Surf + Social Good: A Skeptic Sheds Some Skin

image: @surfsocialgood

image: @surfsocialgood

'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 that 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, offering different perspectives on the ways things are being done in the name of 'sustainability'. We came to the Surf + Social Good Summit to bring that debate to the fore, unsure how we'd be received among people we assumed would be resistant to self-reflection on the unintended consequences of our collective 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 and a few rows of chairs up front. 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 stellar 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 in what they had to say, 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 remembered thinking.

image: @surfsocialgood

image: @surfsocialgood

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 about colonialism in surf tourism, 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. That 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 my 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, held May 15-18, 2015 in Bali, 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, including non-profit, business, media, academia, and practitioners, offering an opportunity to learn from one another and connect the dots across discourse, industry and practice. The motivation in the air was inspiring, and the program of activities was consciously designed in a way that allowed for deep engagement, flexibility in planning to honor emerging ideas in need of incubation and development, along with semi- and un-structured time for further connection on shared areas of interest.

Planned speakers, guided workshops and open-space dialogue sessions showcased the diversity of projects, perspectives, initiatives and frameworks of surf-with-purpose present among the crowd. Participants represented a number of interconnected sectors: surf tourism management and surf voluntourism for development in coastal communities in the Global South; social enterprise in areas like community fisheries and affordable ecological housing; promoting surfing as a means of conflict resolution, helping people find hope in war-torn and poverty-stricken regions, and as a source of recreation among low-income youth and girls; women's empowerment and environmental awareness through surfing and connection to the sea; up-and-coming brands in the indie surf industry; conscientious marketing strategists with a knack for raising awareness and leveraging interest for sustainability-related projects in the world of surfing; and academic-practitioners raising critical questions on gender, identity, development, colonialism and sustainability as they relate to surfing.

Together, our unique yet connected interests 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 of working towards self-designed objectives in our own previously separate worlds. Sharing of our relevant gifts and ideas, we built community and found a sense of belonging and meaning, inspiring new avenues for deeper commitment and collaboration across sectors of surf + social good.    

The second full day of the Summit was specially designed for gender engagement and women's empowerment through surfing. Girls ages 12 to 16 from the Bali Life Foundation came to Bingin Beach for the Girls Make Waves day to surf with women surfers present at the Summit, including Nias pro surfer Bonne Gea and friends whose participation highlighted the power of important female role models in promoting vision, hope and self-empowerment among young women entering the world of 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.

As critical perspectives met philanthropy and mingled with social entrepreneurship in the surfing world, conversations shifted toward deeper reflection on the transforming nature of the 'surfer identity', with the Summit holding space for, and participants bearing witness to, both individual and collective shifts in awareness toward re-envisioning surfer identities as multiple and diverse, rather than static and singular. Rather than coopting or marginalizing more radical, critical views like mine and Pete's, as often happens in participatory processes and their associated power dynamics, I was pleased to find that the simple shift in re-imagining our roles as surfers in the arena of conscientious action toward social good opened further 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 transformation actually do exist in the ways we live out our dedication to social good, starting from a space of humility toward developing nuanced and context-concurrent approaches to sustainability and empowerment.

Finally, 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. Because of course, it wasn't. 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 present 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 sort of exchange is often little more than a pipe dream at well-intentioned events the world over. 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 bring them fully into being.

But as I see it, my persistant qualms about power, representation, perspective, empowerment and privilege don't speak to the limitations of the Summit, but rather point to its strengths in bringing up areas for deeper deliberation into the ways surfing and social good encompass complex social realities we grapple with as 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'. Collectively acknowledging the pillars and behavioral 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, behaviors and interventions accordingly, we may very well see the types of critical 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.

As conversations continue in the momentum created by the Surf + Social Good Summit, we invite you to connect through our online platform here, where you can share your own ideas, projects and experiences with the growing collective of people who believe surfing can do good things in the world. We look forward to hearing your voice and vision for new horizons in surfing and social good.

Stay connected through instagram @surfsocialgood and facebook.

And stay tuned for details on the second Surf + Social Good Summit to be held in 2016!

This story was originally published on The Inertia.