Episode 1: Sharing the stoke with Olivia VanDamme

Episode transcript

Olivia: This is my friend Sarah
Youth: Hi! Hi!
Olivia: She’s going to be doing a podcast
Youth: That’s cute!

[SOUND CLIPS FROM SURF DAY. Ambient noise of ocean waves, birds]

Sarah: What do you love about surfing?
Different youth voices: Everything. Fun.
There’s a lot of freedom involved. The inner calmness it brings you.
Mostly being in the water and stuff like that, away from school.
You get to do it with your friends. It’s just really enjoyable and it’s nice to be outside.


Sarah: You’re listening to Outside Voices podcast. We’re using our outside voices to redefine what it means to spend time outside and connect to nature. I’m your host, Sarah Shimazaki, let’s get started.  


Sarah: For our very first episode of the podcast, I am so excited and honored to introduce you all to my dear friend Olivia. Olivia uses she/her pronouns and identifies as mixed race with latinx and white ancestry.

She’s an incredible surfer and has built her life around the sport. But-- we’re all complex, multi-faceted human beings, right? So, it’s important to me to name that Olivia is also a climber, artist, conservation advocate, soccer player, educator.

She’s a musician (in fact, all of the music in this podcast was written and performed by her), lover of the outdoors, sister, daughter, partner, friend…

Olivia: I really love burritos. I really love smoothies. I really do enjoy people with a good sense of humor and I love to laugh and joke around and my sense of humor is really playful and really childish but I think maybe that's why I also love working with youth because they are able to kind of just share that innocence and that joy of being young. And I always want to hold on to that.

Olivia (from Surf Day): Alright everyone let’s make an open circle, spread out. Get your body ready to surf.

Sarah: I got to join Olivia and her youth on one of their surfing days, which was a lot of fun. But let me rewind for a second-- I first met Olivia two years ago at the inaugural People of the Global Majority in the Outdoors, Nature and Environment conference or, PGM ONE. It was here in Ohlone Territory, where we both live. We bonded over the unfortunate fact that I was dealing with a knee injury at the time, something Olivia was all too familiar with herself. I learned that Olivia works for a nonprofit in San Francisco—specifically the Mission District. The organization is called City Surf Project.

Olivia: City Surf project is a 501c 3 nonprofit that has a mission to connect underrepresented youth to the ocean and themselves through surfing. So we use surfing as a vehicle to teach our three main pillars of respect for nature, healthy lifestyle and personal growth. Our youth that go to these public high schools kind of vary all across the board of backgrounds, economic status, mixed-race, having immigrant parents and being immigrants themselves. Being in this city is really fascinating because the students we serve come from all different walks of life and it's a hub for that and the city is kind of known for that too.

Sarah: We’ll get to Olivia’s story as a surfer soon—first, I wanted to hear more about her earliest memories outside. Olivia grew up in California. Her love for California’s natural beauty is so clear to me every time we hike together. She’s always crouching down identifying every wildflower, fungi, tree and animal we come across. Olivia attributes her connection to nature to her parents.

Olivia: We grew up on the UC Riverside campus so there was family housing there so it was a really cool community and actually the community I grew up in was really green. It was huge. There was expansive places to play our whole backyard was, I mean the size of a football field in between all of the houses. And we had a huge park and I just remember being with friends and playing in the neighborhood that we had. And it was so awesome we would ride bikes we would play in the park. We would build forts in the bushes. My dad would take us hiking there in the local mountains and hillsides. There were hikes around there with big boulders and desert landscape and my dad took us on a lot of hikes. He was always pushing me to try the next big adventure and he taught me how to ride my bike and he taught me about rattlesnakes and taught me about different things to look out for outside. My mom was so about, “how can we make something with stuff outside and how can we use medicine from outside? How can we cook with things from outside?” And so she brought the outdoors into the kitchen, I think. And she was teaching me always about plants that we eat and herbs that we use. And I remember her making Agua de Jamaica and Agua Fresca. I just remember the summers in Riverside where she'd make this huge glass pitcher of tea and she'd have it soaking outside to steep in the sun and she'd make all these fresh ice teas and fresh aguas that we would have and I just I remember her saying that this is a plant that we're using and to be grateful for it and to share that reverence for these things that give us life and give us medicine and give us healing, including lavender. My mom is all about lavender [laughs].

