Black Surf Santa Cruz Celebrates Third Annual Liberation Paddle Out

The celebration doubled as BSSC’s first birthday as a nonprofit

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog post was co-written by Black Surf Santa Cruz founder Esabella Bonner and board secretary Rachel Kippen whose organization has partnered with Ocean Conservancy over the past two years. 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. Through our commitment to ocean justice, we at Ocean Conservancy are proud to partner with organizations like Black Surf Santa Cruz that work daily to empower Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities to reclaim their space on the beach and in the ocean.

June 19 has long been celebrated by the Black community as a day to commemorate when emancipation finally came to the most remote state of the Confederacy, Texas. As we enter late August 2023, we come full circle on the significance of the celebration of Juneteenth as we mark the time when 404 years ago—in late August 1619—the first enslaved Africans were brought ashore in Hampton, Virginia. Today, two months after this year’s Juneteenth celebration, we take the opportunity to highlight Black Surf Santa Cruz Liberation Paddle Out celebration to remind us that our collective work to dismantle systems of oppression needs to be continuous. 

On Sunday, June 18, Black Surf Santa Cruz (BSSC) hosted its third annual Liberation Paddle Out at Cowell Beach near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and welcomed more than 300 community members to celebrate Juneteenth, ocean access, racial equity and ocean healing in the surf-centric beach town. This was Ocean Conservancy’s second year as a Liberation Paddle Out supporter, donating funding that helps Black Surf Santa Cruz provide boards, wetsuits and water safety free of charge to BIPOC community members. For many BIPOC community members, the Liberation Paddle Out represents their first time on the ocean and/or their first time feeling safe in the surf while surrounded by other people of color with shared life experiences. Black Surf Santa Cruz ensures that all volunteers and white allies supporting their experience complete trauma-informed training.

The event included a welcoming and land acknowledgment of the unceded territory of the Awaswas-speaking Uypi Tribe now known as Santa Cruz, of Kānaka Maoli, native Hawaiians who brought the Hawaiian cultural practice of surfing to the West Coast, and of Africans, who surfed on the coast of what is now known as Ghana. Contrary to the dominant culture narrative, surfing was not brought to the continent of Africa by settlers; it had long existed before their arrival. 

People on surf boards in the ocean

The day was significant as it doubled as a birthday party for Black Surf Santa Cruz. In June 2022 on World Oceans Day, our organization attained its California-certified nonprofit status. This year’s Liberation Paddle Out marked the organization’s first official year as a Santa Cruz institution, ensuring ocean access and joy for Black community members and other people of color for years to come.

Participants enjoyed music from DJ That’s Mai Girl, burritos from Taqueria Hacienda, beach and family-friendly activities including a beach cleanup, games and prizes. Paddling lessons took place on the sand to support participants who had never before ridden a board, and event attendees had zipped up their wetsuits and paddled into the bright blue Monterey Bay by mid-afternoon. Paddlers gathered on the water, chanted, cheered, sang, threw flowers and leis into the ocean, and jumped into the cool bay as a reprieve from the hot weather. Upon returning shoreside, attendees were invited to sing “Happy Birthday” to Black Surf Santa Cruz and eat cupcakes together.

Black Surf Santa Cruz has served more than 1,500 participants since its inception. In its first official year, Black Surf Santa Cruz organized monthly surf pop-up lessons, launched a cohort program to provide wrap-around training and support for BIPOC community members to gain safety skills and build relationships, received government grant support from the California Coastal Commission, and advocated for local jurisdictions to improve beach access and permitting processes. BSSC recently celebrated a hard-fought victory to change the permitting process at Cowell Beach. Because of the advocacy of Black Surf Santa Cruz, the City of Santa Cruz will no longer require an arduous permitting process, fees and fines for nonprofit groups that intend to utilize their rights to public ocean access. 

Woman practices surfing on the beach

Our mission is to serve community members who, due to racism, experience barriers to building a relationship with the ocean. Simultaneously, we encounter white supremacy on all sides as we fundraise in a system created by and for white people. According to “Racial Equity and Philanthropy: Disparities in Funding for Leaders of Color Leave Impact on the Table,” a report published in 2020, revenues of Black-led organizations are 24% smaller than revenues of their white-led counterparts, and unrestricted net assets of Black-led organizations are 76% smaller than their white-led counterparts. The organization is grateful to the individual donors, grantors and sponsors who walk their talk about racial equity.

It is a testament to the support from our community that at our third Liberation Paddle Out we also got to celebrate our first birthday as a nonprofit institution, growing roots that will keep us in a position to support Black liberation through ocean access for years to come. On days like today, I feel hope for our future. Grantors, sponsors, in-kind donors, and volunteers—every little bit that people pitched in to make this happen—represent our community in action. Together, we are modeling how to change systems while centering Black joy.

surfer splashes water and smiles

About us: Black Surf Santa Cruz’s mission is to “promote mental, physical, spiritual, communal healing through surfing, recreation, education, and wellness.” BSSC centers Black community members and other historically and presently excluded people of color in its programming and adheres to a guiding principle of “Let’s learn together” to invite the entire extended community in Santa Cruz County to create inclusive surf, ocean recreation and marine sustainability spaces. The program emphasizes joy and liberation and aims to increase mental wellbeing, feelings of belonging and psychological safety, and the number of BIPOC enjoying surfing and associated outdoor and coastal recreational activities. A multitude of systemic factors that continue to this day have played a role in the lack of diversity in the ocean and surfing community including segregation, redlining, access barriers such as no equipment, and blatant racism and ignorance experienced in the water. Black Surf Santa Cruz aims to change that. 

BSSC’s Liberation Paddle Out 2023 was made possible due to the generosity of community sponsors including Ocean Conservancy, Pacific Catch, California State Coastal Conservancy, County Park Friends, Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, Black Health Matters Initiative of Santa Cruz County, Club Ed Surf School, Resources Legacy Fund, Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. 

We at Ocean Conservancy look forward to continuing our strong partnership with Black Surf Santa Cruz to support Black, Indigenous and other communities of color to reclaim and rebuild their relationship with the ocean.

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