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Beaches as Spaces of Democracy: Center Hosts Women Surfers Conference

Dec 15 2017

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Clockwise from left: Sally Smith-Weymouth, Jamila Hubbard, Rhonda Harper, Mira Manickam-Shirley, Kristi Chan in the Stanford classroom space; Art3mis Prime (Ginger Cuevas); Screen capture from CBS This Morning; notes from classroom session; lisahunter of Monash University, Australia, at Linda Mar, Pacifica

Clockwise from left: Sally Smith-Weymouth, Jamila Hubbard, Rhonda Harper, Mira Manickam-Shirley, Kristi Chan in the Stanford classroom space; Art3mis Prime (Ginger Cuevas); Screen capture from CBS This Morning; notes from classroom session; lisahunter of Monash University, Australia, at Linda Mar, Pacifica lisahunter; Elizabeth Pepin Silva; Dayla Soul, IAP Films; Courtesy; Elizabeth Pepin Silva
 

Krista Comer, Visiting Scholar
Directed by Professor Krista Comer (a Visiting Scholar at the Bill Lane Center from Rice University) in collaboration with a hands-on steering committee, the Institute for Women Surfers is a public humanities project dedicated to grassroots political education. The topic of the 2017 Institute, “Issues of Access,” grew out of discussions between activists focused broadly on problems of cultural access women and girls face in everyday surf and beach spaces, and activists working on the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, a campaign brought to the California Coastal Commission for inclusion of women big wave surfers in the legendary Mavericks surf competition in Half Moon Bay. These issues and more are discussed in a longer 2017 Research Report on the Institute’s website.

By Krista Comer

Commemorative artwork for the 2017 institute: “Power in Numbers.”
Commemorative artwork for the 2017 institute: “Power in Numbers.” Cristine Blanco

Over an intensive three days of group surfing, music-making, informal discussions, prepared workshops, and “skill-share” short presentations, an international group of thirty-five participants addressed access to surf spots as both a practical policy concern and also an imaginative and conceptual point of departure. The idea was for people to share what they know, identify shared problems and successes in addressing them, and cultivate enduring relationships. IWS prioritizes relationships, alliances, and building skills conducive to long-term feminist mobilizing. This kind of political education is understood to be embodied and performed, and as an instance of taking the lead of indigenous women, women of color, younger women.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes), scholar and Steering Committee member, opened the weekend with a moment of recognition and gratitude to the Ohlone peoples, whose historic lands present-day Pacifica occupies. Marley Reynosa of Brown Girl Surf led a round of “Yamaya,” a well known song throughout the Afro-Caribbean diaspora as honoring Yemoja, the Yoruba water deity and protector of women. Professor Comer offered a brief history of the Institute and of public humanities, highlighting concepts of “imagination” from the Institute curriculum, which included excerpts from the historian Robin Kelley and the rapper Missy Elliott.

The music-making heart of the night was conceived by Mira Manickam-Shirley, a Steering Committee member and Director of Brown Girl Surf. With Ginger Cuevas (aka Art3mis Prime) on the mic, participants were invited into a freestyle surf feminist cipher, which involves rapping in a communal circle as an act of community bonding. A finale group dance to Art3mis Prime’s “Tomb,” and “Awake” brought down the house.

From left: Mira Manickam-Shirley, Executive Director of Brown Girl Surf; Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Tara Ruttenberg, Jamila Hubbard, and Cassie Comley at the Little Brown Church, Pacifica; hand-decorated notebook of Olivia VanDamme; Kristi Chan, Krista Comer, Marley Reynosa, Cristine Blanco, and Rhonda Harper.