She gets that from my grandma too and gardening and learning about ways that the outdoors can heal us and how we're connected to it. So my grandma is indigenous Mexican and she immigrated here in the 50s and she has a very much so has a connection to nature in the way that she has continued to grow some of the same foods in her own garden like nopales. So my grandma grows cactus and she is so in tune with how cactus grows and how to use it and eat it and make it and prepare it. And so I think she wouldn't say that she is outdoorsy because I think when she hears that word or when she hears about being an adventurer or something like that, she thinks about these people climbing mountains or going rafting or doing these types of stereotypical adventures. But I see what she's doing as traditional knowledge and ecological knowledge about plants and animals.

How to prepare mole how to how to cook tortillas how to grind you know masa and how to make it. And so I think there's definitely these traditions that are part of the culture of being Mexican and some of them are mixed with indigenous knowledge and also mixed with Spanish colonialism within the two cultures and mixed with Catholicism my grandma is very Catholic and so I think the three of them all are combined where she's taking things from all kinds of influences on what it means to be Mexican and it shows in every walk of her life. And that transferred to my mom and I get to witness that as third generation, so it’s very cool.

I remember there is an instance where there was a drought in California and my grandma was watching the news and they're saying there's a drought and everyone needs to do better at lowering the amount of water that they use in their house. And my grandma started laughing and I said “Why are you laughing?” She goes because I've been conserving water in my house for 50 years. She was telling me that with her laundry she takes the hose out and she puts the gray water into a bucket and she takes that water from the laundry. she makes her own soap she makes her own biodegradable soap because it's more economically feasible than buying laundry detergent at the store and she uses the same container to make the soap. She makes sure that the soap is safe for all her plants to grow so she washes her clothes and laundry puts the gray water into a bucket takes the bucket puts it out into her garden and uses the same water that she washes your clothes with out in the garden. She said she's been doing that since she moved to California and so it's you know that's I said Grandma and then you're amazing. This is amazing that you've been doing this for this long. She goes Yeah it's time everyone starts listening to me and catches up.  

Both my mom and my parents and my grandma all instilled these little things in me that I see play out in my everyday life.

Sarah: When Olivia was just 12 years old, she tried surfing for the first time.

Olivia: Being part of a Mexican American family, everyone goes to the beach together. Like the tias and the tios and abuela and abuelo and my cousins and we'd all go together and or we go with another family. And so my first time surfing was a day that we went with a Peruvian family that also lived near us at UC Riverside. And my friend Camilla she was Peruvian. We all had a beach day together and my dad rented us a few surfboards and there were a few soft top boards beginner boards and we were down at Santa Olejo home state beach which is just south of South of San Clemente. And we were flopping around nose diving not having tons of success but that's part of learning.

Sarah: As the two were playing in the water, Olivia noticed three young white boys with blonde hair and blue eyes watching them closely.

Olivia: They looked like they had walked from their house or something just on their own their parents weren't even around and they were out surfing. They were beyond us for a while and then they started bullying us and came towards us and started saying racial slurs like “beaners go back to Mexico you don't belong here.” Just really hurtful things like “you don't, you're a kook you don't know how to surf. You don't, you can't learn how to surf” and cackling at us. It became like a competition on who can say the meanest thing to us and it we didn't know how to end it.

Sarah: Olivia and Camilla quietly grabbed their board and walked away, back to their families on the beach who hadn’t noticed the interaction.

Olivia: I didn't want to create a scene so I kind of held it all and I didn't want to cry. I felt like it but I never told my dad that because I didn't want him to you know protect me or say something to them and have them tell the like lifeguards. and I started to internalize all those beliefs that I could never be a surfer. I lived so far away from the beach. It was a dream that was so far away for me that I couldn't really actually do it because it takes so much practice and resources and they also just belonged. They were part of the community. They probably had parents that did it and they had walked from their house. I felt like I couldn't even argue back or say that I did belong because I had already had those kind of feelings and I was already so vulnerable and taking that risk of trying it in the first place that it just solidified those doubts that I already had.

