Brown Girl Surf: meet the surf crew changing perceptions of the sport
© Sachi Cunningham
Social Innovation
Meet the surf crew bringing through the new wave
Californian surf crew, Brown Girl Surf, runs Surf Sister Saturday outings, a summer camp and a new buddying program for young women of colour.
By Anna Diamond
Published on
“We are actually trying to shift surf culture,” says Brown Girl Surf Executive Director Mira Manickam-Shirley. “Brown Girl is led by women of colour. We have a really strong interest in shifting surf culture so that we, and people who look like us and have shared similar experiences, can feel included."
Brown Girl Surf attracts girls and women of all ages for their Surf Sister Saturday outings and runs a summer camp for youth who want more surf when school’s out. Since a lot of the girls who surf with the group in the summer are also on the swim team, the program has worked around the team practice schedule, three days a week for a month. Since the group began running surf outings in January 2015, it has run 47 program days in the water with 123 participants and 44 volunteers, 75 percent of whom are women of colour.
Brown Girl Surf participants practice on the beach.
BGS is changing perceptions of the surfing for young women of color
Farhana Huq started out in 2011 with a simple mission: create a community for women of colour who surf through imagery, stories and maybe even a Facebook page. She traveled to India and made a short movie [below] about the young woman credited as the country’s first surfer and grew an online community from scratch. In 2017, she passed the official leadership torch to Mira Manickam-Shirley, who is ushering the group into a new phase.
The group, based in Oakland, California, has shifted from formal top-down programming to a group-driven, more fluid model. “We started our Rising Leaders Crew – it’s an intergenerational program – so our adult instructors who want to go a little deeper with BGS get buddied up with a girl for the season,” says Manickam-Shirley.
“We have a big orientation day, where everyone meets each other. So each buddy team has a job for the season, where they help facilitate the surf day for Surf Sister Saturdays. One team, for example, is in charge of food and water and makes sure all the snacks are packed. Another group is in charge of safety equipment, and so on."
We are creating a surf culture in our own image – the surf culture that’s out there doesn’t always feel like it was built for us, so we’re making our own
Mira Manickam-Shirley
In addition with their Surf Sister Saturday tasks, the buddy teams get time to surf with each other, and are also asked to plan surf outings as a pair throughout the school year. In this way, both the organisation and the growing surf community is self-sufficient, resilient and, perhaps best of all, builds a sense of ownership and identity not just within the group, but with surfing itself.
Brown Girl Surf participants head into the ocean.
Surf Sister Saturdays have proven a real success
The barriers that the group are breaking down, one session at a time, have a lot to do with representation – and images of white, bikini-clad women in surf magazines and male-dominated line-ups are just the beginning.
“There are so many obstacles,” said Manickam-Shirley. “I don’t mean in terms of, it’s hard to get transportation or wetsuits. I mean there are just so many things that make it hard for people to get out of the city, to get outdoors, to do something like surfing.
“We are working against centuries of false narratives, of discrimination, of structural racism – of so many things that have made surfing and engaging in the ocean less acceptable for a lot of people. And how does that manifest? In people having a lot going on. It’s a big thing to go on a surf trip. There are already a lot of fears around that, so it’s easy at the last minute to [find reasons to not go]. So it involves a lot of relationship-building and follow-up. A lot of follow-up. And a lot of support.”
Brown Girl Surf’s success as a community builder arguably stems from its hyper-local focus and its relatively unique approach to building that support. Like a lot of surf-based educational programs, the organisation focuses on the immediate community and environs where it’s based. But unlike a lot of surf-based programs, the group’s leaders are also part of the community – geographically speaking, yes, but more so culturally and socially. In this model, there is not so much an 'us' and 'them' when it comes to programming, but simply, an 'us.'
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