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Agents of Change: Brown Girl Surf

Meet two women committed to bringing more diversity to the world of surfing

When Farhana Huq was deciding what to call her newly formed website and community program, she had a world of choices at her fingertips. She could’ve named her project anything, really, but her goal was to reflect its mission statement, which was to empower women of color to learn how to surf and to give them a voice in the industry. “I think when people hear the name ‘Brown Girl Surf’ they get really intrigued,” says Huq. “The name just pulls people in. They're kind of like, 'What is that? I can surf?' I think it legitimizes a pathway for women of color to actually be like, 'Yeah, you can surf too.' Before this there were very few pathways for them to learn.”

In 2012, Brown Girl Surf became a website where Huq was able to share content about a diverse range of women surfers. Shortly after that, she hired an Executive Director named Mira Manickman to run community programs which invite women of varying backgrounds to the beach in and around Oakland, California (where they are headquartered) to learn how to surf. Both Huq and Manickman are women of color and obsessed with surfing, and they both wanted to flip the script in surfing that said surfers have to look or be a certain way. To find out more about the program and how they’d like to see a more diverse population of surfers, we called both Huq and Manickman for a quick chat.

Farhana, What made you want to start a program like this?

Farhana: Well, it kind of evolved over time. I originally wanted to create a platform to share incredible stories about other communities of surfer girls around the world. So now we are telling stories, amplifying the voices of women and girls of color, and creating and fostering new surf culture. We have community building programs and we help women get access to the coastal area and the beach. The mission is to build a more diverse, environmentally reverent, and joyful women's surf culture. We're really all about culture change and culture creation in surfing. That means creating access to surfing for people that have never been to the beach or don't have those networks.

Mira, why’d you get interested in these programs?

Mira: I've always been into diversity and inclusion of everyone in the outdoors. It's frustrating to me that surfing was originally an indigenous sport, but it's really easy to feel like an outsider if you're brown, and that shouldn't be the case at all. I wanted to open the door to this thing that I love and bring all my girls with me. A good friend of mine put me in touch Farhana after she started Brown Girl Surf. We met one day at the beach and we were both all about flipping the script on surfing.

Mira at work. Photo: Kristi Chan

What do you mean by that?

Mira: When I look at mainstream surf culture, the images I see, the world I see portrayed, it doesn't feel like me. That's an alienated feeling. And as a person of color, I never see brown people, and as a woman of color, that's something I rarely see. A lot of what we do at Brown Girl surf is to create surf culture in our own image, one that reflects us and feels real and celebratory and includes a diversity of women who didn't grow up right on the beach or have immediate access to the beach. We want women to come into our community and feel welcomed and comfortable. They see themselves reflected here.

Farhana: We wanted to create a different image than what's fed to us. I'm not saying everything's bad in the industry, but there is a dominant narrative and girls look up to that. Some of the girls that come to our camp don't look like that and I really think it contributes to poor self-esteem. They now have other role models and other visions of what empowerment and joy and happiness could look like. It's diverse and I think that's good for everybody.

What’s the demographic of surfers that enroll in your surf camps?

Farhana: 80-percent of them are women and girls are of color. 30-percent are of African descent, 20-percent are Latina, 17-percent are Asian, 8-percent are Pacific Islander, 7-percent Native American, and 1-percent Arab.

Do you feel like some of the girls and women who enroll in your camp at once felt unwelcomed by the sport of surfing because they might be a different color than what they see in the industry?

Mira: That's definitely one aspect of it, but there are many reasons why. It’s not just surfing—its any outdoor retail magazine or catalog; you just don't see anyone that looks like me. There was also a lot of exclusion in the past. For a while, beaches in California and in the south were segregated. It also has a lot to do with who has access to home ownership in this country and who has access to coastal ownership. When you look at the first surf movies in the 50s, they were all showing surfing in the context of white middle-class America as this rebellious thing. There are also dangerous stereotypes that say all brown people are scared of the ocean. That's not true at all. There are so many things telling women of color ‘You don't belong here’ or ‘This isn't for you,’ so we just need to be out there 500-percent saying, ‘Nah, this is for us and no one is going to stop us.’ Our program is just teaching girls how to say ‘yes’ to surfing.

Farhana: The prominent images of surfers have blonde hair, blue eyes, the typical Southern California look. I've heard stories from my friends in Bali who were surf instructors and would get very dark from the sun. They would come back from a surf mission and look at their skin and go, 'I'm so black. Yuck. Look at how horrible I look.' You can see the internalized racism that they carry about their skin color. That just made me really sad. I grew up with a lot of colorism in my family, where people thought being light skinned was better. Part of naming this program and website Brown Girl Surf was wanting people to be proud of being dark. The Brown Girl comes partly from that, and partly from the fact that the original women surfers were Polynesians. They were brown skinned. We wanted to take back the narrative that gets lost in modern day surf culture.

Artwork by Brown Girl Surf volunteer Cristine Blanco

Do you think it’s important for young women of color to see role models or other women surfers that look like them?

Farhana: There is research that says when you recognize someone else as from your tribe, your neurons in your brain fire. That's a part of our human system that enables us to learn from other people. I guess there's some science behind what we're doing.

What’s the most important thing you try teach the young girls and women who join your community programs and surf camps?

Mira: I think it's more what we create with these programs in telling them that the ocean is their place, that they are welcome, and this community is excited to have them. To me, that's the most important thing and I think it works. People tell me when they leave that they've never felt like they could surf, but now they know that they can. Some women even cry. We always try to make people feel welcome and we go really slowly so that it's not overwhelming. We never assume anything or skip over a step because that feeling can be disempowering.

What do you hope for the future of Brown Girl Surf?

Farhana: We're planting seeds in communities that don't directly have access to the sport and to the waves. We're empowering them. Maybe in 20 years, the girls learning how to surf now will be the ones taking people out from their community–not us or our program. That's a part of social change modeling–planting a seed that will start an ecosystem within a community that will do the work we're fostering now.

[All photos courtesy of Brown Girl Surf. Mantle image by Photo: Kristin Chan]