Sarah: Not quite the love at first sight story y’all might’ve been expecting, hmm? Although to be honest, when it comes to people of color and our first experiences in the outdoors, this story is pretty common. Anyway. Olivia turned to other activities that excited her, like climbing. She connected to the outdoors through various climbing spots in Southern California, including a beach at Corona Del Mar where she climbed, swam and snorkeled. But never surfed. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later when she decided to try surfing again in college, through her school’s adventure outing program.

Olivia: it was an amazing weekend, so fun getting to know other college students who are interested in surfing or trying it for the first time as well and having some instructors that were wanting to teach and willing to get the equipment for us and everything. So it was a really easy entry back into it. I had some success in popping up and riding waves and paddling out. There was also California poppies all around the sand dunes. So it was this epic California surf day. It really was a happy awesome like new memory of surfing and I kind of got hooked on that right then.

Sarah: Olivia decided to study abroad in Costa Rica, where she got to experience even more happy awesome surfing memories.

Olivia: I surfed in Jaco and it was amazing to surf there in a new country and in that country it was all brown people and I'm brown and I was out in this lineup with like all these Ticos and Ticas and people who were just so excited to be surfing and it was easy waves warm water which is a huge difference than being in Northern California. And that was an amazing surf experience. I came back to Chico and then said I think I want to study abroad again for the summer. So I went and spent a summer in Brazil where they had a surfing class and we would go surfing out every Friday so then every Friday for a whole summer I got to surf and learn from Brazilian coaches and they were amazing one of them was a pro long border. And so she was incredible at teaching and had a great little surf school right at this beach called Joaquina in Brazil. And so then it just kind of kept going kept going and then I was creating my life around living by the beach and making sure that I could keep trying to surf and keep learning.

[Ocean wave sounds]

Olivia: the feeling of being in water and working with water and learning how to flow with water is very powerful. And that’s what I love about the ocean is that it really challenges you in a way that nothing else I've ever tried does. There's so many different things elements that you have to be aware of and that I'm still learning about as a surfer and you kind of always will still be learning about and it's about adaptability. And I think that's something that has really improved my whole life as a how to be adaptive how to be ready to welcome change and ready to flow with change and ready to resist change sometimes too. And also knowing what your boundaries are. So it's taught me so much in my own personal life.

Sarah: Olivia returned to the States determined to continue surfing. But she still had a hard time feeling like she belonged, wondering if others around her were thinking the same things those boys on the beach thought back when she was 12.

Olivia: at first it was really really difficult to be excited and be ready to go out and surf and feel like I have ownership over a space and I have a right to be there especially because of my experience when I was 12. And other experiences that I haven’t talked about. I think for me personally there are definitely times when I'm out there and I'm feeling really alone. Even though there's tons of people around me and when I'm constantly thinking about or looking at the people around me and saying there's a white guy there's another white guy there's three more white guys who are all friends. In surfing you're so close to each other and I feel that energy and I feel them either staring at me or I've had guys hit on me in the water and like you know, ask more about me and I'm like I'm not here. This is not I'm not here to be like hit on. I've started to just kind of focus in on my own experience and doing really a lot better at ignoring and knowing that I have like every right to be there. I think that like the California Coastal Commission and the California Coastal Act has really helped me like for some reason there's like the policy behind it. That is like the beaches for everyone and we all belong there and we all deserve to be there knowing that that's coming from our own state government and that that's their initiative and that they have an environmental justice movement happening and an environmental justice policy that I can turn to if someone is going to try to attack me or tell me that I don't belong. I think there's that like that piece that makes me feel really solid and grounded in like I know I have every right to be here so you can't tell me that I don't

Sarah: Another piece that has helped Olivia affirm her existence in the surfing community was actually learning about Indigenous communities around the world with ancient and present-day connections to surfing and the ocean. She started researching into the history of surfing, following the works of Isaiah Walker and other authors. We’ve included Olivia’s sources in our show notes.

