Bella Bonner, Founder of Black Surf Club Santa Cruz, Talks About Ocean Healing


Esabella “Bella” Bonner started Black Surf Club Santa Cruz in 2020, with the intention of breaking down systematic barriers to surfing. The club aims to “promote physical and spiritual well-being through surfing for our local BIPOC community”, and offers free lessons and equipment rentals.

On June 19, the club held its second annual Liberation Paddle-out on Cowell Beach. Attendees came together to laugh, play and pay tribute to their loved ones. Bonner spoke to GT on the impact BSCSC has had over the past two years.

What inspired you to found the Black Surf Club Santa Cruz?

BELLA BONNER: In 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, and after organizing a series of protests locally, I found myself super burnt out. I saw a flyer for some paddles going around and realized, “Why haven’t I been in the water before? Why have I never worn a wetsuit? So I reached out to one of the organizers and asked him, “How are we going to make sure that we center our black and brown community on these paddles, since they are for the murder of George Floyd? How are we going to ensure that we are able to have good representation and that people from BIPOC participate in the bereavement or events? And the organizer didn’t really have a plan in place, so she asked me if I could help bridge that gap. We hit up a social media feeler and got a bunch of gear rentals for the day. It was my first time on a surfboard. And it opened up this sense of belonging that I had never felt here in Santa Cruz and a sense of community. I felt restored. I had never found that in the ocean, and that’s because I don’t think I ever felt like I belonged. It was really special. And I wanted to share this experience with others so they can decide for themselves whether something is right for them or not.

Was the response positive?

Lots of positives. It has become apparent that this is a gap within our community that needs to be filled. There are so many community members, whether it’s our BIPOC community or our allies in general, who want to be a part of something like this. And there just wasn’t that medium before. Over the past two years we have grown to over 180 registered members. It’s amazing, but it’s also hard to scale. We’re learning as we go, and seeing how many people want to be part of this community is amazing.

What were the main challenges in meeting this need?

There are quite a few challenges, especially since I didn’t grow up surfing or in the water. In the beginning, one of the biggest challenges was to develop programming that made sense given the capacity we have. And then get people involved. How to find coaches? How do we introduce water safety? How to bring all the material? How do you make all of these things come together in an instant? So part of it is pure logistics, and part of it is, in a very positive way, being able to keep up with the pace that we’re evolving. Not forcing ourselves to do too much too quickly just because there is some demand, but ensuring that we do it very intentionally to create safe opportunities for people to try this experience. It’s amazing and super exciting, but it’s a bit overwhelming at times, just wanting to keep everyone safe and be able to reach everyone at the same time.

Did anything surprise you about bringing this community together?

One thing that has surprised me is how many people have missed out on an opportunity like this just because of the access. I knew that going into it, but it still blows my mind to know that the only thing that was really needed was intentional space. That’s all it took to put so many BIPOC people in the water.

One of the things that continues to amaze me is how normalized the generational aspect of it all is – how much trauma is baked into it. It’s crazy how one sentence can encompass so many generations of evil. And that line 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 am still in contact with people who respond this way. And at first, I was laughing and going, “Oh yeah, I hear you. I feel you on it. But as more and more people from different places were saying the same phrase to me, it started to sting. Why? Is it because we have to get to the root to make you feel safe in a pool and teach you how to swim? Is it because that’s what your parents passed on to you? It always surprises me and I don’t want to let myself go at a time when it becomes normal. Because I think that statement alone holds the root of it all – of why we exist.

Over 150 people joined Black Surf Santa Cruz’s Liberation Paddle-out on June 19th. PHOTO: Erin Malsbury

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

Yes. It’s a paddle outing that has changed my relationship with the ocean and water, as it’s the perfect access point. You are in the community. Over the past two years as we have done our two release paddles, I have seen so many people experience life changing or feeling welcome here in Santa Cruz. They can experience all that this beautiful place has to offer. One of our founding board members, Keisha Browder, has never been in the ocean in 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 who have gone so long 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 people’s support, but there are a lot of moving parts. And it was really a community push, in that none of this would be possible without organizations like Club Ed Surf School, Cowells Surf Shop, and Venture Quest Kayak Adventures, who donated their gear to us to break down that barrier. of access.

What did you think of the participation?

I was so happy. It was so special. The week before, I panicked. I was looking online, trying to get an idea of ​​how many people to expect. We had our equipment rental crate form, which was growing, and I knew we would have walk-ins. The week before, I had thought, “Oh, maybe about 100 people total throughout the day.” And one of my board members was like, “You realize it’s going to be at least double or triple that, right?” We made some changes last week to better accommodate a larger group of people. Honestly, it was like a dream to see so many people—especially since it was June 16, so many black people—in the water.

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

What were 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. To be able to share the novelty and community of this beginner with people and be reassured that what we are doing will have a lasting impact was super special. On a personal note, it was also Father’s Day and June 16, and I lost my father a few years ago. I felt like everything had fallen apart – I was able to say what I had to say, toss my flower in her honor, and watch everyone throw their flowers; and know how much loved, not only were we all together then, but our ancestors, our Earth, our ocean.

What do you expect for the future of the club?

The week before the event, we received our nonprofit exemption letter in the mail. I would say to be here for this next chapter, to lean into becoming an emerging nonprofit, to strengthen our programming and to set up this organization to have a stable base so that it can last for years. Continuing to define that intentionality behind it all and let it do what it’s supposed to do and evolve on its own.

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