Photo Mancy Gant
As a long-time surfer, Natasha Brown has always found freedom in the water – but as a woman of color, she noticed a lack of diversity in surf lineups in the US. It was this vision of expanding access to surfing to minorities and women, along with a background in education, that led her to volunteer with the Bay Area-based organization, Brown Girl Surf. In and out of the water, Brown Girl Surf gives opportunities to WOC – teaching them to surf, holding beach cleanups and environmental activities, and forging a community of ladies that make the water a more inclusive place.
We talked to Natasha about her experience with the organization, her history looking for the balance between work and waves, and why surfing is a healing experience (despite the tangles she gets in her natural hair).
Hi Natasha, before we get into surfing, tell us a little bit about what you do for normal work things in San Francisco?
My day job is an educator. I’ve spent over 8 years working in the classroom and schools as a math teacher and administrator. I now work in the ed-tech industry working to make technology more accessible for our teachers.
How long have you been out there? When did you make the move from New York?
I moved to the Bay Area about a year ago, but my journey from NYC is long and winding. I originally moved to New Orleans after college to be a part of the education reform going on in the city but found myself driving hours on hours for crappy waves. Craving more frequency and better surf, I moved to the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, to a small surf town. I worked at a small school there and surfed every day. After a few years, I landed in Santa Cruz, so I could move back to the states but still surf. I finally landed on the Bay, while exploring the need to grow my career while still having access to waves.
How and why did you get into surfing? What draws you to the sport?
I’ve been obsessed with surfing since I was little. I have no idea how I found out about the sport, but it’s all I talked about. In my adult years when I had the opportunity to dive deeply into the sport, it took the form of a lifestyle more than a hobby.
Photo: Preston Allen
Tell us about Brown Girl Surf and your involvement.
Brown Girl Surf is an incredible organization! When I first moved to California I was fortunate enough to find a community of diverse water women.
Why is the Brown Girl Surf cause important to you?
The Brown Girl Surf cause is important to me because surfing provides healing from the trauma of navigating our society as a female of color. By increasing access to other WOC youth, the organization is providing a space for us to heal.
What is your favorite part about surfing?
Freedom. In the water, I’m allowed to be myself – to make weird sounds when I make a big drop, to savagely paddle into a wave that I might not make, to giggle at the sound of the brute force of the wave behind me on a perfect right. There are no rules. I get to be me.
What could be better? What’s missing in surf culture today?
In America, surfing is so… stylized. It was a culture shock to come here and see the emphasis on new and countless boards, wetsuits, who can do the sickest cutbacks. All those things are great, but the real reason we are out there is the feeling we get just being in the water and on that wave. Everything else is fluff.
Let’s get really real about diversity in surfing for a moment. Why do you think surfing is so insular?
Access is limited to those who can afford it, which is predominately white people in our country. There are so many layers you financially have to break through – learning to swim, transportation to the beach, boards, etc. In countries where these barriers don’t exist, the lineup looks different. We increase diversity in surfing by increasing access.
Because of this, surfing is seen as a “white” sport in our country. So there is hesitation for many people of color to occupy a space where they may be seen as an outsider, with no allies or mentors. It’s frightening for sure.
Last, I don’t know about anyone else, but combing my natural hair after getting out of the salt water is a bitch. If you don’t understand the workarounds (braids, protective styles) the task of just getting in the water seems SO tedious. Just saying.
What’s the single biggest challenge facing diversity in surfing? How can we change its future?
Our biggest challenge is not only increasing access but providing mentorship to those that choose to follow the path of surfing. It isn’t enough to bring people to the water and say “here you go!” with a surfboard and wetsuit for a photo opp. Like any passion, it needs to be nurtured… or watered, in a sense. Mentorship and allyship in the water is so key to this mission.
Photo Kristi Chan
If you had any advice to women who are just starting out, what would it be?
Keep going. A lot of women stop after the first few attempts at surfing because it’s not as glamorous as they imagined. There are more cuts, bruises, wipeouts, than anything. Once you get past the initial fear of looking like an idiot in the water, you’re free. And it’s a freedom that no amount of money can buy. So stick to it! It’s worth it, I promise.
If you're in SF, be sure to check out Brown Girl Surf.