From left: Mira Manickam-Shirley, Executive Director of Brown Girl Surf; Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Tara Ruttenberg, Jamila Hubbard, and Cassie Comley at the Little Brown Church, Pacifica; hand-decorated notebook of Olivia VanDamme; Kristi Chan, Krista Comer, Marley Reynosa, Cristine Blanco, and Rhonda Harper. lisahunter; lisahunter; Krista Comer; Brown Girl Surf via Instagram
 

Early-morning surfs and the intellectual work of Saturday and Sunday revealed particular strengths across three important research areas:

  • Cultural access and barriers to it,
  • Environmental practices and marine sciences,
  • and international perspectives related to access.

Additionally, two projects were slated for immediate follow up: one is a local investigation by Institute activists and researchers into the politics of permits and permit fees for non-profit surf organizations working at Pacifica State Beach and Manresa State beach; the other is a translocal and transnational proposal for two new Institute chapters, Institute South (Australia) and Institute Europe (Wales).

 

Research Finding #1: Patterns of Hostility

Bianca Valenti surfing Mavericks, 2016

Bianca Valenti surfing Mavericks, 2016 Dayla Soul, IAP Films
 

The recent UCLA Coastal Access Report notes that barriers to beach access show specific class, racial, and geographic profiles. The report supports the work of culture change groups, groups on the ground who are creating new cultures of coastal access. The Institute expands the profiles prioritized in the UCLA Report so they grapple explicitly with gender as barriers to coastal access. Feminist advocacy emphasizes: the challenges of girls and women surfers; the importance of women-centered organizations; and the women who run them as models for what access means and does. Feminist access necessitates the formation of alliances, and the creation of bonds between women and the many communities to which women belong, particularly communities of color.

Institute participants and Steering Committee members are key players in culture change groups including Native Like Water, Brown Girl Surf, the Wahine Project/El Proyecto de Wahine, City Surf Project, Salud y Cariño, and Black Girls Surf. These programs function on the frontlines of cultural spaces where access cannot be taken for granted and must be forged. When directors, staff, and volunteers offer evidence as everyday experts about access and its workings, the most commonly mentioned first-round problem relates to “belonging,” a sense that even when growing up near water, participants cannot fathom they might surf or be waterwomen until they encounter activist organizations. It is there that the work of re-imagination of self and community occurs. A glance at 50 years of global surf media and beach and swim culture, not to mention the legacies of segregation and indigenous displacement, shows that world belongs to white settlers, mainly men.

If defining belonging is complicated, defining “not belonging” is less so. Simply: you don’t see yourself represented as “part of.” Experiences of erasure, bullying, othering, hate speech, and sexual objectification reinforce exclusion. They intertwine and become difficult to separate.

Research presented from Institute participants offers more specifics (see the Institute website for a full report).

  • Erasures of indigenous histories and sacred water knowledges, as reported by Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a volunteer with Natives Like Water, which conducts youth programs at the University of California at San Diego, at one time a significant Kumeyaay village site.
  • Persistent anti-black hate speech and industry discrimination described by the entrepreneur and surf promoter Rhonda Harper of Black Girls Surf;
  • Racial belittling and erasures of Mexican American surfers in a sociological study by Cassie Comley;
  • Threats of assault in El Salvador line ups, by Tara Ruttenberg of Tarantula Surf;
  • Sexist imagery promoted by surf industry creating barriers for imagining women otherwise and for professional women photographers and filmmakers, by Elizabeth Pepin Silva;
  • Bianca Valenti, professional big wave surfer, documenting the sexist backlash and blacklisting she faced as a woman who challenged Mavericks contest-promoters to sponsor a woman’s heat;
  • Finally, the legendary big wave bodysurfer and geophysicist Judith Sheridan, sharing how often over years she was called “monster,” and reimagining that term of abuse by aligning her history with the history of South Korean free-diving Haenyeo, photographed in their extraordinary beauty by Hyung S. Kim.


