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Hundreds Honor Juneteenth at Black Surf Santa Cruz Liberation Paddle Out Event

“This is what belonging feels like”

Surf Club 2
© Sue-Jean Sung

The blog was co-written by Black Surf Santa Cruz founder Esabella Bonner and board secretary Rachel Kippen whose organization partnered with Ocean Conservancy. Bonner founded Black Surf Santa Cruz in 2020 to make ocean spaces more inclusive and welcoming to BILPOC community members. Her work promotes physical and spiritual wellness through surfing and community building.

On Sunday, June 19, 2022, the feet of hundreds of Juneteenth Festival attendees hit the hot sand at Monterey Bay’s Cowell Beach in Santa Cruz, California, for the eagerly anticipated Liberation Paddle Out hosted by local ocean-justice nonprofit, Black Surf Santa Cruz. The pulsing sound of R&B, hip-hop and mixed reggae beats spun by DJ Father Taj instantly welcomed guests and onlookers into a celebratory and joy-filled atmosphere. Dozens of foam surfboards dotted the entrance walkway to the famous and popular beach adjacent to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, and a handful of stand-up paddle boards and kayaks lined the perimeter, too.

Hundreds of Black and Brown community members, people of mixed-race descent and white allies danced and embraced—some for the first time since the start of the COVID pandemic—then lathered on sunscreen, sprawled out on beach towels and basked in perfect weather with friends and family.

Black Surf Santa Cruz people on surf boards doing sand practice
© Shmuel Thaler

“This is what belonging feels like. This is what belonging looks like,” said Cat Willis, a Black Surf Santa Cruz volunteer and board member.

“I’ve never been to the beach in Santa Cruz and seen so many other Black people together just having fun and celebrating together,” replied another volunteer.

For the first half of the afternoon, participants checked in and enjoyed free food provided by Venezuelan caterer Areperia 831, whose menu included, “a black-eyed pea stew with greens and sweet potato in a coconut milk broth with Ayurvedic spices, a red rice and a slaw all full of fiber to feed your joy.” Participants in need of gear were shuttled to Club Ed and Cowell’s Surf Shop, where they were offered wetsuits and surfboards to use for the event at no cost. Similarly, families with small children who could not fit on a surfboard together were offered free kayak rental from Santa Cruz wharf kayak shop, Venture Quest.

Prior to the start of the festivities, Juan Dominguez gave an Indigenous land acknowledgement and blessing to the crowd.

“I want to send love to anyone today suffering from mental health issues, anybody that’s suffering from domestic violence issues, any of our ancestors that have passed on to the spirit realm, every single one of you for being here today, and I want to send love to our precious Mother Earth,” Dominguez said.

BSSC event surf boards seen from above in the ocean
© Shmuel Thaler

Dominguez explained that the area was known as “The Place of the Red Abalone” before the Oholone peoples were forced into Spanish missions in San Juan Bautista and in Santa Cruz. He then asked the crowd to raise their hands in a fist and chant “Amah Mutsun!” loudly enough “for everybody in these hotels and at the boardwalk to hear us.” After rounds of chanting, Dominguez concluded, “Everybody put their hands to their chests. We are about to paddle out. I want everyone to align their heartbeats to the ocean and to the earth. Thank you to the Creator for allowing us to be here today. Thank you to Black Surf Santa Cruz for organizing this event.”

Suited up in rash guards, wetsuits, life jackets, kids in floaty wings and some in swim goggles, participants carried their boards to a sand lesson where they learned basic safety tips including where to sit and lie down on the boards, how to paddle and whom to look for on the water for any assistance. More than a dozen trained volunteers comprised the Water Safety Crew, wearing bright red rash guards so that they could easily be identified by participants needing an extra push, an encouraging word or assistance with ocean entry and exit.

BSSC participant stands on surf board
© Sue-Jean Sung

Bella Bonner, founder and executive director of Black Surf Santa Cruz, paddled out on a stand- up board, assisting in distributing the contents of a giant bucket of flowers from Do Right Flower Farm. Some participants wore leis, and, as they paddled out, many carried a single long-stemmed carnation in their mouths or on their boards to offer as gifts to the ocean or in remembrance of an ancestor. Many participants also celebrated their fathers, some even paddling out with their fathers, as the event occurred on Father’s Day.

Once on Monterey Bay, paddlers formed a large circle and were joined by the families kayaking from the wharf. Participants screamed and cheered, splashed water in the air, hugged, stood, jumped from their boards into the ocean and played in the unseasonably warm and shallow water of Cowell Beach.

Bonner, who has worked diligently planning the event for the past five months, smiled from ear to ear. “There were so many people here today who said things like, ‘This is the first time I have put on a wetsuit,’ and ‘I can’t believe that I have never gotten in the ocean here.’ For me, it confirms that Black Surf Santa Cruz is creating programs where BILPOC community members feel safe and welcomed and where they can claim and reclaim their connection to the ocean and Monterey Bay.”

BSSC founder Bella Bonner on a surf board
© Sue-Jean Sung

Bonner thanked the many sponsors who made the event possible with their financial and in-kind contributions, including Ocean Conservancy, which supported the Liberation Paddle Out at the Basking Shark level.

“Every year we just keep building momentum,” said Bonner. “Last year we were a voluntary club of people. This year we are a certified nonprofit. We want our community to know that we are establishing ourselves for the long term to ensure that needed programming like this exists for decades to come.”

To learn more about Black Surf Santa Cruz, visit: www.blacksurfclubsantacruz.com and follow @blacksurfsantacruz on Facebook and Instagram.

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