Eleven-year-old Loie (Furry Trash) McLaine, donned in cat leggings, floral combat boots and a fuzzy white tail, speed-walked down the Northwoods Middle School hallway trying to keep up with a curly red-headed camper skating alongside in sneaker Heely's.
McLaine, a Carolina Youth Action Project summer rock camp attendee, prefers to go by they/their pronouns. Asking for someone's pronouns is a handbook rule among campers and volunteers. "She/her," "he/him" or "they/their" are often written, along with a preferred moniker (McLaine's was Furry Trash) on lanyard-laced name tags.
McLaine's favorite workshop of the week was "Debunking Civil Rights Myths." It's just one of the many workshops at rock camp that doesn't have anything to do with music.
That's because rock camp isn't really about the music.
"We envision a South Carolina transformed by the radical organizing of girls, trans youth and gender-nonconforming youth, where our communities work collectively to dismantle the existing structures of domination, violence and punishment that shape their lives and create spaces for growth and healing in their place." —Carolina Youth Action Project Handbook
What began in 2011 as Girls Rock Charleston, a summer camp with the mission to equip girls with the confidence that sometimes only a stage and a rock 'n' roll instrument can provide, has taken on a new name and expanded mission.
Now called Carolina Youth Action Project, the organization includes young women, as well as transgender, gender non-conforming and queer-identified youth ages 10-17 in the Lowcountry.
Though summer camp is a big aspect of what the organization provides, it also organizes campaigns throughout the year based on its core values and mission, including the creation of a new sex education curriculum. Another program offered throughout the school year is "Youth Action Alliance," a hands-on political education regime. There are many ways to get involved, in person and online, even with just a donation.
"It's so cool to be a part of this and be a part of these kids' lives," says Kim Larson, a founding member of the organization who also is in local band Southern Femisphere.
Creative Resistance: "We strive to create and resist at the intersection of art, culture and community organizing."
A hallway classroom with a glittery neon green "Welcome" sign on the door fills with the sounds of three keyboard players practicing "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes.
McLaine is one of them.
Other songs the group is learning include "Africa" by Toto and a song by Swedish metal band Avatar, a group that McLaine had introduced to the other keyboard players.
"Yeah, I like heavy metal," says McLaine with a laugh and a shrug.
McLaine wasn't the only one. At afternoon band practice, where the kids are split up into different bands (each featuring keyboards, bass, guitar and drums), the members of Unknown Blue Night are writing a heavy metal song of their own.
The four-piece band, consisting of 12-year-old Lucy Strasburg, 12-year-old Jayden Lawrence, 13-year-old Felix Baber and 13-year-old Lilian Ducker, practice a synth introduction leading into grungy vocals and power chords.
"Being in a band and getting on stage and showing that to other people — that's what I love most about camp," says Baber, who has vibrant purple hair and is wearing a long, colorful skirt covered in music notes.
"My favorite part is meeting new people," says Lawrence while strumming her bass. "Everybody's nice and you don't get judged for being who you are."
A lot of campers are repeat attendees. Baber had participated the year before and learned how to play guitar. He was switching to drums this year and thrilled about the band's showcase on Saturday, a chance for the kids to perform an original song they had created during the week.
Political Education: "We believe our work is inherently political. We recognize education as a tool to examine the past, critique our existing conditions, mobilize individuals to demand change and organize our communities to create a safer and more just world."
But before the showcase, and in between practices, it was time for the most important part of camp: the workshops.
There are little lessons written on construction paper and posted along the hallways of Northwoods Middle School, located a stone's throw from Northwoods Mall in North Charleston. The notes feature cutout cat photos and are called "Kitten Tips." Kitten Tip No. 51 is to give people their space, while Kitten Tip No. 37 reads, "It's okay to make sad music." Some are about consent. Others are about being yourself.
These ideas are developed in the workshops.
"What does queerness mean to you?" asks 18-year-old youth leader Jasmine Tabor. It's her fifth year at camp, and she's now one of the teachers.
Camp is about creating a safe space for kids and to help them develop a voice while also introducing them to queer terminology, social justice issues and political activism. The workshops are a place for learning, sharing and discussing. For every five minutes of teaching, workshop leaders are encouraged to create space for two minutes of discussion. And when someone has the microphone, all attention is on them with no interruptions.
"What we're all trying to get across to kids is that you're a person, and I think they have a voice, and we're just here to listen to them and make sure we don't push our ideas onto them and just give them the option to understand everything that's going on around them," says Tabor.
Other workshops this year included "Creating Space for Queer Youth in Schools," "Disrupting the Gender Binary," "Black Images in the Media" and "Self-Love."
"One day we won't need to have this grand coming-out," says youth leader Jamison Fordham in another workshop down the hall. "People will just understand."
The class ended with a round of cheering and campers shouting, "You rock!"
Theory of Change: "We believe young people can most effectively transform their communities when they have access to political education, leadership development and organizing opportunities. The Carolina Youth Action Project works to strengthen and sustain the necessary infrastructure for radical change in the South."
Camp isn't over on Friday, though. The moment of truth is the Saturday rock showcase at the Charleston Music Hall, where the bands can share an original song with friends, family and the community.
Between sets, rainbow lights shine and silly skits are offered by the campers. Their confidence after a week at camp is then channeled through their rock 'n' roll instruments during each performance.
Unknown Blue Night performed "Door Step," while Strawberry Cacti played "Snap Back" and Crusade of Flowers jammed out to "Chrysanthemum." There were 11 bands in total, all with different voices, sounds and ideas, but just one stage and one overriding message: Everyone matters.