Surfer/Scientist/Systems Thinker/Community Organizer/Social Entrepreneur
Something powerful is happening in the surf world right now.

Something powerful is happening in the surf world right now.

The Inertia

Earlier this year, something amazing happened in the surf world. You might not have heard about it because it didn’t have any “Big Three” sponsors, it wasn’t “sexy” and it had nothing to do with the WSL. In fact, it was about as far away from competitive surfing as you get – one might even call it “collaborative” surfing. It was the first international Surf + Social Good summit, held in Bingin, Bali. It was a 4-day event that brought together many of the great minds and change-makers in the surf world, that are passionate about the transformative and unifying power of surfing to create positive social impact.

You know what I’m talking about – that intangible factor of surfing. That special essence of (non-competitive/non-commercialized) surfing. The essence that has the power to bridge the gaps between race, faith, gender, sexuality and address many of the socio-economic issues diving societies across the globe.

Well, as it turns out, surfing for social good isn’t just a pastime for conscious traveling surfers looking to donate some time and resources to the places they visit. Or a way to inspire gender equality and women’s empowerment in countries like Iran. It’s actually a global movement. And there are literally thousands of people working worldwide to make the world a better place, through surfing.

The gathering brought the likes of legends such as Irish big wave surfer Easkey Britton (who spearheaded the event), and keynote speakers such as 3x World LongBoard Champion Cori Schumacher, Founder of FireWire surfboads Nev Hyman and the founder and president of the Papua New Guinea Surf Association Andy Abel, together with an incredibly diverse group of people from all over the world from even more diverse backgrounds. The primary goal of the summit was to create connection and collaboration across sectors: from business, non-profit, academia and civil society, and, in turn, create a global surfing community committed to finding meaningful, effective solutions and strategies in applying surfing as a tool for sustainable social impact.


Now, it wasn’t some green-washed, cause-marketing pat-yourselves-on-the-back-you’re-doing-good-in-the-world kind of event. Yes, I was skeptical at first. Everyone from Tony Robins to your hair-dresser is throwing around the term “empowerment” or “transformational” these days. And I think conference keynotes Cori Schumacher and Tara Ruttenberg give great critiques on these aspects of the summit and the broader movement. But for me, at least, the summit did something extremely powerful. Something that is sometimes underrated. But something so extremely needed in today’s society, and especially as the foundations for creating any lasting, sustainable, positive social impact within the surf industry and beyond.

It facilitated meaningful connection.

“Lack of connection to self and to others is one of the biggest issues in the world today. Now more than ever the major challenges of the world we live in from climate change to sustainability cannot be solved in isolation. The lofty goals of big global summits, corporations or development agencies often fail to connect with the day-to-day experiences and lives of activists and professionals around the world. There is great need to connect our actions and to collaborate.” – S+SG 2015 Press Release

And, it created a very powerful space for meaningful collaboration. (I mean, serious kudos to the amazing team of organizers – they nailed it). But the really exciting part for me personally, was not just the summit itself – but what happened next. It was the impact that was created through powerful connections and collaborations beyond the summit, that is a true testament to the growing strength of the surf + social good movement.

For me, I experienced first-hand the outcomes of the SSG summit on distant shores in Sri Lanka before coming home to Western Australia where I continued to see the impact and outcomes make waves further.

1) Making Waves in Sri Lanka
At the summit, some of the most amazing people I met were from Sri Lanka, including two of Sri Lanka’s best surfers, and some incredible Sri-Lankan based folks from Surfing The Nations. We struck an instant friendship and discussed at length their life, the culture and surfing in their island home. We stayed in touch, and a few months later, we collaborated to create magic in the Sri Lankan surf community – we co-coordinated Sri Lanka’s first Girls Make Waves event.

