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Breaking Waves, Breaking Barriers: The Badass Women of Brown Girl Surf

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When Oakland’s Mira Manickam decided to teach herself to surf seven years ago, she didn’t see any role models in the Northern California surf scene who looked like her.

That didn’t stop Manickam, a 38-year-old Indian-American environmental educator, multimedia artist and rapper, who today heads up Brown Girl Surf, a scrappy Bay Area nonprofit working to shatter the stereotype that surfing is only for sun-bleached dudes, cemented in pop culture with classics like Endless Summer.

“I’ve always had a rebel, change-the-system streak in me,” says Manickam, “and when there is no one who looks like me doing something I want to do, it makes me want to do it even more. With Brown Girl Surf, we are creating a culture in our own image.”

Through summer surf camps, seasonal surf crews, Surf Sister Saturdays and other programs, Brown Girl Surf has reached dozens of girls and young women of color from Bayview, Hunter’s Point, Oakland and beyond. Surfboards and wetsuits are provided for participants, the majority of whom also receive some sort of scholarship for its programs.

For many participants, it’s their first exposure to surfing and ocean swimming.


“It makes me feel empowered and in control of what I want to do with my life,” says 15-year-old Clara Martinez, a student at Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo.

“The outdoors haven’t always felt like they belong to everyone and we’re creating that access point,” adds Manickam. “Out in the water, being so aware of your surroundings and what the waves are doing, you are just so close to the elements and in touch with your most animal brain and instincts, amazing things happen.” – Kelly Whalen

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