Brown Girl Surf are bringing through the new wave

Video and photography: Sachi Cunningham

“We are trying to shift surf culture” says Mira Manickam-Shirley, the Executive Director of inclusive surf crew Brown Girl Surf. “Brown Girl Surf is led by women of color. We have a really strong interest in shifting surf culture so that we, and people who look like us and have shared similar experiences can feel included.”

Surf Sister Saturdays

Brown Girl Surf attracts girls and women of all ages and backgrounds for their weekend Surf Sister Saturday outings and runs a summer camp for youth who want more surf when school’s out. Since a lot of their girls are also on the swim team, the program has worked around the team practice schedule, three days a week for a month. Since the group began running surf outings three years ago, it has run 65 program days in the water with nearly 200 participants and 45 volunteers, three quarters of whom are girls and women of color. They’re currently heading towards the end of a major crowdfunding campaign, aiming to raise $40,000 dollars by New Years Eve.

Farhana Huq started out in 2011 with a simple mission: create a community for women of color who surf through imagery and stories. She traveled to South Asia and made a short movie about the young woman credited as the country’s first surfer and grew an online community from scratch. Last year, she passed the official leadership torch to Mira Manickam-Shirley.

Rising Leaders

The group, based in Oakland, Calif., has shifted from formal top-down programming to a group-driven, more fluid model. “We started our Rising Leaders Crew – it’s an intergenerational program — so our adult instructors who want to go a little deeper with BGS get buddied up with a girl for the season,” said Manickam-Shirley.

“We have a big orientation day, where everyone meets each other. So each buddy team has a job for the season, so they help facilitate the surf day for Surf Sister Saturdays. One team, for example, is in charge of food and water and makes sure all the snacks are packed. Another group is in charge of safety equipment, and so on.”

In addition with their Surf Sister Saturday tasks, the buddy-teams get time to surf with each other, and are also asked to plan surf outings as a pair throughout the school year. In this way, both the organization and the growing surf community is self-sufficient, resilient and, perhaps best of all, builds a sense of ownership and identity not just with Brown Girl Surf, but with surfing itself.

Overcoming obstacles

The barriers that Brown Girl Surf are breaking down, one session at a time, have a lot to do with representation but images of white, bikini-clad women in surf magazines and male-dominated lineups are just the beginning.

“There are so many obstacles,” said Manickam-Shirley. “I don’t mean just in terms of it being hard to get transportation or wetsuits. I mean there are just so many things that make it hard for people to get out of the city, to get outdoors, to do something like surfing.

“We are working against centuries of false narratives, of discrimination, of structural racism, of so many things that have made surfing and engaging in the ocean less acceptable for a lot of people. And how does that manifest? In people having a lot going on. It’s a big thing to go on a surf trip. There are already a lot of fears around that, so it’s easy at the last minute to [find reasons to not go]. So it involves a lot of relationship-building and follow-up. A lot of follow-up. And a lot of support.”


Brown Girl Surf’s success as a community builder arguably stems from its hyper-local focus and its relatively unique approach to building that support. Like a lot of surf-based educational programs, the organization focuses on the immediate community and environs where it’s based. But unlike a lot of surf-based programs, the group’s leaders are also part of the community – geographically speaking, yes, but more so culturally and socially. In Brown Girl Surf’s model, there is not so much an “us” and “them” when it comes to programming, but simply, an “us.”

“We are creating a surf culture in our own image,” she said. “The surf culture that’s out there doesn’t always feel like it was built for us, so we’re making our own, and I think we’re doing a great job of that. It feels so good.”

Find out more about Brown Girl Surf and their crowdfunding campaign here