The future of sound is female: SF's Women's Audio Mission celebrates 15 years

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For 11 years Terri Winston taught at San Francisco’s City College where she created the sound and recording arts degree program. Her few female students would ask her why there were so few women enrolled in the program.

It was a question she couldn’t answer. But she wanted to find a solution. 

In 2003, Winston founded Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), an organization that provides hands-on training, work experience, and job placement to more than 1,500 women and girls every year in creative technology for music, radio, film, television and the internet. 

Why Sound Matters Featuring the Women's Audio Mission from THX Ltd. on Vimeo.

WAM’s concept was born out of her City College students’ query, so she started a club for women in audio. Female enrollment in her degree program increased from 12 to 50 percent. Her audio club served as the launchpad for “The only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women.”

On Friday, the organization, tucked away in an alley off 6th and Market streets, marks its 15-year-anniversary celebration at the Brava for Women in the Arts Theater Center in San Francisco. 

Winston, who is also WAM's executive director, said her organization has thrived because of a widespread need: only five percent of the people creating sound and media are women.  

According to WAM, there has been an alarming 70 percent decline in women and girls enrolling in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs since the year 2000. 

Their award-winning curriculum weaves art and music with science, technology and computer programming, while working to close the gender gap in creative technology careers. 

The Girls on the Mic youth program is set up so instructors see a different set of students, ages 11 to 18, each day. Victoria Fajardo of Oakland is one of those instructors. 

“It’s empowering and positive. There’s a sense of community,” Fajardo said.

She describes her own experience of being a woman and person of color at SAE Expression College in Emeryville where she earned her audio engineering degree. 

“As a woman you have to work extra hard to prove yourself,” she said.

Fajardo was tipped off to WAM in 2016, started interning and loved it. She said it meant so much to her to be in a comfortable environment where everybody wanted her to do better. 

“[At Expression] I was always raising my hand asking questions,” and the men in her class would say things like, “Oh, of course this woman doesn’t get it.” People would say things like, “organize these mic cables like you’d organize your makeup.” 

In her previous internships and in job searches people would tell her, “Why don’t you apply as a receptionist where you won’t be carrying heavy stuff?” 

At WAM, not only do people compliment her painted nails, but they also tell her, her mixes are great. 
She refers back to the 5 percent statistic of women in audio and says there isn’t even a stat for youth of color, guessing for those girls it’s probably about 2 percent. 

“I see my students…they’re the future of sound,” Fajardo said. “To give that platform for their voices to be heard is so important. Let your voices be heard and known to the world.” 

They learn about podcasts and how recording their voices can be accessible. “It’s stuff they can relate to,” Fajardo said. 

They analyze music and what they hear in the mix. “It has to be a lead woman with a positive message. Kehlani is great, Kali Uchis, Princess Nokia. Women who are being unapologetic through music.” 

They also do their own mock concerts, where they make speakers out of cups and rotate jobs as sound engineer, DJ, emcee, and talent. 

For some of the girls, it’s their first time performing in front of an audience. “They enter shy, but through sisterhood, they leave confident,” Fajardo said. 

The program really gets into the science of sound, but they don’t present it as “today we’re going to do coding.” It’s more like “today we’re going to build a drum machine, but we’ll do it through coding.” 

The girls are learning GarageBand software, ProTools, how synthesizers work and the difference between analog and digital. 

And they’re expanding. Winston said demand is exploding. They’re working more with the underserved populations of the Bayview and Outer Mission. 

“We just opened a location in East Oakland last year.” The Oakland campus is on Fruitvale Avenue near the BART station. %INLINE%

She wants to help and even set out a new goal through a partnership with Oakland Unified School District to serve 3,000 girls every year by 2020. 

“We are literally changing the face of sound. The gatekeepers [men] are making decisions,” Winston said. 

WAM offers programs, memberships and workshops for adults too. Singer-songwriter Ally Bock is an intern. She’s a self-taught musician, but never learned engineering. 

“I moved to the Bay Area and looked up women’s recording studios and this was the only one in the world. That’s amazing but depressing,” Bock said.  

Now she’s learned how to make a beat and sequencing. “We want to see women be successful. Companies contact us all the time and ask what they can do. Hire women!” 

Fajardo adds that it’s important for an artist to have a grasp on sound. “Women go into the studio and hear, ‘No, do it a certain way.’” She wants women to be able to articulate and achieve the sound they seek on their own even if it is a male-dominated space. “We don’t want it to be weird for women to be in the studio. We’re trying to normalize it.” 

Women’s Audio Mission 15-year Anniversary and Benefit concert at Brava Theater