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Photos provided by United Way Ottawa

Community Builders: Girls+ Rock Ottawa is empowering community through music

By Erica Howes on July 5, 2018

Erica Howes is one of Apt613’s correspondents at United Way Ottawa. With its Community Builder Awards program, United Way honours Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers: the organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighbourhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly to make our city a better place for everyone.

“A girl isn’t quite what we’re looking for for the image of the band.”

These were the words Willa McLean heard as an eager young woman entering the music scene. ‘Nos’ were a part of her regular experience. She says there were a lot of people older than her or with more experience who would disregard her interest, also often encountering guys who would talk down or think less of her because she’s a young woman. Not only was it frustrating, but it caused a psychological toll, creating anxiety and a discouraging feeling that she didn’t have a place in the music scene.

When she found Girls+ Rock Ottawa, Willa says all of that changed. She saw inspiring women from all backgrounds in the spotlight on stage. “It gave me the confidence I didn’t know I had,” she says.

Girls+ Rock Ottawa is a volunteer-run community organization that provides music-based programming to foster empowerment, inclusivity and community to girls, women, femmes, non-binary, two-spirit, and gender non-conforming folk (GWFNB2SGNC+)—all while having an incredible time. Their flagship event is an annual three-day camp, during which participants learn an instrument, join a band, and showcase their achievements at a live performance.

Willa has a background in classical music, but when she started as a camper she took up the bass guitar. Now, she’s a volunteer teacher with Girls+ Rock Ottawa and enjoys giving back to help empower young girls to have the same experience she did with the organization.

“There’s a totally awesome music scene in Ottawa full of great women who are willing to help,” says Willa.

On May 31, 2018, at the annual Community Builder of the Year Awards Gala, United Way Ottawa had the honour to present Girls+ Rock Ottawa with the GenNext Award.

“We hear from a lot of campers that they didn’t see themselves in music.”

Girls+ Rock Ottawa is all about empowering people who may not see themselves as part of the Ottawa music scene, says Tiffanie Tri, the organization’s Board Chair who has been part of the group since 2013.

Volunteer teacher Willa McLean and Board Chair Tiffanie Tri.

“Often times, the music scene has been disproportionately white and male and a lot of people don’t see themselves in that. Because of this, they often don’t continue with music,” she says.

Tiffanie adds that the group is constantly moving forward to “keep making music more accessible, diverse and inclusive, because that’s when you start to see the larger cultural effect.” After receiving a grant last year, Girls+ Rock Ottawa now has four bands worth of instruments that campers can borrow and use regardless of whether they have access to one at home.

In addition to teaching young women+ how to play instruments, Girls+ Rock Ottawa also teaches technical skills that are valuable in the music industry, but are often inaccessible to girls and gender diverse individuals, such as: music production, concert photography, gig planning, and more.

Now, they’re finding women like Willa go through the camp and become teachers and mentors themselves, which Tiffanie says is inspiring and perpetuates a self-sustaining model.

“It brings you in a community of like-minded musicians,” she says. “Music is so powerful and it can be so empowering and teaches so many life skills.”


Through research, evaluation and partnerships with community experts, United Way Ottawa identifies the root causes of the biggest social challenges facing our community, and helps find solutions that change tens of thousands of lives for the better. One hundred percent of donations stay in Ottawa to help those most in need.