Olivia: when I'm saying that it comes from Indigenous communities around the world it's not to basically kind of shadow over communities that have had more impact. And it is just to show that surfing is not just from one place but many people in different cultures have a connection to it. Hawaiians and Polynesians have been surfing and it is an Indigenous sport to Hawaii. Hawaii has amazing cultural practices that were connected to royalty but also to everyone in the community of surfing including women including children and including their king and their queen. And so Hawaiians also have a large extensive connection to the sport from shaping and making surfboards and also being the first to ride waves and creating different styles of surfing and continue to be engaged with surfing to this day. And are still practicing surfing as Hawaiians. And it comes with also so many other traditions that are connected to an ecological knowledge and knowing about which reefs which breaks which trees to use which plants to use. And it's just a beautiful celebration of connection with the ocean and with their place and with their islands that they live on. And then there's also surfing in West Africa. That traces back to West African roots and in Senegal and other places in West Africa where there's documentation of when people were there to colonize that Africans were actually swimming, engaging with fishing. They were in boats, they knew very much about the knowledge of the surf and the breaks. And they were practicing something similar to like body boarding with boogie boarding and practicing navigating the ocean as part of their history and their indigenous knowledge as well.

Sarah: That’s a great narrative that Olivia makes sure to highlight with her students, particularly her black youth, who deserve to know that their ancestors were connected to water and had the skills to surf and swim. There’s so much history around black folks and their complicated relationship to water that we could devote an entire podcast episode to. In fact, we should and we absolutely will. But for now, Olivia is going to take us to the last place she’s done research on: Peru.

Olivia: Peru has ancient surfing history that's indigenous to the Moche and the Chimu people that there was incredible sculptures and pottery of them engaging with. They have these Caballitos de Totora and the caballitos are like these little horses made from Totora which is a type of reed or it's a type of plant that they would take the plant and they have this whole process where they they dry out the reed and then they create boats that are slender and they would use them for fishing, but there is also evidence and an archeological evidence of them also just using the boats to surf and to stand up with a paddle to sound almost like stand up paddle boarding now with these little Caballitos. So there was surfing with them, fishing with them. You can go to these places and see these Caballitos de Totora that are that are still used on the beach and they still are using them and practicing with them. There's still people who know how to make them are sharing down this knowledge of what these these boats are and how to surf with them and surfing has been huge in Peru and there's famous Peruvian surfers that have been engaging with the sport and on the world tour. And these are just three examples that I've done more research in because they've interested me. But you can almost look at any indigenous group that has been near water and they've engaged with water. They knew about water if they were near the ocean or the coastline. They played in the water. It's something pleasurable something fun that humans have been doing for a long time. So there’s so much interconnected with indigenous people from almost anywhere there’s water. So I think that's a very beautiful thing to share with my students and to share with anyone who's engaging with surfing is that it really comes down to an Indigenous connection. And the Hawaiians have a very prominent role in what surfing has become today.

Sarah: All of Olivia’s extensive research into the history of surfing led her to think about her own roots. And her own identity as a latinx woman in the surfing community.

Olivia: I think for me it just means that I am part of this movement and it makes me really excited to even have the honor of being a leader in it or being someone who can solidify and continue this legacy that I stand on so many women's shoulders of everyone from women in Mexico like Frida Kahlo who stood up for women's rights and being this hero and this person for so many women and everyone from people like Selena in you know from Texas and who is Mexican-American showing difference in what women can do in different industries.

And so I think I get inspiration from so many different women and so many different people including my own family. And so I think it's just part of who I am. I'm just gonna I'm going to do what I want to do. And no one's going to stop me kind of attitude. That has given me the confidence to be like That's cool if I'm the only one out here at least maybe some girl on the beach will see me and that will make her feel like she can go out there too. that's what really makes me feel proud to be Latin X and be a woman engaging in this. It is such a big part of my identity and such a big part of who I am, that the two combined really amazingly, where I feel like it’s gaining confidence in my own skin, in my own identity by engaging in these sports and these places and taking space.

