“We can’t just show up and shit all over their world,” my unlikely partner-in-crime, known in other circles as environmental anthropologist Dr. Pete Brosius, half-joked in the backseat of our early morning taxi-ride from inland Ubud to the Bukit, Bali’s southernmost coastland and home to surfing’s iconic wet dream, Uluwatu. En route to the Surf + Social Good Summit, the first international gathering of its kind, we hastily prepped our presentation on Decolonizing Sustainable Surf Tourism, the critical content of which we were certain would fall on deaf ears at best, or make us a do-goody slew of insta-enemies, at worst. “Don’t worry,” I responded behind a smile, probably more than a little bit sarcastic, knowing me. “We’ll be diplomatic when we rain on their parade.” In the sea of saving-the-world self-celebration we expected at an event like this, we were the self-proclaimed sharks hell-bent on biting off a few self-righteous limbs and filling heads with critical perspectives on surfing and sustainability instead. Hell, somebody had to do it.
In the university-level study abroad course Pete and I teach on Surfing & Sustainability: Political Ecology in Costa Rica, we offer that sort of critique to raise questions at the intersections of surfing, conservation and development in popular surf tourism destinations, giving different perspectives on what’s being done in the name of “sustainability.” We came to the Surf + Social Good Summit to introduce that debate, unsure how we’d be received among people we assumed would be resistant to self-reflection of the unintended consequences of our commitment to “doing good.” The jungle-posh Cashew Tree resto-lounge above Bingin Beach met us in sunshine and pitaya fruit bowls before we settled into our seats among the seventy-or-so mostly young-and-white people scattered on couches and bean bags. Despite the relaxed ambience, I was all nerves, fumbling over notes and sweating into my skirt. If I was going to bring on the thunderclouds, I knew I had to be good. The rumbling in my tummy wasn’t lacking for irony.
Summit organizer and surfer Easkey Britton welcomed the day in high spirits and cute blonde side-bangs before introducing keynote speaker, Andy Abel of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea (SAPNG), whose local sport development and surf tourism management framework have received significant attention in the surfing world in recent years. Next, three-time world longboard champion and enviably articulate founding director of the Inspire Initiative, Cori Schumacher, offered a human development perspective on gender empowerment in surfing and its connection to the global sustainable development agenda. Speaking my language, I thought, as I nodded in interest and raised an eyebrow here and there. Listening to Easkey, Andy and Cori, I felt connected; like I could relate. Like these people were my people, too. Even though there were things I disagreed with, there seemed to be so much we could talk about and learn from one another. My waistband felt a little looser.
And then it was our turn. In Bali, I learned, there’s this thing called taksu, and it’s a little like having charisma, or allowing divinity to work through you by using the power of your capabilities to perform, to be well-received by your audience, as it was explained to me in words I could sort-of understand in my strange, out-of-place Western world view. Days earlier, a renowned Balinese dancer performed a series of dances for us, embodying the characters in each of the different masks he wore. We were enthralled by his eyes, his subtle movements, his many voices giving life to the mask in myriad ways, while at the same time letting the unique energy of the mask itself live through him and his body. His taksu is impeccable, I remember thinking.
“Become the mask,” I said in my cluttered head as I tested out the microphone, praying my own taksu would kick in any moment now. As I started speaking, I realized the mask I was wearing wasn’t the same one I came with that morning. It wasn’t hard and judgmental or sarcastic and holier-than-thou as it might have been before. No, the mask I spoke through now was friendly and real and wanted to share and be heard, and engage and learn. And as I watched, in sheer surprise, as the crowd responded in nods and smiles to words and ideas I thought would repel, anger and offend, I realized I wasn’t wearing a mask at all. I was sharing freely from the passionate parts of me about the things I believe to be important in the world of surf and social good, offering ideas as contribution to the collective. And people, it turned out, were actually into that. Because, as I soon learned, the entire audience of Summit participants had also travelled oceans to be there and do that whole sharing-learning thing, too. Even when it meant being willing to take a long, deep look in the uncomfortable mirror of self-reflexivity in the ways we engage with the world.
