Girls Rock Columbia has hired Jessica Oliver as its new executive director. She will replace the outgoing Mollie Williamson, the first person to hold the leadership position for the local organization, which seeks to empower young girls and trans youth — and the adult volunteers who facilitate the group’s annual summer camps — though learning and playing rock music.
Williamson announced her departure in April, moving on after this month’s upcoming camps and student showcase at the Music Farm to pursue a Masters in Public Health at the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania. The organization’s board of directors formed a five-member search committee, whittling down the applicants to six finalists, finally bringing in two candidates for in-person interviews before recommending Oliver. Last Friday, the board voted unanimously to offer her the position.
Kristin Morris, board chair for Girls Rock Columbia and a member of the search committee, says that Oliver’s passion and plan for growing the organization helped her stand out. It also didn’t hurt that Oliver has volunteered for years with the Girls Rock group in Charleston, now known as the Carolina Youth Action Project, and was among the volunteers who founded the Columbia initiative back in 2013.
“One thing she had done already heading into the interview process is connect with people that she has known through other Girls Rock organizations and other camps,” Morris offers, “and not just the camp in Charleston where she’s volunteered, but other Southeastern camps that have large organizations very similar [to how] we would like to grow Girls Rock Columbia. And looking at and utilizing those resources right out of the gate, and just in preparation for an interview, was something we really liked.”
Oliver doesn’t have a traditional background for leading a nonprofit. She holds a degree in education, having worked in some Montessori schools and having volunteered and interned with a few different youth groups. Apart from that, she’s kept the books for a grocery store and works currently as a waitress in a barbecue restaurant. She does boast a robust music résumé, having played in bands in Columbia — the gender stereotype-skewering Hauswerk; the explosive indie-meets-chamber rock crew Can’t Kids; her own catchy and cathartic songwriting oulet, People Person — and Charleston — the alternately grimy and soothing garage-pop act Elim Bolt, led by her fiancé, Johnnie Matthews.
The new executive director knows that a lot of the organizational know-how and fundraising acumen necessary are skills she’ll have to master on the job. But she feels her experience with Girls Rock and her willingness to learn will steer her in the right direction.
“It’s a huge job,” Oliver says. “So many different jobs in one. … We want to grow so much over the next three to five years. We want to create a lot of year-round programming. We want Girls Rock to be something that’s bigger than just a week of summer camp or weekend volunteer camp. We want it to be something that is going on in the community all year long.”
“We’re going to have to increase our budget to make all those things happen,” she continues. “So that’s going to be a huge part of my responsibilities. We’re a grassroots organization and we want to keep our funding very based in the community. I’m excited to get to meet a lot of people in the community and make new relationships and find people that want to help us grow.”
Girls Rock Columbia actually reached out to a consultancy group shortly before Williamson announced her exit, shaping a plan to extend its activist pursuits beyond its teen and child camps and scattered volunteer events. Morris admits that Oliver isn’t the obvious choice to reach these goals, but she sees the new leader — who picked up drums through self-determination and help from her friends, and learned how to teach the instrument on the job with Girls Rock — as an embodiment of the DIY ethos they’re looking to extend.
“My only personal experience with Jess being involved with Girls Rock camp was our very first year,” Morris recalls. “One of the biggest tasks that we know is really difficult now is managing gear — all of the drum kits and amps and guitars and basses — and nobody knew what to do. She was like, ‘I’ll do it.’ And she just did it. She drove around in her car to people’s houses and called them. She did have a network of people to tap into, but still, she just took care of it.
“She’s not afraid to take on things that she hasn’t done before. But she’s also really honest about her experience level.”