Right before spring break, my friend Courtney and I had the most amazing surf day ever together and it was so cool to go out with like a really good friend and she's also a woman of color and we were so happy it was so sunny and we went out and we paddled out and it was mostly all women in the lineup and I was amazed by that. Like this is hardly ever happened to me where I paddle out randomly. It's not organized because I've gone to organized all women's events, but this is just like who's out here now. And that's a revolution-- where you're starting to see it every day or like on a random Tuesday. And there were honestly a lot of women of color too. It was really cool.

Sarah: The music is so good, right?! That was a Marian Hill cover you just heard. Again, all of the music was created by Olivia herself and also her partner Jamison. We’ve made sure to credit them at the end of this episode and also on our website, so be sure to follow them!

So. That hard-earned sense of belonging Olivia’s talking about very clearly fuels her work, right, of connecting her students to the ocean through surfing. And making sure THEY know they can take up space out there too. But she also gets to witness how her students have applied lessons from surfing into their everyday lives.

Olivia: I think that the way that students respond to different adversities has definitely changed because they know that they can actually accomplish something that they've never tried before. So I think seeing that in their risk taking and the way that they're able to face adversity with the built in confidence of wow I've actually done something really scary before in the ocean.

And I think also the social aspect of building friendship. I think we've seen some really amazing friendships come from our surf classes where there's a camaraderie and being helpful and trusting one another and trusting another fellow human being. I think for a lot of students in high school there's it takes a lot to gain their trust and even peer to peer. So for the students to be able to trust one another and then have another adult in their life that they can trust besides their parents is very powerful too. And so we've seen students you know ask for advice or really feel confident in being themselves around some of our instructors.

Sarah: Another metaphor Olivia sees her youth learning is something she mentioned earlier: adaptability.

Olivia: We go to the same beach usually every Friday for my Mission High School class. It's different-- it's different waves it's different wind it's different swell coming from a different direction. And I think that's an amazing metaphor because the students, even though they're in the same high school with same teachers and everything, the climate there can change based on one event or based on the loss of a friend or based on you know some sort of happy thing that happens like they get more funding or there's there's a new vending machine in the hallway. I mean their climate is always changing all around them all the time especially now especially with social media. They're just being bombarded with changing conditions all the time.

And so the ability to adapt and to be flexible and to be aware of this is different changes and to still persist like they still come out and they still surf and they still try it no matter how the waves look. And that's a really cool thing too. I feel very very fortunate to be in a position that I am and I know that it takes a certain it that I do have a lot of privileges that I'm really grateful for and I just want to acknowledge those because there's some there's ways that I have more privileges than other people. And I really want to be cognizant of the ways that I'm able bodied and I'm you know half white and have a white last name and so I think that I see myself also as a resource and someone that can really be a voice for those who feel voiceless sometimes including some of my students.

[Back to surf day sound clips, ocean, birds]

Olivia: This week has been pretty— there’s a lot of energy around. Maybe you’ve been feeling that at school or in your lives, there’s a lot going on. So I think it’s important to just use the sound of the ocean and use our own energy as a surf class and Sheena will be our awesome guide!

Youth: Sit down everyone!

Olivia: We do meditation circles we just take that moment to just chill out and when we’re out in the water we just chill.

Youth: I want everyone to sit down, cross their legs and put your hands on your knees, back straight. And close your eyes if you’re comfortable with that.

Olivia: and really enjoy those moments of being together because I see that disconnection a lot with with all of us as humans and just rushing all the time and moving so fast and growing and demanding and I think it's OK to just chill and slow down. And just go surfing.

[Cheering, laughter, fade out]


Sarah: Thank you all SO MUCH for listening to our very first episode of Outside Voices Podcast. We’ll be publishing an episode every month, so be sure to like, review, subscribe, all of the things, on all of the ways you listen to podcasts.

Shoutout to Brooklyn Bell for our rad logo, cover art and branding work. Music by LIVS or Olivia VanDamme and produced by Jamison Stegmaier.

All credits, links and resources can be found on our website: www.outsidevoicespodcast.com
You can also follow us on Instagram, @outsidevoicespodcast

Music: We’re gonna use our voices, we’re gonna laugh and play, you can find us together, outside everyday.

Sarah: Outside Voices Podcast is a project by Resource Media with support from True North Foundation and Brainerd Foundation

Until next time.