Wahine Project - The Women Behind Women's Surfing NGO Series Part 2

oct 2018 surf, empowerment, united states

The second part of our series we will hear from Dionne Ybarra the Founder of The Wahine Project which is based in California.

The idea for The Wahine Project presented itself to Dionne when she took up surfing which transformed her life. She has since sought to share the liberating and empowering experience of a relationship with the ocean.

1. Can you share with the audience some background about your organization? (mission, goals, etc.)  

The Wahine Project was founded in 2010 to eliminate the barriers that prevent a diversity of girls from the sport of surfing. A few years I changed the mission to eliminate the barrier that prevents a diversity of girls from a relationship with the ocean and with one another. We realized that surfing wasn't for everyone but girls benefit from an overall relationship with the sea in whatever way they come to it. This relationship pushes them to want to take care of the ocean too and that is important. Also vital to our program is the realization that girls/woman have more in common than they think, the ocean brings them together.

2. Each of your organizations targets a specific need/gap you saw in a local community and/or the surf community in your respective locations. What were some of these needs/gaps, and what are the steps you took to address this/these gap(s)?

The gap first was in our area you just didn't see many girls surfing. The community was very small. I am Mexican American so I also saw a gap in culture too. I know from my background as a Mexican American, less girls of color even know how to swim. The girls surfing community appeared a monoculture. As I have worked now throughout the state of California it's true everywhere that girls of color and or lower socioeconomic groups of girls have less exposure to surfing and the ocean.

3. For you personally, what was the primary motivation to get involved with this cause/issue, and using surfing as part of the strategy to create change? What aspects of your own upbringing, sporting or cultural experiences lead you to this?

I am Mexican American and my mother led me to believe that if I went in past my ankles I would get sucked out to sea. I loved the beach but was terrified of the ocean. As a teenager, I was very drawn to the surf culture but of course felt like an outsider. It was a Caucasian culture that was taking part and I didn't feel like I fit in. I also lived about 20 miles from the beach. I married a surfer who tried to take me out but I was too terrified. I grew up as an athlete though so I felt very capable and empowered to do sports. I was also a skateboarder and that sport allowed me the experience of crossing over in a male-dominated sport. I continued to be an athlete as an adult and I wanted to do a triathlon when I was in my 30's so I learned how to swim proficiently which was huge for me to do in the ocean!! In my late 30's a friend asked me if I wanted to try surfing with her and I said yes. I was divorced by this time from my surfer husband. We tried surfing on our own and then took lessons. I traveled to Mexico for my first surf trip and that experience of traveling to where my dad's family was from and surfing was life-changing. Surfing challenged me on every level and felt like it was the best way to overcome fear and experiencing the ocean made me feel deeply connected to want to protect it. I came back from that trip inspired and motivated to do something with my experience that could positively influence girls like my younger self. The idea for the project came from that.

4. As an organization, what are some of the challenges you are facing at the moment? What are some of the strategies you are using to help overcome these challenges?

The biggest challenge is funding. I want to do so much but do not have the funding to do it. We have made big strides in this but so much more can be done but I am limited to hire people with the right skill to take us where we could go. We have started to work with another organization called Explore Corps that allows us to work under them to provide clinics for boys separately. We have also come up with ways to work with more partners to get girls in the sea. Collaborations have been great to help us keep working.

5. This will be a three-part question. I am sure you all are aware of this; on Thursday, September 6th the World Surfing League (WSL) announced equal prize money would be awarded to both male and female surfers.

a. When you first heard what were some of your reactions?

I cried! I know some of the women who have been working on the movement for equity. It felt like huge barriers we overcame and it was a turning point for women. It was a historical decision.

b. Do you think this will have any impact on your organization?

I think just knowing this will set a new tone for us, it could get us funding possibly bringing more recognition to the importance and value of surfing for women.

c. What areas still need to be addressed in terms of equity in surfing?

We are still working on how girls perceive themselves. We are still working on how we view ourselves in the lineup, we have to come to terms with our body and how we use them. There is more to be challenged in the lineup and the male-dominated culture. Girls to be willing to work as hard, get hurt, get back up, overcome their own hindrance to themselves.


6. Tokyo 2020 is a big year, with surfing making its debut at the Olympics. Have you seen an increase in interest in surfing NGOs as a response to Olympic inclusion? (e.g., in people wanting to learn how to surf, more interest from volunteers, more support from donors, industry, corporations).

I have not felt any direct outcomes in relation to the Olympics.

7. Finally, based on your experiences, what do you see as the biggest challenges for women trying to create social and community change via surfing NGOs? And why is it important for women to be involved in leading such initiatives? Do you feel women bring something different to this type of work?

Bring more dynamic and inclusive ways of working in the world. We challenge old belief systems because we need to. Funding is the biggest barrier I think for women. Men raise more money, they make more money. With the contest at Mavericks, I know Bianca Valenti sought funding for the women from a woman. More women need to give to women-led initiatives. We are making strides and its a good time to be doing this work! 

A: responses



Awesome to learn about different surf orgs run by women. 

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