World Ocean’s Day and a Milestone for Equitable Access in California

“It’s like we’re introducing them to their own backyard. What struck me when I first came on was that some of these kids have lived here (San Diego) all their lives; they’re only 15 to 20 minutes away from the ocean, but they’d never been. There’s this feeling of not belonging, especially if they don’t see representation, so we are working toward ensuring everyone feels welcomed in these natural spaces.”

– Sunny Chang, youth programs manager at Outdoor Outreach.

World Oceans Day, June 8, reminds us of the role the ocean plays in our lives. It’s a great day to join a beach cleanup, visit a tidepool, go surfing, or take time to learn about the ocean and how to better protect it. For those of us with easy access to the beach, World Ocean Day is also a reminder that many do not share those opportunities. From the displacement and genocide of Indigenous peoples to discriminatory housing practices, California’s coastline has had a long and entrenched history of injustice and inequality, the impacts of which continue to be felt today.  

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to make the coast a more welcoming, diverse, and joyful place for all. Resources Legacy Fund (RLF) works with community organizations, government agencies, and other partners from around the state on a wide range of efforts to improve coastal access. And we’ve been making some progress.

The California Coastal Act, a landmark state law enacted in 1976, prioritizes environmental protection and enshrines the public’s legal right to access and enjoy the coast. When community organizations Brown Girl Surf and City Surf Project ran into challenges running surf programs in Pacifica, California, they brought the issue to the California Coastal Commission, the agency in charge of enforcing the Coastal Act.

Since 2005, Pacifica had limited surf school access to a small number of incumbent commercial operators. RLF grantee Brown Girl Surf and partners campaigned for several years to improve access for non-profit surf programs that were bringing youth to the coast. As a result of their efforts, in 2022, Coastal Commission staff began collaborating with the groups, staff from Pacifica and State Parks, and commercial surf schools to develop a new, fairer system.

Setting a Precedent for California

On May 11, the California Coastal Commission unanimously approved a new, coastal development permit (CDP) for surf schools in Pacifica that will improve access for nonprofit surf schools and the communities they serve.

After the passage of the CDP, Adriana Guerrero-Nardone, Executive Director of Brown Girl Surf remarked, “This is a historical moment for our organization and our community and is something we’ve been waiting for a very long time. The decision is validating and affirming that we belong, that we’ve always belonged.”

The success achieved in Pacifica is a testament to the tireless efforts of community members and organizations dedicated to equitable coastal access. The newly approved Pacifica CDP is likely to set a precedent for numerous other coastal cities statewide that maintain similar permitting systems. Organizations like RLF partners Outdoor Outreach, Un Mar de Colores, Black Surf Club Santa Cruz, Color the Water, and others have also faced frustrating barriers, exclusionary attitudes, and challenging permitting processes, and are strategizing around how to best address these issues. Outreach to coastal land managers has confirmed what groups are feeling. Many local governments of coastal communities have surf school permitting practices, yet very few prioritize equity.

Prioritizing Access for All

California’s coast is arguably its most beloved natural feature. Whether you like to surf, paddle, or just catch the sunset from shore, there is something universally magical about being on the coast. In general, spending time outdoors has been shown to have benefits for your mental health through improved sleep and an overall sense of well-being. Even in a place like my home of San Diego County, which has 70 miles of coastline, far too many kids from nearby low-income communities have never even been to the beach.

Many efforts to improve coastal access have emerged in recent years:  beach transportation systems, swim safety lessons, and building a supportive, positive community. For example, Outdoor Outreach runs incredible programs in San Diego that connect communities—primarily those historically impacted by residential segregation, wealth inequality, mass incarceration, and environmental racism—to the ocean. Partners like Brown Girl Surf and Outdoor Outreach are working hard to ensure everyone can enjoy their legal right to experience the joy and healing power of the wind, waves, and wildlife along our shores.

What’s needed is two-fold: reliable, sustained funding to expand these efforts to break down the remaining structural barriers to coastal access and a statewide approach to surf school permitting that prioritizes equity.

As organizations like Brown Girl Surf and Outdoor Outreach thrive, they deeply enrich their communities. As one participant from Outdoor Outreach’s surf school described, “These opportunities brought me the hope, support, and strength I needed. It allowed me to escape the negativity, to heal, and catch my breath. It taught me better ways of coping and showed me that I could continue fighting for a better me.”

And isn’t that something we should all truly have access to?