A group of nine other girls and I were already traveling to their magnificent country as part of a local sustainable and conscious surf travel project we run back at home, The Fresh Air Project. But after connecting with our Sri Lankan friends, we were able to have a much deeper understanding of the impact of surf tourism, and particularly the impact of female surf tourism and the role of women in Sri Lanka, from a first hand perspective. We changed up the whole plan and direction of our trip, realizing that we needed to think about surf tourism differently in Sri Lanka; we needed to “decolonize” our approach to sustainable surf tourism.

Now, there are virtually no women surfers in Sri Lanka. The role of women, particularly in the eastern surf capital Arugam Bay, is quite limited generally to household duties – cooking, cleaning and watching soap operas. Sport is not seen as an activity for women and the ocean is a feared place (many having lost friends, family and homes in the 2004 tsunami). Additionally, the perpetuated stereotype of the “surfer girl” looking sexy in her bikini further isolates women from participating in surfing – not to mention the touristic surfers and sport’s infamous (although increasingly obsolete) reputation for sex, drugs and partying. Their fathers, brothers, husbands simply wont permit their women to be a part of that, as it’s just culturally unacceptable.

In our western culture, it’s often seen as empowering as a woman to love your body and feel comfortable to parade it regardless of media-stereotypes (size and image). But to go to Sri Lanka and “empower” the women to get in their bikinis doesn’t inspire women’s empowerment or gender equality, it just creates problems for the women, their families, and conflict amongst their culture and communities. A discussion we only touched on at the SSG summit – what even is empowerment, and is surfing really empowering (for women/ disadvantaged communities)?

As ten western surfing women traveling to Sri Lanka, it was powerful and very important for us to have insight into this. So, out of respect we chose to do one simple thing that made a big difference – we chose to cover up. Something that the local women were deeply appreciative of. We wore neck to feet coverings when we were surfing (rashies and surf leggings) and out in the community. We even collaborated with Danielle Clayton from Salt Gypsy, another participant and co-organizer at the SSG summit, who sponsored us to do a fun stylish “Sri Lankan” themed legging. It meant we could still express ourselves, while respecting the locals. We fundraised to purchase some extras to donate to the local women in hope that we could inspire them to come surfing with us.

 And that we did. We worked with Tiffany Carothers, from Surfing the Nations, and some other local women and surfers, to coordinate Sri Lanka’s first Girls Make Waves day. Every single woman in the Arugman Bay Sinhalese village (bar two) came surfing with us. And after the big day – the local girls took us home and taught us how to dance in exchange. And just a week later, the girls self-organized and went surfing together again. They’re frothing!

But what was unique about this event was that it wasn’t just a bunch of global north, white westerners coming in and “helping the disadvantaged” global south. A situation we all know can cause far more damage than good and doesn’t lead to any long-term empowerment of anyone. Rather, from the first moment, through the connections we made the SSG summit, the community was running the show and we were just there to support. The local women got to decide what “empowerment” looked and felt like, and moving forward into the future – now they get to decide what women’s surfing in Sri Lanka looks like. And we couldn’t be more stoked with the outcome.

They're frothing!

They’re frothing!

2) Bringing it all home.
After my journey through Indo and Sri Lanka, it was time to come home and truly digest all that I’d experienced and learned. My biggest revelation was that I wanted my local surf community, my friends and fellow frothers to feel as inspired as I had been. So some friends and I started up a local project called The Sandswell Movement, that aims to push to the status quo for a more sustainable and ethical (local) surf industry at the grassroots level. We’re kickstarting a local surf hub over the summer that will inspire not only the same connection & collaboration behind Surf + Social Good summit, but also promotes exploring innovation & creativity. AND, equally as exciting – we’ll be running the first Community SSG Summit in collaboration with Fair Surf and the global Surf + Social Good movement in early 2016 in Western Australia.

Something truly amazing is happening in the surf world right now, and I believe we’re only just seeing the beginning of the impact and outcomes of the global surf + social good movement – with even bigger waves yet to come! Watch this space.

For more on the Surf + Social Good Summit visit their online platform. You can also stay connected through instagram and facebook.


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