This Woman is Working to Make Surfing More Accessible to Black Girls

Stephanie L. King
·9 mins read
Photo credit: Stefanie Keeler | Design by Temi Oyelola
Photo credit: Stefanie Keeler | Design by Temi Oyelola

From Oprah Magazine

A Kenyan safari guide. A Hollywood costume designer. A world-traveling sommelier. In this series, we learn about the journeys people take to land the ultimate Dream Jobs.

There are many scenes a beachgoer is likely to encounter: A couple strolling along the shore with foamy waves bathing their feet. Friends trying to stage the perfect sunset photo. Children building castles or covering relatives with sand.

But more unlikely to be seen? A Black woman surfing.

One woman with a mission to change that is Gwenna “GiGi” Lucas. A walking historian about Black people and their issues with the ocean (more on that later), Lucas is the founder and executive director of SurfearNEGRA, a nonprofit that seeks to diversify the sport of surfing.

“As a Black woman on a surfboard in Costa Rica, I realized I was the only one—and I started asking myself the question ‘Why?’” Lucas, 41, says. The thought dawned on her after she left 12 years of retail development and international expansion in the fashion industry for brands like Nike and Kate Spade to live a simpler life anchored by surfing in South America. The dramatic lifestyle shift was inspired by just one (her first!) surfing lesson in Tamarindo, Costa Rica at the age of 35 during downtime for a friend's destination wedding trip in 2012.

“I still remember how warm the sun was on my skin and the taste of salt water on my lips. There was a freedom I cannot put into words that, in that very moment, I realized I had not felt in a very long time...actually, since my childhood,” says Lucas, who describes herself as a recovering “Type A person.” Born in Tampa, Florida, Lucas spent her formative years largely on beaches as her parents raced catamarans, went surf fishing, and piled her and her brother into their 1985 Nissan King Cab Truck to visit different beaches along the state's coast. Despite being “a water baby,” however, Lucas never considered surfing until she was an adult—and once she tried it, she was hooked.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Gigi Lucas
Photo credit: Courtesy of Gigi Lucas

That’s why by 2013, Lucas had traded in her blouses for bare feet after seven planning trips and guidance from Costa Rican locals and other expats on how to make the move. “People would come into my life at the right time. The places I’ve been just so happened to be perfect timing,” she says. “It’s nothing but God.”

Her hard-earned corporate savings account also helped fan the financial flame of her journey, but looking back, Lucas says she wished she didn’t try to live a New York City lifestyle in Costa Rica at first. (A vice for Oreos and Ruffles potato chips does not seem like an expensive habit...until you consider high-price imports). “I learned quickly that simplicity in all forms is the key to successfully making a transition as big as this one,” Lucas says.

But even paradise can get lonely. Three years after moving to Costa Rica, Lucas realized there weren’t many Black women in the lineup, which is a term used in surfing for the row of surfers waiting for a wave at any given surf break. Instead, Lucas’ lineups consisted of mostly white men, which is generally the case worldwide–especially in the U.S.

“Even though the ocean is a free resource that doesn’t discriminate, somehow surfing has been made to feel exclusive or elusive due to the representation of what a surfer has traditionally looked like,” says Lucas. “But the ocean doesn’t care how good you are, how cute your swimsuit is, or how fancy your board is. No matter who you are, if you’re not paying attention and you don’t come with a healthy level of fear and reverence, it will humble you...quickly.”

After reflecting on the lack of diversity in her beloved sport, in 2016, Lucas launched a website to celebrate Black female surfers. Two years later, she hosted her first event for women of color to connect at a surf competition in Jacksonville, Florida, where she currently resides. Shortly after building a quickly-growing community with surfers like her, Lucas realized that while there were an increasing number of platforms like hers showcasing women of color surfers, none were focusing their attention on providing access for the next generation of Black girl surfers. And so SurfearNEGRA was born.

SurfearNEGRA’s mission is to make surfing accessible to any kid, anywhere, from 7 to 17, with the goal of demolishing the stigmas that keep people of color out of the sea. In her experience, Lucas says the primary barriers are a lack of knowledge of how the ocean works, coupled with the generational traumas inflicted by slavery, Jim Crow laws, and eurocentric ideas of beauty.

“I have to physically show many young women that it is okay to wear your hair naturally,” says Lucas, who wears sun-bleached locs herself. “It is okay to go into the water and be salty and be ashy and have an amazing time and still show up and be your authentic self. Your entire self is okay.”

SurfearNEGRA–which in Spanish means Black female surfer–partners with over 75 surf camps nationwide to donate spots for girls of color in those communities. So far, after just two years, SurfearNEGRA has been able to send 64 girls to surf camps as they strive for their triple digit milestone through their ¡100 Girls! Program. On land, in 2021 students will also have the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of surfing both virtually and in person at participating schools through SurfearNEGRA’s latest project, ¡Surf the Turf!, a joint venture with Rocks & Rings Canada.

“I believe that despite what much of the news may try to portray, this is an exciting time to be alive,” Lucas says. “The opportunities and possibilities– especially for Black people–are exponentially greater than they were even just one generation prior.

So, when our girls go through the surf camps, we want them to take the feeling of them paddling in and catching their first wave with them throughout the rest of their lives, wherever they go.”

Driven by her desire to spread the joy surfing can bring (on the waves, she’s known as “Giggles” because of her infectious smile), Lucas is strategic about the partnerships she forges to raise funding for SurfearNEGRA, a key component of her business model.

“There has been a lot of conversation around allyship lately, and organizations amplifying Black voices and the Black experience to increase opportunities for Black people who are overdue and highly deserve the opportunity to shine,” she says.

“Allyship is also the very opportunity that non-Black people need to recognize and learn about the systems in place that created our current reality—and how they consciously or unconsciously play a role in it.”

In response to George Floyd’s murder, SurfearNEGRA partnered with Anact, a sustainable textile brand, to produce a limited-edition Black Lives Matter tote bag, with the proceeds going towards surf camp entry costs for young girls of color. One side of the tote features an image from award-winning photographer Malcolm Jackson’s Black Beach exhibit of Lucas pictured in Jacksonville, Florida’s American Beach. It’s a meaningful image; that beach in particular was a safe haven for African Americans because they weren’t able to enjoy beaches freely until 56 years ago with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The other side of the tote displays a short poem written by Lucas herself, ending with the message she hopes to send to the world with all of her work:

“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

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