NYC Rock Camp Director Karla Schickele Is Badass: The Autostraddle Interview

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This is the second time I’ve interviewed Karla Schickele, executive director and founder of Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in New York, but last time we spoke I didn’t get to say the words “gender binary.” That’s the difference between interviewing Karla for my day job at a parenting magazine and interviewing her for you rockstar queers at Autostraddle. Read on to learn more about why Karla started the camp, what makes her cry every summer, the camp’s kick-ass non-discrimination policy, and much more rockin’ goodness.

karla schickele

What made you decide to start a girls rock camp in New York?

I volunteered at the Portland Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls in 2003 and 2004 as a bass teacher and band coach. I just immediately got hooked. It was the most extraordinary environment that I ever found myself in. The whole thing was so inspiring… it completely blew my mind. I knew that it was what I wanted to do with my life, so after the second summer I asked the organizers there if it was okay if I tried to start [a camp] in New York. I got their blessing, so a group of us started working together and the following summer we had our first session in New York. It just felt like a good thing for the world–beyond music–that I really wanted to be involved in.

When you started Willie Mae, were there already a lot of girls rock camps out there?

There were very few. We started in 2005, and in 2007 there was the first convening of rock camps and there were seven of us, including a camp in Sweden called Popkollo that had started up around the same time as the Portland camp but didn’t know the Portland camp existed. It was just sort of an idea whose time had come. And then we just had this year’s conference last month, and there were 40 camps from all over the world and more than 100 people. It’s been a complete explosion.

big mama thornton

Why did you decide to name the camp after Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton?

We were interested in giving it a name that was a little bit more poetic, and also specific. We try to use everything that happens at Rock Camp as an opportunity to educate people about some of the pioneering women of music, and Big Mama Thornton felt like a good example because she made some great music and also had some difficulty as a woman–and as a woman of color–in the music industry, and had to overcome a lot of challenges in order to make her art. And we liked the sound of “Willie Mae”; it felt like a musical sounding name.

How did Ladies Rock Camp evolve?

It came out of Portland, like the original program model. They started it as a fundraiser for their activities, and also because so many adult women say, “I wish that Rock Camp been around when I was a kid.” Our first Ladies Rock Camp session was pretty early on and it was really well received. We’ve been doing them ever since, but last year we made a pretty big change: we changed it from a fundraising event into a program. Now it’s offered with sliding scale tuition, like all of our youth programs.

Tell me a little bit about Ladies Rock Camp. What can people expect when they sign up?

They can expect joy! [laughs] And to have any nervousness that they might encounter at the prospect of starting a band on Friday and playing your first gig on Sunday completely met with encouragement and support and cheering on by everyone around them. We do instant bands at Ladies Rock Camp but we also do instant community. It’s really extraordinary how by the end of the first day there’s a real community of people who want to rock, and also who want to encourage each other to try something new and take some creative risks and to not be afraid to play a quote unquote “wrong note”, or to put out a lyrical idea that they might feel shy about. All of these things that feel so daunting in every day life become very possible and much less scary in an environment like Ladies Rock Camp.

lady rockers via brooklynvegan

Is there a typical “Ladies Rock Camper”? Is there anyone who should NOT go to camp?

I mean, I think that camp is for everyone. We have a lot of shy and nervous folks, but then we have folks who come in who say, “I’m a rocker, I know all the chords, I know everything,” and then by the end of the weekend they might learn some new stuff that they didn’t even know was out there to learn. The experience really lends itself not only to musical beginners and to people with a lot of experience, but also to a range of personalities. We have some people who come and say, “I’ve been daring myself to do this for four years, and this is the first year I finally got up the nerve to really do it.” I guess the only person who shouldn’t come to rock camp is the person who’s dead set against supporting other people. That wouldn’t really jive with us.

So there’s no average profile?

No! And that’s one of the great things, that there’s no average profile at all. We’ve had campers who are 19 years old and we’ve had campers who are in their 70s and then everyone in between, from all backgrounds and ranges of experience. It was cool, there was one band that had a young person in her 20s and then some older campers who were in their late 60s, and they wrote a protest song. The different members of the band wrote from their own backgrounds of protest music which spanned all these decades of music.

karla and her brother, matt, via

That’s so cool! Like a history lesson.

Yeah, really cool stuff like that can happen. People get nervous that camp isn’t long enough, but we feel like there’s something to be said for not having too much time to over-think stuff. You join a band on Friday, you write a song, and then you rock it on Sunday. The experience of just jumping in and doing something like that can be really empowering for making change in other areas of your life.

Let’s talk about your awesome super-inclusive non-discrimination policy that appears on your mission page. It feels very deliberate and I’d love to hear how it came about. (Guys, you can check out the full text here, but FYI here is a teeny tiny portion of what it says: “Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls welcomes campers who self-identify as female, trans, and gender non-conforming…The organization welcomes the support of male-identified allies, and expects male-identified allies who would like to volunteer to respect the importance of leadership by women.”)

Questions around gender are something that are really important to us as an organization and something that we’re actively in conversation about as an organization. Our policies and statements reflect a lot of values that we hold that we don’t consider to be mutually exclusive. We value the importance of there being a space for female-identified people, and we also value the importance of creating an environment that is inclusive of trans-identified and gender non-conforming folks. So that’s the reason behind our policy. You know, it’s called Ladies Rock Camp…but we feel very strongly about creating an environment that is welcoming and inclusive of people who may not identify as female.

What has been the most rewarding thing for you about starting and running the camp?

Oh man! You know, the Girls Showcase is always really moving to me, but it’s at the Ladies Rock Camp Showcase that I always cry. I’m so blown away by the bravery, and the arc of amazingness that I see in a group of 50 women who on Friday are not sure what they’ve gotten themselves into, but are such total rock stars on Sunday. It just kind of blows my mind every time.

Sign up for Ladies Rock Camp. Karla suggests signing up sooner rather than later so you have a better chance of getting your first choice instrument (you will be asked for your preference, but there must be a balance so it is a first come first serve situation.) Karla also suggests that “giving the gift of rock camp” makes an amazing Mother’s Day gift (OMG imagine sending your mom to rock camp)!

part of our extended coverage of rock camp! click for more.

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Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. Very hot, very fun, very weird. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 404 articles for us.


  1. Yay! Camp!
    This is such a good interview because it really shows how sweet rock camp is from the inside out.
    Karla is a really talented musician, too, her band k. is in the volunteer playlist!

    • I tried to find one and upon initial googling I don’t think there is one:
      Which means you should start one!
      Every girl, everywhere should learn the power of her voice.
      Feel free to message me if you want to learn more!

      • That’d be really wonderful!
        But I think that the I’m-fourteen-and-utterly-musically-incompetent-in-every-way part will pose a problem…
        But I’d love to try!

  2. I heard about this Camp before from a friend but blew it off because it didn’t sound like something I could see myself doing. But after reading what the creator has to say, it feels really welcoming, and I haven’t even signed up yet! I miss playing the drums and this sounds like an ideal way to get back into it – and to finally have a band with whom to play!

    • this comment makes me smile so hard–you should definitely sign up for ladies rock camp this summer, and you should probably bring along your (completely musically incompetent) girlfriend, too ;)

  3. Great article. One correction: the “Matt” in the photo with Karla is Matt Sutton, one of her bandmates in “K.” and a fine fellow, but her brother is the Matthew Schickele at, a songwriter and composer who was also in the band “Beekeeper” with Karla back in the 1990s.

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