessed within me a deep and unrelenting self-hatred; and to the extent that I saw myself in my family, I hated them, too.
The summer before middle school I was searching desperately for an outlet for self-expression, and decided to start a rock band with my two best friends. I began taking bass guitar lessons. (Yes, my self-esteem was so low that, out of all instruments, I gravitated toward the bass guitar.) Our band was called The Nepotists. I don’t recall whether we wrote any songs. Around this time, my mom saw a summer camp advertised in the newspaper: Girls Rock NC, a summer camp for adolescent girls to learn to play in a rock band.
The first rock and roll summer camp for girls was started in Portland, Oregon in 2001 as a product of the ‘90s Third Wave Feminist and Riot Grrrl Movements. The following six years saw the establishment of at least ten new camps, including Girls Rock NC, which began operating in the Triangle area of North Carolina in 2003. Today, over 60 Girls Rock camps have been established across North America and around the world, with organizations in South America, Europe, Asia and Australia. In recent years, most Girls Rock organizations have shifted from being girl-centric to trans-inclusive.
Feminism through Girl Bands
When I attended Girls Rock NC, girls of various ages were encouraged to play a musical instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform it at the end of the week for a live audience at Cat’s Cradle: a major music venue in Carrboro, NC. Some of us had musical experience already, but many had never held an instrument before in our lives. All camp programming revolved around cultural production: playing instruments, making zines, screen printing T-shirts, writing songs. Healthy femininity was modeled for us everywhere. The space swelled with affirmations and support from incessantly encouraging women, and local female-fronted bands performed lunchtime concerts every day. Camp organizers even gave each of us a CD of their favorite girl bands and artists. I discovered Bikini Kill, whose frontwoman Kathleen Hanna became my first feminist icon. The most important impact of this camp’s particular brand of feminism was that it made me feel seen and heard: affirmations that were vital for my identity development at this age. Girls Rock also offered me my first glimpse into the world of social justice and gave me new language to name the oppressions I was feeling. Experiences that once felt isolated and personal, I came to understand through the lens of systemic inequality.
Volunteering at Girls Rock NC
Although I had a new framework through which to view the world, I didn’t immediately give up all my self-destructive behaviors. I continued to flounder academically, and pushed people away with my facade of smug indifference. I felt at once exceptional and inferior to my peers, discredited and overestimated. It was the policy of my high school to require that each student engage in community service, so I started volunteering as a “teen mentor” at Girls Rock NC. In the early days, I didn’t feel like a great mentor. Unlike school, however, success at rock camp wasn’t about grades or acquiescence to peer pressure. Instead, support, listening, and encouragement were celebrated. Overtime, these were skills I learned. I co-led the same workshops I had experienced as a camper, and my understanding deepened. Becoming a teen mentor forced me to identify the strong and empowered part of myself that I wanted to model for the kids, and embodying that version of myself helped me discover who I wanted to be.
Every summer throughout high school I volunteered for Girls Rock NC, until I was 18 and left for college in Asheville. With its reputation as a liberal haven for “weirdos,” I assumed Asheville would have its own Girls Rock camp already, but it didn’t. Rock camp stayed on my mind. For an assignment in my freshman writing seminar I wrote a research paper titled “Girls and Music: The DIY Construction of Culture.” Something changed for me in college, and I started succeeding again academically. I gravitated toward the social sciences, eventually choosing to study sociology and economics and working as a research assistant. I started to take myself and my abilities more seriously than I ever had.
Helping Form Girls Rock Asheville
One day sophomore year, my roommate excitedly told me there was a Girls Rock camp forming in Asheville. “No way,” I said, “If there was a Girls Rock here, I would know about it.” A few weeks later I heard rumors of a Girls Rock camp again, and learned that a small group of women had begun to hold interest meetings about starting Girls Rock Asheville. By the end of the week I was Girls Rock Asheville’s volunteer coordinator. I was so eager to be involved that I was ready to take on any job. By the end of that summer, we had organized and held our first rock camp. It was an abbreviated version of the typical week-long summer camp, held in the basement of a local music venue and bar; an ad hoc initiative came together only by the sweat and passion of the women who powered it, myself included. In my youth, Girls Rock came into my life, almost by accident, as a chance opportunity for empowerment. As an adult, it was an experience intentionally and painstakingly crafted, by me and other women I love and admire for kids much like younger versions of ourselves. And working on behalf of those kids has led to an entirely new type of empowerment–one that comes from collaborating on a dream and actualizing it together.
Since our first camp in 2014, I have remained an active organizer and board member of Girls Rock Asheville. Meanwhile, back in the Triangle, my two younger sisters, Lily and Molly, have planted themselves firmly in the volunteer community of Girls Rock NC. Both of them are performing musicians, active in social justice, and all-around successful, awesome people. Several years ago, we got to meet Kathleen Hanna. At an event sponsored by several Girls Rock organizations and alongside my sisters and my mom, I cried while watching Hanna perform. We were awestruck.
Although I’d love to, I can’t wrap this story up with a tidy ending, because it isn’t over. Even now, as I try to write it down, I’m resisting the urge to shut down and let someone else tell the story for me. But I am resisting, because I hold this truth: when kids express themselves by screaming, uncensored, into a microphone, or by beating on a drum kit with all their strength, or by collaborating on a zine with their peers, they are challenging the notion that being a cultural producer is something that only cis-men do. The same is true of speaking up in a board room, or applying for a fellowship, or writing a blog post.
About Hannah James
Hannah James was born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina. From a young age, she felt called to do social justice and advocacy work. Hannah has been living in Asheville since 2012 when she began studying sociology and economics at UNCA. While in school, Hannah was hired as the manager of a federally funded local food research project based in the UNCA Department of Economics, where she gained invaluable management, budgeting, and organizational experience while developing a growing passion for research. In 2014, she became a co-founder of Girls Rock Asheville, a nonprofit music and social justice education summer camp for girls and trans youth. She currently serves as Treasurer on Girls Rock Asheville’s Board of Directors. In 2016, Hannah completed an original undergraduate research project titled“Community Engagement in Place-Based Social and Economic Development: A Case Study of The Wild Ramp,” which she has presented at multiple conferences. It is due to be published in NCUR’s Fall 2016 journal. Hannah graduated from UNCA in May of 2016 and was ecstatic to be hired a month later as the Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at The Center for Diversity Education. Hannah is passionate about using education, advocacy, and mixed research methodologies to dismantle systems of oppression. When she isn’t working or volunteering at local nonprofits, Hannah is an avid thrift shopper, animal snuggler, and her two younger sisters’ biggest fan.