.Black Surf Santa Cruz Founder Bella Bonner Talks Ocean Healing

BSSC hosted its second annual Liberation Paddle-out at Cowell’s beach on Juneteenth

Esabella “Bella” Bonner started Black Surf Santa Cruz in 2020, intending to break down systematic barriers to surfing. The club aims to “promote physical and spiritual wellness through surf for our local BIPOC Community,” and provides no-cost lessons and equipment rentals.

On Juneteenth, the club hosted its second annual Liberation Paddle-out at Cowell’s beach. Participants gathered together to laugh, play and honor loved ones. Bonner spoke to GT about the impact BSSC has had over the last two years. 

What inspired you to found Black Surf Santa Cruz?

BELLA BONNER: In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, and after organizing a series of protests locally, I found myself super burned out. I saw a flyer for a couple of paddle-outs that were happening, and I realized, “Why have I never been in the water before? Why have I never been in a wetsuit?” So I reached out to one of the organizers and asked her, “How are we going to make sure that we’re centering our Black and Brown community at these paddle-outs, since they’re for the murder of George Floyd? How are we going to make sure that we’re able to have good representation and have BIPOC folks be a part of the mourning or the events?” And the organizer hadn’t quite had a plan in place, so she asked if I could help her bridge that gap. We put a feeler out on social media, and got a bunch of equipment rentals for the day. It was my first time on a surfboard. And it opened up this feeling of belonging I had never felt here in Santa Cruz and a sense of community. I felt restored. I’d never found that in the ocean, and it’s because I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I belong. It was really special. And I wanted to share that experience with others so that they can decide for themselves whether or not something is for them.

Has the response been positive?

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Overwhelmingly positive. It’s been so apparent that this is a gap within our community that needs to be met. There are so many community members, whether it be our BIPOC community or allies at large, that want to be a part of something like this. And there just wasn’t that medium before. Over the last two years, we’ve grown, and have over 180 members signed up. It’s amazing, but it’s also hard to scale. We’re learning as we go, and seeing how many people want to be a part of this community is incredible.

What have been the main challenges to meeting that need?

There are quite a few challenges, especially since I didn’t grow up surfing or in the water. One of the biggest challenges at first was building programming that makes sense for the capacity that we have. And then actually getting people involved. How do we find coaches? How do we bring in water safety? How do we bring in all of the equipment? How do we make all of these things meet at one moment? So, some of it is pure logistics, and some of it is, in a very positive way, being able to keep up with the pace we’re scaling. Not pushing ourselves to do too much too fast just because there’s a certain demand, but making sure we do it all super intentionally to create safe opportunities for people to try this experience. It’s amazing and super exciting, but it is a little overwhelming at times, just wanting to keep everyone safe and be able to reach everyone at the same time.

Has anything surprised you about bringing this community together?

One thing that surprised me was how many people were missing out on an opportunity like this purely because of access. I knew it as I was walking into it, but it still blows my mind to know that the only thing that was really needed was an intentional space. That’s all it took to get so many BIPOC folks into the water. 

One of the things that continues to surprise me is how normalized the generational aspect of it all is—how much trauma there is embedded in this. It’s crazy how one sentence can encompass so many generations of harm. And that sentence is something like, “Oh, Black people don’t surf,” or “Black people don’t swim,” or “You’ll never catch me out there in the water.” I’m always fielding people responding in that way. And at first, I would laugh and go, “Oh yeah, I hear you. I feel you on that.” But as more and more people from different places would say that same sentence to me, it started to sting. Why? Is it because we need to address the root of making you feel safe in a swimming pool and teach you how to swim? Is it because that’s what your parents passed down to you? That always still surprises me, and I don’t want to let myself get into a moment where that becomes normal. Because I think that statement alone holds the root of it all—of why we exist.

More than 150 people joined Black Surf Santa Cruz’s Liberation Paddle-out on Juneteenth. PHOTO: Erin Malsbury

Have you watched people’s relationship with the ocean change?

Yes. It was a paddle-out that changed my relationship with the ocean and the water, because it’s the perfect access point. You’re in the community. Over the last two years, as we’ve done our two liberation paddle-outs, I’ve seen so many people have the experience shift their life, or make them feel welcome here in Santa Cruz. They’re able to experience all that this beautiful place has to offer. One of our founding board members, Keisha Browder, had never been in the ocean her entire life—never been in a wetsuit. And I think that’s why, for me, the focus has been on adults. I want to target those people that have gone so much longer without seeing themselves represented or seeing the ocean as a space for them. 

How did you organize the Liberation Paddle-out?

It was hard. It’s so fun to see and feel the support from people, but it has a lot of moving parts. And it very much was a community push, in that none of this would be possible without the organizations like Club Ed Surf School, Cowells Surf Shop and Venture Quest Kayak Adventures, who donated their equipment for us to eliminate that access barrier. 

What did you think of the turnout?

I was so stoked. It was so special. The week leading up to it, I was panicking. I was looking around online, trying to get a pulse of how many people to expect. We had our equipment rental checkout form, which was getting high in numbers, and I knew we would have walk-ups. The week leading up to it, I had thought, “Oh, maybe like 100 people total throughout the day.” And one of my board members was like, “You realize it’s gonna be at least double or triple that, right?” We made some shifts last week to better accommodate a bigger group of people. Honestly, it was like a dream to see that many folks—specifically, since it was Juneteenth, that many Black folks—out in the water.

“I know it’s funny to say, but it felt truly liberating,” says Bonner about the Paddle-out. “The atmosphere was pure joy.” PHOTO: Erin Malsbury

What were some of your favorite moments?

When we were all in the water together, you could hear so many people exclaiming that it was their first time in the ocean or their first time this far out in the ocean. Their first time on a surfboard. Being able to share that beginner’s newness and community with people and be reassured that what we’re doing will have a lasting impact was super special. On a personal note, it was also Father’s Day and Juneteenth, and I lost my dad a few years ago. It felt like everything zoomed out—I was able to say what I needed to say, and throw my flower in his honor, and watch everyone else throw their flowers; and know how loved, not only we all were together in that moment, but our ancestors, our Earth, our ocean. 

What are you looking forward to for the future of the club?

The week leading up to the event, we got our nonprofit exemption letter in the mail. I would say being here for this next chapter, leaning into being an emerging nonprofit, strengthening our programming and setting up this organization to have a steady foundation so it can last for years. Continuing to set that intentionality behind the whole thing and let it do what it’s supposed to and evolve on its own.

Learn more at blacksurfclubsantacruz.com.


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