Just like thousands of other kids in Southern California, Jeff Williams grew up with dreams of living near the beach. He plastered his room with posters of Gerry Lopez, Mr. Pipeline, the gold standard of American tube-ride surfing. He grabbed his first board, a 5-foot, 8-inch Hawaiian design, at age 16, and hauled it from land-locked Glendora to surf at San Onofre Beach as often as he could. And he worked hard as a freelance television producer, ultimately moving to Venice Beach, where he could walk to the waves whenever he wanted.
But Jeff Williams is also a black man in the predominantly white world of surfing, which means he pursued his passion alone and unguided, without the sense of community enjoyed by other surfers or the comfort of an act to follow. Now 45, Williams devotes his life to providing a pathway to the surf and sand through the Black Surfers Collective, an aspiring nonprofit organization he cofounded in 2012 "to raise cultural awareness and promote diversity to the sport of surfing."
"There's just not a big exposure to surfing in the black community," said Williams, "so you're going to go into basketball or football, or somewhere you might feel a little more welcome."
Williams and BSC members tour the churches and Boys & Girls Clubs in Watts and South Central for interested families, inviting dozens of could-be surfers to take free surf lessons at one of BSC's Pan African Beach Days, held at Dockweiler Beach on the first Sunday of every month, including this past Sunday. With a roster of volunteer surf instructors and a strategic partnership with the Surf Bus Foundation, the Black Surfers Collective brings inner-city youth without access to transportation to the ocean, often for the first time. Williams estimates that the Black Surfers Collective has taught hundreds—people of all ages and ethnicities—how to surf.
"This group is important because, as people of color, we don't make it to the beach often, and some people think that certain sports belong to certain people," said Glynetta Fletcher of Compton, who surprised her 10-year-old daughter, Alivia, with a surf lesson at a recent Pan African Beach Day. "Surfing isn't thought of as a 'black thing to do,' so it was important for [Alivia] to see other people who look like her in the sport."
The Black Surfers Collective also organizes and celebrates Nick Gabaldon Day, held for the past two years in early June in honor of California's first surfer of African-American descent. Gabaldon's legend grew throughout the 1940s, when Jim Crow limited him to a single point of entry to the surf at the Inkwell, a segregated all-black beach in Santa Monica. Determined to surf among the world's best, Gabaldon routinely paddled from the Inkwell 12 miles north to tackle the famous breaks at Malibu's Surfrider Beach—and then back!
"Our slogan is 'diversity in the lineup,’" said Williams. "So what better way to bring people together than to promote a guy who was not only a pioneer in the obscure, historically white sport of surfing, but he was also biracial, half black and half Mexican. That's something I felt we could all get behind."
Today's barriers to beach access aren't racial but socioeconomic, according to Williams, who has been active in publicizing the lengths people will go in places like Malibu to keep the public off the beach and out of the surf.
"The surfer's mentality is to help somebody who wants to learn," said Williams. "That's the giving spirit I want to see exercised up and down this coastline—not the negative, you can't go here, you can't go there."
Through the Black Surfers Collective, Williams plans to pay that gift forward.