Jessa Williams could never have imagined how that routine run would change not just her life, but also the lives of women of color around Southern California.
It was 2020 and Los Angeles was feeling the full force of pandemic shutdowns because of the novel coronavirus. Gyms, recreational sports leagues, even some parks, were all closed as the government tried to slow the spread of the disease. Williams, who had just moved to the West Coast with her son, turned to the place many coastal Californians did, and still do, to find their space – the beach. Running along Manhattan Beach, with the crashing waves of the Pacific to her west, Williams’ eyes were drawn to a group of kids running into the water. Adults were helping herd the kids, and their large surfboards, into the crashing whitewater. Williams watched as the surf lesson got underway, the shrieks and laughter of the kids, who she remembers as being “little, little,” stirring something in her.
“It struck me that the people out here put their kids in the water from a very early age,” said Williams, who had moved to LA the year before from Cleveland, Ohio with her son Marcello. “The whole time I was running that day I just kept thinking about that. I was out here with my son and I wanted him to have this, ‘LA experience’ growing up here.”
Williams signed then 10 year old Marcello up for surf lessons shortly after and he took to it like he was meant for it.
“I was really proud of him for doing it,” said Williams. “And I remember feeling proud of myself as a Mom that I was giving him this experience, which felt so wild and different and cool and out of our normal box. Like, ‘OMG he’s surfing!’ I ran around in the whitewash taking pics and videos and screaming every time he popped up.”
It took all of one lesson for Marcelo to share the joy he was finding in the water with his mom.
“I remember thinking, I wasn’t very interested in it,” Williams remembers with a laugh. “I was just doing it to appease my son.”
Whatever the reason was she initially got in the water, the former competitive gymnast in Williams had no doubt she’d have no trouble getting the hang of this new sport. And then she popped up on her first wave.
“I remember being humbled very quickly by the ocean,” said Williams. “That’s my first memory, thinking ‘ok, I got this’ and then every other session since just being really humbled by it. I think that’s what I love about it, it that it’s really hard and it’s a challenge.”
A challenge that tapped into her competitive spirit like gymnastics did, without the pressure of perfection or comparison.
“It felt like a place where I could be challenged athletically that had nothing to do with anybody else. That competitive spirit definitely turned itself on but with surfing it was about trying to learn how to do it, learn new skills.”
As Williams continued to push herself in the water to try new things, and get better each session, her focus shifted outward to those who were in the water with her.
“I started to understand that my personal experience being out in the water and being a beginner, which is intimidating and hard for anybody and everybody, meant something different [for me] because I wasn’t white and I wasn’t a man. With surfing being predominantly white and male, I’m starting to see, very clearly, all the ways that I don’t fit into this space.”
What started as an observation, turned into a harsh reality the session she was harassed in the line-up.
“It was a racially charged incident,” said Williams. “Being told I didn’t belong and to get out of the water.”
Surf Industry Members Association, in conjunction with ActionWatch put together a report on the demographics of surfers, cited in Surfer.com, saying 65% of surfers are male, and more than half of the 35% of women in the line-up are white. The incident left Williams feeling angry, frustrated, and powerless. It didn’t take long for her to decide to channel those feelings into change.
“That’s what lit the fire in me to say, ‘I’m going to create a safe space for other black women to feel like this is for us, that we deserve to take up space and connect with nature in this way.”
And so, Intersxn Surf was born. A community centered around creating space for those who may not otherwise feel like they belong in the water.
“To be honest, I didn’t put a ton of thought into exactly how I was going to approach this or exactly what I needed to do,” Williams said of her early planning on how to create Intrsxn. “And I think that’s okay. I think especially as women, and definitely as black women and women of color, it’s important to know that what you have in you is enough to do something to make a difference. Right where you are, with what you know and what you have right now is enough to create change or inspire others in a positive way.”
“At the time, I was just really adamant about bringing women together who I knew would otherwise feel intimidated.”
The planning and preparation began for the first Intrsxn Meet-Up in June of 2021. Williams gathered up donated boards, wetsuits, and instructors who agreed to donate their time. With a few Instagram posts, Williams invited the community to just come out and surf, no experience required.
That first day on Dockweiler, in LA more than 100 people showed up for the first meet-up, and 50 black women and women of color had their first surf lesson.
“I remember seeing a bunch of girls that I recognized from the gram I had not yet met in real life. It felt like a light bulb moment,” said Williams. “Of course your friends are going to come to support you but I was really inspired to see that there were certain people who had been following me online and then when I was like, ‘okay I’m going to do a thing and open up a space for us to come together,’ in real life they showed up.”
While the negative effects of social media are often focused on, for Williams that first meet-up was a reminder of how it can be used in a positive way.
“I wouldn’t have been able to build out my platform and our community without it.”
Utilizing social media to reach her community she says gives many women the courage to come alone.
“You feel isolated in a big city and you want to find like-minded people but it’s like, ‘how do I do that? How do I build community?’ So I love to ask who came by themselves and all these hands go up. And I’m like, ‘leave with a real number in your phone, make a real friend today.’”
Since that first meet-up two summers ago, Intrsxn has put on dozens more, the community growing deeper with each meeting. Williams works hard to ensure each person who comes is engaged with, whether it’s during their free lesson as a beginner, or paddling out together for those who already know how to surf and just want to enjoy the community.
“The one thing that would feel like, ‘yes, our job here is being done,’ is if it inspires even one black woman, or woman of color, to give themselves permission to take up space in a bigger and bolder way in their real life. Surfing is the vehicle to spread that message that we need to give ourselves permission and not wait for the invite, wait for the perfect time, wait for the perfect version of ourselves to show up and do the things we want to do.”
Intrsxn meet-ups are free to attend but far from it to put on. If you’d like to learn more about how you can get involved, reach out to Jessa on Instagram or send her an email, email@example.com. Be sure to follow Intrsxtn_surf on instagram.
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