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Women Who Lead: Maya Yamato

Tell us about your role at Brown Girl Surf – what’s a typical day as Executive Director (or fill in whatever title you think is appropriate!)?  

In 2018, Brown Girl Surf had just 2 year-round part-time staff: myself (the Interim Executive Director) and the Program and Events Manager. As the Interim Executive Director, I worked with the Program and Events Manager to ensure the smooth flow of programming, including surf programs, environmental stewardship projects, film screenings, trainings, and civic engagement initiatives. I also led fundraising efforts, engaged with the media, provided guidance and support to our volunteers and youth leaders, and managed all operational aspects of the organization, such as the equipment, storage, insurance, accounting, evaluations, database, etc. We are expanding our team this year, as our co-Founder and Executive Director returns from maternity leave, and I transition to the role of Director of Operations.

How did you get involved in women’s outdoor education?

While I have worked in outdoor education previously, Brown Girl Surf is the first organization that I’ve been part of which focuses on women’s outdoor education.

Did you grow up in an outdoors-oriented family? What was your breakthrough outdoor experience – and where was it?

I did not grow up in an outdoors-oriented family. I went backpacking for the first time in college in New Jersey, at a freshman pre-orientation program. We hiked and canoed for a week, and it was an awesome experience even though it was raining most of the time.

Many folks ask us “why girls-only?” In your view, what are the unique benefits of girls-only programs?

Brown Girl Surf was founded by two women of color surfers who noticed that whenever they surfed, they were often the only woman and the only person of color in the water. This happened so consistently in so many different locations, that they realized there was a systemic problem excluding women and people of color from the sport. Brown Girl Surf introduces girls and women of color to the sport of surfing, and helps them feel a greater sense of connection, confidence, and community at the ocean.

Part of the mandate of The Cairn Project is to help expand access to programs like yours in underserved communities. In your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to increasing young women’s participation in outdoor programs?

Through our work, we have found that communities of color, and particularly women of color, have experienced diverse structural barriers that have prevented or discouraged them from feeling safe in the ocean, welcome in ocean-related spaces, and developing a strong emotional connection to the sea. These barriers include cultural, logistical, and financial barriers that disproportionately exclude women of color from exploring and enjoying our beaches and oceans.

Brown Girl Surf replaces false narratives regarding women of color in the ocean with uplifting ones, by redefining surf culture in our own image of joy and diversity and by amplifying the voices of women of color surfers.

Financial and logistical barriers are relatively straightforward; for example, if you don’t own a car, it’s often very difficult to get to the ocean via public transportation. Renting surf gear and taking a lesson can easily cost $100 a session. Parking, gas, and coastal accommodations are also expensive.

Cultural barriers stem from our society’s history of discrimination around access to beaches, and a perpetuation of false narratives and stereotypes about people of color and water. Before joining our programs, many of our participants are scared of the ocean, feel that the ocean is not a place where they belong, or don’t feel that the ocean is important in their everyday lives. Artificial and unrealistic societal standards of beauty also discourage women from participating in ocean-based recreation.

Brown Girl Surf replaces false narratives regarding women of color in the ocean with uplifting ones, by redefining surf culture in our own image of joy and diversity and by amplifying the voices of women of color surfers.

Despite the roles of “leader” and “participant,” learning usually goes both ways. What is something you’ve learned from one of the girls in your program in the last few months?

One of the most significant accomplishments of Brown Girl Surf is that we are an organization that connects youths to the outdoors without the dichotomy of “those who serve and those who are being served.” We have a “for us by us” community-run model, where the lines between youths, adults, participants, leaders, volunteers, and staff are blurred and fluid. Some of our youth leaders have been with us for 4 years, and they teach both our participants and volunteers how to run our surf days.

During our Spring leadership meeting last year, our youth leaders suggested that we change the format of our surf days so that repeat and more experienced participants can get more time in the water. We worked with the girls to figure out how we could make this happen, and implemented these changes for the Fall Surf Sister Saturdays.

We have a “for us by us” community-run model, where the lines between youths, adults, participants, leaders, volunteers, and staff are blurred and fluid.

What’s your favorite way to adventure?

Surfing!

We’ve all had those rough days outside that we look back on fondly. Tell us about a challenging moment in the outdoors, and what you gained from it.

I used to surf year-round in New England; the coldest I’ve surfed was in January, when the water temperature was 34 degrees and there was snow on the ground. People say that they don’t want to surf in Northern California because the water is too cold – but I know how spoiled we are here, and have never complained about water temperature or having to wear a wetsuit.

The benefits of outdoor exploration extend far beyond simply learning how to set up a tent, tie a figure eight knot, or maneuver a bike around obstacles. What are some of the benefits that you see in the young women you work with?

I’ll let them speak for themselves, through their testimonials:

“I never thought I would be in love with the ocean.  I grew up around it but for most of my life I didn’t know how to swim so I just avoided it.   Brown Girl Surf opened up a whole new world for me, I conquered my fears in ways I didn’t know I could and developed a confidence within myself that can never be taken away.  All of this while learning how to surf and meeting such incredible female surfers continues to be one of the greatest experiences of my life.” – Nishan Jones, Intern

“I’m grateful for Brown Girl Surf and how safe you make it feel here. Lots of places say they are safe spaces but don’t actually feel safe. This one does, so thank you.” – 12 year old participant from 2018 Surf Sister Summer Camp

Maya Yamato