Meet the Rock Camp Founders Who Are Teaching Much More Than Music

Musicians Mona Tavakoli and Becky Gebhardt created Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles as a space where Southern Californian girls can rock out and get empowered.

Lauren Shelburne By Lauren Shelburne

Mona Tavakoli and Becky Gebhardt are on a mission to empower a new generation of women who aren’t afraid to jam out and be heard.

The drummer and bass player met in college and began performing together as members of a rock-folk band called Raining Jane. Today, they collaborate as the cofounders of Rock n’ Roll Camp for Girls Los Angeles, which has served about 130 self-identifying girls, ages 8 to 17, every summer since 2010.

Campers learn musical instruments, form bands, write original songs and then perform them at local hot spots like El Rey Theatre and The Troubadour. They have jammed and chatted with musicians like Katy Perry, Linda Perry, Sia and Sara Bareilles — and even gotten to hear these idols play at the daily lunchtime concerts.

But making music isn’t the only purpose of this band camp. Attendees are mentored by other women and taught life skills that apply both to musicianship and to life — skills that will last a lifetime.

Indeed, for Tavakoli and Gebhardt, those relationships and life lessons are what make this girls camp special and important. “The centerpiece of our programming is about inspiring them to express themselves in ways that had never done, or had the opportunity to, or thought they could,” Tavakoli says.

Starting and Growing

Inspiration for the camp struck in 2005 when the two women volunteered at the Portland, Ore., Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, the world’s first girls-only rock camp, which started in 2001. Tavakoli and Gebhardt took a roadtrip there, arriving armed with almost 30 guitars and basses made by guitar maker Fender, their band’s sponsor, ready to guide campers as they met their bandmates and began to write their songs. When they left at the end of the week, they were determined to bring the venture down to Southern California.

At the end of 2009, the pair set plans for their rock camp in motion. They teamed up with the Girls Rock Camp Alliance (GRCA), a 501(c)3 membership organization that brings knowledge and resources to similar camps around the world, including the one in Portland.

They kicked off their first camp session the following summer with 50 girls gathering at a nearby school. Family, friends and musicians in their personal networks signed on to round out an excited, passionate volunteer staff — some of whom still return every year. Tavakoli says the work of their camp attracts “a really remarkable type of person,” willing to give up a week of their time “to inspire young girls.”

Photo courtesy of Debi DelGrande

Camp days start with a punk rock “yogaerobics,” a class that combines yoga and aerobics to get blood pumping and energy flowing. Then it’s time for instrument practice, with campers breaking up into groups based on age and sometimes skill level, which can range from advanced musicians to those learning to play for the first time.

They also attend workshops covering everything from screen printing and ‘zine making to self-defense and image and identity exploration. But the camp does not have a set curriculum, instead adapting every summer to the distinct group of gifted helpers and campers who arrive. Each year, “we get to create our ideal version of a space where girls can create and express and come together and exercise all of those things,” Tavakoli says.

Empowerment for All Girls

At the camp, where girls as young as 8 years old discuss concepts like breaking gender stereotypes, the lessons expand well past chord progressions and stage dives.

The pair designed the camp to be a safe space that promotes inclusion, kindness and self-expression. Campers and volunteers of every race, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion and background are welcome at the camp — making the point that those identities need not define you as a person or a musician.

People from different parts of the city, backgrounds and gender presentations all stand side by side at rock camp. Gebhardt says it is designed to be a place where all attendees can be their most authentic selves.

Here the idea of a gender binary is challenged presenting no “correct way” to be a woman. The camp welcomes anyone who self-identifies as a woman — no matter what gender she was assigned at birth. Both volunteers and campers represent a variety of different gender identities, broadening the horizons of all involved and learning from each other.

“Campers see themselves in volunteers, which can be life-changing especially if relatable role-models aren’t available elsewhere,” Gebhardt adds. Tavakoli describes the interactions between the women mentoring the young campers as a “beautiful exchange.”

This diversity helps not only the campers but also volunteers learn to understand each other and the world better. “Our mission statement on paper is ‘to empower girls through music education,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Tavakoli says. “It so experiential — it’s so about being in that space and witnessing how it changes you, if you are a volunteer or a camper.”

The two women have created a successful business model, as well as a welcoming one, while other similar camps have closed down. A student tuition of $425 per week originally covered the camp expenses, and as it has grown the camp has received funding from foundations, individuals and corporations. Local musicians and larger companies donate instruments.

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Agbe-Davies

The camp has no official sponsors or annual funders. Rather, it began and grew thanks to the support of friends and professional connections at the Alliance, their band Raining Jane — in a sense, their first business venture — and companies like Fender, DW Drums and Guitar Center.

Encouraged by their success, Tavakoli and Gebhardt in 2011 opened a springtime Ladies Rock Camp, where adults can indulge their rock star dreams for a weekend. Four years later, they launched the Music Video Program, where young students direct, shoot and edit music videos, while being coached by industry professionals.

A Rockin’ Future

Tavakoli and Gebhardt are already brainstorming ways to improve next year’s camp. “As good as it gets, there is still a way to be more inclusive, have better programming, reach more girls, dig deeper into social justice or curriculum, music education,” Tavakoli says.

Indeed, while the camp has fostered the talents of many gifted musicians throughout their years of operations, Tavakoli and Gebhardt hope every girl walks away having learned about more than music.

“Because of the uniqueness of being solely female identified, people behave differently, feel differently and are more open usually — or have expectations that are,” Gebhardt says. “The one thing I hope they take away is a more secure sense of self, which can then be applied to any endeavor, any challenge or any moment.”

The cofounders say they would have liked to have a camp like RCGLA growing up — though in a way, their lives have been like rock camp. They became self-expressed full-time musicians and are thankful to have met each other and other kind, open-hearted, inclusive women while students at the University of California at Los Angeles. These relationships put them on a new path, one of empowering future generations of female rock stars.

“The work of Rock n’ Roll Camp is so intuitive for us and so natural, and that’s why we keep doing it,” Tavakoli says. It is a lot of work, but “it is so directly in line with who we are in the world and our values that rock camp feels like a perfect extension of our life paths.”

Posted: October 12, 2017

Lauren ShelburneMeet the Rock Camp Founders Who Are Teaching Much More Than Music