When I moved to Pacifica 26 years ago, I brought with me the values I learned in Wisconsin, where my mom sent my siblings and me outside with sacks to pick up trash on the side of the road. My environmental ethos quickly found a home here. I hiked a lot and was in awe of the ocean. Eventually, I became a site captain for Sharp Park Beach and organized beach cleanups. Now I am the president of the Pacific Beach Coalition.
Gradually, the work became much more than picking up cigarette butts and plastic waste at the beach. It became about helping people develop meaningful relationships with nature. More recently, I came to understand that while the environment impacts everyone, those impacts look very different depending on who you are and where you live. Some live next to oil wells and diesel traffic while others live just a short walk away from beaches and hiking trails. Some get to breathe fresh air, while others bear a disproportionate share of environmental pollution.
There is a deep injustice in this. And it gets worse when you consider the entitlement of those who do get to enjoy the benefits of nature but push back against sharing it.
I was disappointed by what I heard happened during the Oct. 14 study session at the Pacifica Parks, Beaches and Recreation Commission. What was intended as a meeting to give input on how nonprofit organizations and commercial surf shops can share beach access, turned into a rant against a program to share surf space with those who have been left out. It included the need “to protect the beach from the hordes who would expose it for the wrong reasons.” Rather than supporting a project to address inequities in access to surfing, this person angrily denied that these inequities exist at all.
This person’s view, that deserving “locals” must be protected from less deserving “outsiders,” doesn’t represent me or the Pacifica that I know. We are a city where people showed up by the thousands to protest George Floyd’s killing and stand up for Black Lives Matter. We live in a city that values open spaces and works together to clean litter, restore habitats and make it a better, healthier place for everyone.
The most serious impact of that tirade was that it hurt people of color who were at the meeting. It also threatens to derail our collective efforts to nurture the next generation of ocean protectors — an effort that must be rooted in diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Among the people doing this work is Mira Manickam-Shirley. Her work at Brown Girl Surf is introducing more women of color to the joy of surfing. Her nonprofit, alongside organizations like City Surf Project, do incredible work organizing swimming and surfing classes and other outdoor activities at the beach for young people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience them. Getting out to the beach takes time, and, in many cases, it’s tough if you don’t have a car. It takes money to rent or buy gear and take lessons.
As if these barriers aren’t challenging enough, I am learning that there’s the deep-seated history of racism that takes us all the way back to the Jim Crow era, when Black people were kept out of public beaches and swimming pools. Across the California coast, people of color were prevented from buying coastal real estate due to racially biased lending practices and housing covenants that prohibited the sale of houses to non-whites. The racial gap in beach access and surf culture persists today. Studies show that the fatal drowning rate of Black children is more than three times higher than that of white children.
Nonprofits like Brown Girl Surf are actively
undoing racism in surfing and beach culture and
creating lasting benefits for all of us who love the ocean. Their work helps young people of color to experience the ocean as a source of healing, joy, and community, and to understand the responsibility of respecting the ocean and taking care of it the way it takes care of all of us.
Looking around town and on the beaches in Pacifica, I have realized that we have missed the presence and voices from people of color who have the right to fresh air, open spaces and ocean. And they deserve opportunities to experience the grounding joy and satisfaction of taking care of the ocean.
The Pacific Beach Coalition would like nothing more than to partner with Brown Girl Surf and other like-minded organizations so that we can build a more diverse, bigger and stronger tent of ocean protectors. We would love to see and support the community in learning to swim, surf and protect the ocean right here in Pacifica.
That’s the spirit of Pacifica I know. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.
Lynn Adams is the president of the Pacific Beach Coalition.