Clockwise from left: Cassie Comley, from presentation “Mexican Americans Don’t Surf”; photos from “Women of the Sea,” about South Korean women free divers; Lyndsey Stoodley of Cardiff University, Wales, at Linda Mar, Pacifica

Clockwise from left: Cassie Comley, from presentation “Mexican Americans Don’t Surf”; photos from “Women of the Sea,” about South Korean women free divers; Lyndsey Stoodley of Cardiff University, Wales, at Linda Mar, Pacifica. lisahunter; Hyung Kim; Hyung Kim; Elizabeth Pepin Silva;
 

Groups as well as individuals encounter barriers to coastal access. Dionne Ybarra, director of Wahine Project/El Proyetco de Wahine, reports bullying by a commercial surf vendor when she has brought youth camps to surf at specific state beaches and parks. The conflict ostensibly relates to permit fees and whether, or how much, she pays. But when newcomers are accosted repeatedly and treated as interlopers on another’s territory, deeper issues seem in play about to whom public spaces belong. Ybarra has made complaints both to State Parks and Coastal Commission officials.

Following up, Institute researchers are investigating the complications of getting permits, as well as the fee structures, for non-profits whose missions are to open access. Should they compete on the same playing field with for-profit businesses? Should any provider have exclusive permission to conduct business in a State Park facility? How do annual lotteries for permit distribution (in Pacifica, for instance) come to be granted to the same surf schools year after year?  And what about the significant environmental clean up work done on beaches by culture change organizations, should that labor be monetized, or calculated against state fees owed?

 

Research Finding #2: Sharks, Straws & Water Knowledge

Clockwise from left: Margaret Cohen, Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, Stanford University, offering thoughts on “Reading the Book of the Water”; Apryl DeLancey presentation “Sharks and Climate Change”; Small breakout section of participants who work in media, affinity group seminar; Lynn Adams, President, Pacifica Beach Coalition and Deirdre Flanagan Martin, Pacifica City Council

Clockwise from left: Margaret Cohen, Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French Language, Literature, and Civilization, Stanford University, offering thoughts on “Reading the Book of the Water”; Apryl DeLancey presentation “Sharks and Climate Change”; Small breakout section of participants who work in media, affinity group seminar; Lynn Adams, President, Pacifica Beach Coalition and Deirdre Flanagan Martin, Pacifica City Council; lisahunter
 

The water-reading skills needed to surf, and the long periods surfers spend in the water, teach surfers how to “read the book of the water” — as Stanford Professor Margaret Cohen demonstrated. As a subculture, surfing often educates next generations about environmental management, cultures of sharing, and public health. Surfers’ knowledges as citizen-scientists, and trained scientists, link environmental, human, with marine worlds.

Sharks are big topics in surfing, and Apryl DeLancey’s work as a marine scientist and Shark Angel shows how badly new conversations are needed. Shark and whale bodies sequester, or filter, carbon, and aid efforts to slow climate change (sperm whales, for instance, sequester as much carbon as 694 acres of US forests). Hunting sharks for sport, and vilifying sharks in popular imagination, is misinformed, cruel, and ecologically foolhardy. Even when dead, shark bodies continue to filter carbon as they are eaten by other animals, keeping it in the food web. Don’t remove sharks from the ocean!  

Plastic is forever, but straws are worse. They don’t recycle. Even recycled properly, straws fragment into ever-smaller bits and wind up in the ocean, in marine bodies, and, when humans eat fish, in human bodies. Lynn Adams, President of the Pacifica Beach Coalition conducts awareness trainings. Pacifica Beach is so clean that Adams’ organization now aids adjacent communities.

Deirdre Flanagan Martin, a Pacifica City Council member, teams up with Adams. Both of them encourage accessibility through making connections between the ocean and politics. Martin urges women to run for office, indicating her example of success. Martin’s public servant philosophy puts local access issues for Pacifica residents at the forefront of her advocacy.