Taksu never tasted so good.
Over the course of the three-and-a-half days of the Surf + Social Good Summit, 80+ people from 20 countries got together to share, listen, learn and brainstorm around the overarching objective of leveraging the power of surfing to contribute to a better world. That lofty ideal meant so many different things to the spectrum of souls gathered from a range of surf-related sectors. The motivation in the air was inspiring, and the program of activities was designed in a way that allowed for deep engagement and honoring emerging ideas. Together, our unique yet connected interest and experiences made for a vibrant atmosphere of interaction, idea-sharing, project planning and debate, which most of us agreed had been lacking in our lives. Sharing our gifts and ideas we built a community and found a sense of belonging and meaning.
The second full day of the Summit was specially designed for gender engagement and women’s empowerment through surfing. Young girls from the Bali Life Foundation came to surf for the Girls Make Waves day. It highlighted the power of important female role models in promoting vision, hope and self-empowerment among young women in surfing. Following an afternoon of creative post-surf workshops, Cori Schumacher’s closing speech emphasized the power in creating and holding space for women to develop and explore their relationship with the sea, highlighting the importance of ‘bearing witness’ to self and others through the transformative process of deepening into the gift of surfing and examining ourselves through the lens of our individual and collective identities as surfers.
I was pleased to find that the simple shift in re-imagining our roles as surfers opened space for re-defining the ways in which we want to engage in our work, in our interactions with our surfing communities, and in our perspectives on surfers as agents of change. As one among many of the important outcomes of the Summit, this notion of acknowledging heterogeneity and honoring difference in the world of surfing gave me hope that fresh possibilities for change do exist, starting from a space of humility toward sustainability and empowerment.
Despite my own shift in attitude throughout the course of the Summit, I’d be remiss to leave you believing it was all rainbows and butterflies. But what sort of meaningful experience ever is? And after all, you can’t possibly shake the skeptic all the way out of her skin, taksu in unmasked eyes or no. For my two cents: I still take issue with the way the word “empowerment” was thrown around uncritically as it’s done in gender-and-development-speak, e.g. “we just have to empower women and poor people by teaching them skills to realize their full potential for socio-economic progress.” Not to mention the fact that most of us there were white and well-educated, when the people we aim to “empower” and support are mostly neither. I would have loved to engage with more local Indonesians and non-Western individuals on both the giving and receiving ends of surf-and-social-good, perhaps deconstructing colonial discourses together through inverted power scenarios and first-hand narratives of lived realities we know nothing about; but given the politics of representation associated with privilege, flight costs and shortage of sponsorship, we all understand why that is often little more than a pipe dream. New models of gathering to shift rather than perpetuate entrenched power dynamics toward truly transformative moments of ‘being together in space’ are on the horizon, yet it will take deeper creativity to make them reality.
But as I see it, my qualms don’t speak to the limitations of the Summit, but rather point to its strengths in bringing together people who both love surfing and want to do good in the world. From there we might begin to envision and co-create ways of being and doing born of critically contemplative, facilitative action rather than desperate outsider interventions that often obscure their own harm behind a thin veil of commonly accepted norms of ‘doing good’. Acknowledging the pillars and patterns at the heart of our own social privilege may be a decent start, especially if we’re willing to evaluate the ways it shapes our mindset, our approach to philanthropy and the ways we interact with the people and places whose lives and environments we (to quote Peter Tamas) “suffer the conceit of believing we are fit to serve.” And going that extra step of adjusting our own actions and interventions accordingly, we may very well see the types of shifts necessary to bringing about meaningful social change premised on justice, cultural diversity, situated knowledges and context-specific sustainabilities aligned with local realities rather than blindly Western ideals. With humility as our shared point of departure, as it proved to be among those present at the Summit, that’s a sort of social good I can see myself stepping into, within the surfing world and beyond.