LeeRay Costa Discusses Inclusivity and Transformation

For the second presentation in the Women Influencing the Arts speaker series, LeeRay Costa, Ph.D, co-founder of Girls Rock Roanoke, came to speak to us about Girls Rock: Inclusivity and Transformation in Nonprofit Arts Education. As with the members of Bechdel Project, LeeRay Costa discussed the lack of female representation in the music industry. She shared with us what inclusivity means to her, how she has seen the power of arts education foster transformation and confidence in young girls (as well as  the adult women who teach in the program)  through the Girls Rock program, and how important it is to support one another as women and so much more.

What is Girls Rock Roanoke and what do they do?

Girls Rock Roanoke is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower girls and women through music, creative expression, and collaboration. Girls Rock Roanoke fulfills its mission by hosting two weeklong camps each summer for girls ages 8-11 and 12-16. In these camps girls participate in a range of activities including forming bands, learning an instrument, how to compose a piece of music both musically and lyrically, and stage presence. At the end of the week, each group performs for their peers, family, and community members in a showcase to exhibit their new found skills and sense of self.

Girls Rock Roanoke is part of a larger organization called Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Girls Rock Camp Alliance was formed after the initial Girls Rock camp, based in Portland, Oregon, led to the creation of camps in multiple cities around the U.S. and world. Girls Rock Camp Alliance acts as the parent organization for all Girls Rock camps all around the world. It provides resources, connections, and training to each independent camp for its key staff and board members.

How Girls Rock Roanoke was started

LeeRay shared the story of how she and her family watched the documentary Girls Rock! The Movie, and were so inspired that they began researching how they could get their daughter involved in the program.

When her daughter Tallulah  was old enough they went on a family vacation to allow her to attend a weeklong camp at Girls Rock North Carolina. Each day Tallulah would come home from  camp she was more and more excited about the things she had learned that day, such as learning to play the drums and what it means to be a woman. Over the course of the camp, LeeRay saw her daughter’s confidence increase, watched as her daughter became more and more empowered, all while her daughter learned valuable life skills.

LeeRay was so impressed with the transformation she saw in her daughter she decided to launch Girls Rock Roanoke. LeeRay saw a need and has worked to empower the girls of the Roanoke Valley through this special rock music program.

Why is it important?

LeeRay shared with us the following statistics to demonstrate some of the issues young girls face in today’s society.  


  • 80% of all 10-year old girls have, at some point in their lives, gone on at least one diet (2012, Keep It Real Campaign)
  • 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
  • Episodes of depression among female adolescents almost 3 times that of males


These issues are impacting girls at a very vulnerable and delicate time in their lives, adolescence. A time when young girls are figuring out “who” they are as individuals, their sexuality, and how their bodies function and, unfortunately, there are not a lot of resources or support for girls during this time to help them through this difficult exploration and discovery.  

LeeRay explains, “as a Women’s Studies professor I teach primarily female identified students and watching their lack of self esteem, seeing the things that they’re bringing up and witnessing the lack of self esteem and self confidence in women my own age and older, I thought this is just unacceptable and so, if we can have an intervention early on maybe we can make a difference.”


Where are the women in the music industry?

Not only does LeeRay’s work with Girls Rock Roanoke combat the lack of confidence and empowerment in young girls, it also introduces them to the art of music making. In today’s world the presence of women in the music industry in lacking. Below are just some of the statistics


  • 67.8% of all music industry jobs are held by men, 32.2% by women
  • Membership of songwriters and composers in PRS for Music is only 13% female (total, 95,000)
  • Only 15% of label members in AIM (Association for Independent Music) are majority-owned by women
  • Statistics consistently show women in music earn less than male counterparts (Huffpo UK, AIM)
  • Of 321 members in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only 44 (14%) are women (Quartz)


LeeRay explains that within  this climate girls can, “encounter the feeling of ‘this space is not for me, this is a male dominated space, and this is uncomfortable for me.’” She also explains that boys seem to have more access to resources which encourage their growth within this field and when in a co-ed environment, girls can be made to feel as though they don’t belong so they begin to withdraw. By allowing them to participate, explore, and learn in a gender specific atmosphere, we are encouraging young girls to flourish so when they return to those co-ed situations they feel confident and can “hold their own.”


Operating a completely female-run organization

LeeRay expressed the importance of having an all female organization. By seeing women in the roles of: leaders, instructors, musicians, and production technicians, young girls are more likely to see themselves in those roles in the future. However, due to the nature of the business and the society in which we live, this can raise challenges. Below are some of the challenges which LeeRay addressed for her and the volunteers of Girls Rock Roanoke.


As she pointed out earlier in the conversation, the presence of women in the music industry, ranging from performers to the business and engineers, is minimal. Finding women with the expertise to operate lighting and sound and musicians to teach has been a real struggle.


As Stacie Huckeba describes in her Huffington Post article, A Professional’s Perspective On Sexism In The Music Industry, sexism is a real issue in the music industry. She tells the story of being called a BITCH being talked down to by a male sound engineer who treated her as if she was not incapable of handling sound equipment she uses on a regular basis.

Because of the bias (much of it unconscious) in this field, when the leaders of Girls Rock Roanoke have borrowed equipment from others, there has been the underlying suspicion that they are incapable of operating it and a fear they will break it.

Lack of confidence

A lack of confidence is not only present in young girls, but it is sometimes also an issue for the adult women working in the camp.  LeeRay describes the challenge of finding people with enough confidence in their abilities to teach the girls and to lead them in specific activities.


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