 

Research Finding #3: Importance of International Difference

lisahunter of Monash University, Australia, at Linda Mar, Pacifica; Screen shot from Facebook page for Women’s International Surfing Month

Clockwise from left: lisahunter of Monash University, Australia, at Linda Mar, Pacifica; Presentation slide by lisahunter; Screen shot from Facebook page for Women’s International Surfing Month; Cover of upcoming book, Women’s Surf Stories Photo: Elizabeth Pepin Silva; lisahunter; Dionne Ybarra via Facebook; Tara Ruttenberg;
 

Local laws and social conventions exist in relation to national policy and governmental norms. Even so, across national contexts and translocal geographies, patterns of intimidation related to race, indigeneity, gender, and sexuality are widely in evidence. The work of international scholars at the Institute showed the need to link geographic specificity to conceptualizations of accessibility. The 2017 research work leaned heavily toward California, where strong regulatory support from the California Coastal Commission contributes to legal contexts that value environmental justice and indigenous sovereignty. To what extent insights offered through California examples have wider application, however, requires more research.

To address the transformative potential for surfeminism that a more substantial international collaboration might achieve, discussions about two emergent chapters of the Institute are underway, an “Institute South,” headquartered in Australia, and an “Institute Europe,” headquartered in Cardiff, Wales.

lisahunter traveled to the US from Aeotearoa/New Zealand to take first steps in founding an Institute South. Her presentation, “Southern Swells,” about access issues in the Pacific, Oceania, and Australasia, emphasized critical-thinking skills and theoretical perspectives from the Global South. The goal was to teach surfers, whether educators or not, to analyze gender and sexuality in the cultural politics of surfing in Oceania, Australasia, and beyond. Experienced in collaboration, lisahunter co-organized the “Surfing Social” conference in Raglan in 2016, through the University of Waikato. The first Institute South meeting, tentatively co-sponsored in Australia by Monash University and Griffith University, is slated for winter of 2018.

Lyndsey Stoodley traveled to the Institute as part of an international scoping trip (in Australia, New Zealand, and also Mexico) to present research on World Surfing Reserves, and the evolution of surfing as a social movement. Her graduate training centers on Sustainability, Planning and Environmental Policy, including on gender issues. Stoodley works with the Welsh feminist movement of “Surf Senioritas” — the name “senior-ita” was coined to make fun of Welsh male surfers who taunted women as being “too old to learn to surf.” In cooperation with Danielle Robertson, a founder of Surf Senioritas, Stoodley is formulating plans for an “Institute Europe” centered in Wales.

 

Additional Appreciations

A project like the Institute is possible only through the collaborative efforts of lots of committed people giving generously of their time, skills, and goodwill. Final thanks are in order to Jamila Hubbard, of Brown Girl Surf, whose expansive thinking about the importance of imagination was central to conceiving the theme “Issues of Access;” to Dayla Soul, a Steering Committee member, filmmaker, and community-builder; Rebecca Sandidge, a fire ant biologist, Brown Girl Surf volunteer, and logistical coordinator of the 2017 meeting; Sachi Cunningham, big wave photographer whose footage of the event is being edited; and Jennifer Savage, California Policy Manager at Surfrider Foundation.

Final thanks are also gladly given to the Bill Lane Center for the American West for opening Stanford’s spaces to a broad public, and to Rice University for financial support of research in the public humanities.

Left: Art3mis Prime; Right: From left, back row: lisahunter; Judith Sheridan; Lyndsey Stoodley; Elizabeth Pepin Silva; Sally Smith-Weymouth; Rhonda Harper. From left, third row: Olivia VanDamme, Ginger Cuevas, Marley Reynosa, Margaret Carino-Condon, Cassie Comley, Krista Comer, Dionne Ybarra; From left, second row: Cristine Blanco, Kristi Chan, Rebecca Sandidge, Tara Ruttenberg. Front: Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Brooklyn Cuevas, Mira Manickam-Shirley, Jamila Hubbard, Apryl DeLancey. Foreground: Dayla Soul. Art3mis Prime via Instagram; Dayla Soul
 

 

Learn more about the Institute for Women Surfers »

Institute for Women Surfers: 2017 Research Report »

 

 

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