On a dreary morning three years ago, Shauntiara Williams woke up to an unusual offer. “Do you want to go surfing?” her mom asked. Neither Williams, now 17, nor her mom, Sharon, had ever been surfing before. But Sharon had heard of Brown Girl Surf, an Oakland-based nonprofit that gives women and girls of color the opportunity to learn surfing and to be part of an accepting, ocean-loving community. She thought the experience might help her shy and insecure daughter come out of her shell.
The chilly Half Moon Bay waves were “giant, cold, mean and fun that morning,” Shauntiara says. But she was up for the challenge, going back into the water again and again that day, and on countless weekends after that, both as a program participant and later as a volunteer coach. “Surfing is a way to calm down and forget about the other things happening in your life,” she says.
Though its programs were on hold while the Bay Area sheltered in place earlier this year, Brown Girl Surf held its first in-person event in June— a “paddle out” for volunteers and program leaders to honor the Black lives lost to police violence in recent months. “It’s incredibly liberating and empowering for Black and Brown bodies to be free and joyful in nature,” says co-founder Mira Manickam-Shirley.
Despite surfing’s indigenous roots in Polynesia, Peru and West Africa, California surf culture has long been dominated by white men. In parts of California, people of color (and Black people, in particular) were barred from prime surf beaches which were considered “white only” as recently as the 1960s. Structural racism in housing has also meant that people of color are much less likely to live in coveted coastal properties.
Against this background, Brown Girl Surf’s participants are claiming their place in the ocean and on the beach. Their programs have taught hundreds of girls and women of color, many of whom have never touched the ocean, to be “water women,” as Manickam-Shirley describes.
“We’ve built a beautiful community that nurtures and heals and connects us to nature.”
Shauntiara says that navigating the ocean’s dangers has helped her build her confidence and given her a sense of belonging. “Brown Girl Surf was there for me during a tough point in my life. They showed me that there are people that care about me, that I can talk to no matter what.” Now an incoming high school senior, she plans to study marine biology at a historically Black college or university. “I realize now that as a Black girl, there are so many things I can do.”
The San Francisco Foundation supports Brown Girl Surf through its Youth Access to Nature Fund.