Community: The Surfers
Ever felt discouraged from surfing because you didn't match the stereotypical surfer image? Jessa Williams is breaking waves and boundaries. The surfing community that she has created is a symbol of empowerment, unity, and the celebration of diversity
Jessa Williams, the founder of Intrsxtn Surf, defies expectations in the world of surfing. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, far from the coastal shores, Jessa’s journey into the world of waves began unexpectedly. Then when she was told to “Get the f..k out of the ocean,” she used this experience to create something meaningful and powerful. Intrsxtn Surf was born out of the desire to establish a safe space for Black women and women of colour to experience the joy and freedom of surfing. Starting with a small group of like-minded women, we discover from Jessa how the collective has quickly grown into a vibrant community that transcends boundaries and fosters a sense of belonging. In this interview, Jessa shares her journey, the challenges she faced, and her vision for a more inclusive and diverse surfing culture.
Glorious: Tell us how your surfing journey began, did you come from a surfing family?
Jessa Williams:I do not come from a surfing background, far from it! I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid-west, not on the coast, not near the ocean. I swam and I played at the beach as a kid, but I never felt at home deep under the water! Surfing was completely outside of my box. I grew up as an athlete, played most sports and was a competitive gymnast during my younger years, so I thought, “How hard can surfing be?” Actually, surfing is the hardest thing that I’ve ever tried to do. I got into surfing during the pandemic when everything shut down in LA and it pushed people outdoors. My son’s sports were cancelled and after seeing other kids at the beach surfing I booked him a lesson. By his second lesson, he wanted me to join him. I had zero interest but I didn’t want to punk out in front of my kid, plus being athletic, I thought, how hard can it be? It was really hard, but that’s what drew me in, I wanted to try again.
Glorious: So, you became hooked on surfing and how quickly did you progress?
Jessa Williams: The first time I went surfing on my own I was harassed very badly in the water by a white man who called me racist names. I tried to diffuse the situation, but he said, “You heard me, if you don’t like it, get the f..k out of here.” I was really scared because I thought if this person is crazy enough to be this bold and talk to me like that, what else is he going to do. I’m not used to feeling intimidated, I believe I’m a strong woman, but this was literally the first time I was out there bobbing around on my own board without someone next to me, so I couldn’t get out of the water fast enough.
After this incident I spent a while feeling angry and negative, was dealing with everyone’s opinions and definitely some gaslighting. Someone posted a full account of what had happened to me online, so I was inundated with comments and DMs from grown white men telling me that I was ruining surfing, that I was lying, and that surf culture isn’t racist, that I just wanted attention. I felt like I was being gaslit even by those thinking they were showing support. There were Black men and White women saying how that has never happened to them in the water before. It wasn’t helpful because it was just lending voice to the people who didn’t want to believe the inconvenient truth I was telling about my experience being a Black Woman surfer. Most of the other Black surfers around were men, so they didn’t understand. Most of the other women surfers around were white, so they didn’t understand.
Glorious: Was it this incident that drove you to form your collective called Intrsxtn Surf?
Jessa Williams: Yes! This happened in December of 2020, and six months later, by June 2021, Intrsxtn Surf was born! One of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that I even had the audacity and dared to give myself permission to establish Intrsxtn Surf while I was still a beginner surfer. I can do what I know how to do, in my own way, with my level of skill and knowledge, to create a safe space for women like me who want to experience surfing. In the beginning, it was mostly women I already knew from surfing during that came out to support the first event, but also a bunch of girls who I didn’t know came via Instagram, and that’s how it grew, through word of mouth and social media.
Glorious: Amazing! What is Intrsxtn Surf and how do you operate?
Jessa Williams: The name is a play on the term “intersectionality,” and we’re an intersectional women’s surf collective in LA. We exist to create a safe space for Black women and women of colour to explore the outdoors through surfing. What started off as just a safe space for us to surf, has turned into a really dope community that’s grown and is continuing to grow organically. We’re best known for our monthly meet-ups, and sometimes we host them multiple times in a month. We offer free surf lessons for women of colour, and what makes us unique and sets us apart, and something that I’m super proud of, is that not only is it Black women and women of colour coming together to learn surfing, but the lessons are taught by our crew of coaches a crew of women that are also all Black women and women of colour surfers.
As we all know, surfing is predominantly male and predominantly white, and if you’re new in that space and you’re neither of those things, most of the time it’s going to be a male white dude that is going to teach the surf lesson. There’s nothing inherently wrong or bad about that, but to have a lesson taught by someone who looks like you and understands you, there’s an instant level of trust and connection, which is really powerful. Also, if you’re a woman that’s new to surfing, it’s a sport that can make you feel extremely vulnerable, coming out onto a beach, half-naked in a swimsuit, then putting on a super tight wetsuit, and then you go into this body of water managing this hard, very big object, which is the board.
Speaking from my cultural lens, Black women and women of colour don’t always feel like we have respect. We feel that we have to overachieve in many spaces to even be deserving of being in that space. What we’ve created with Intrsxtn Surf is not only a literal safe space but also an emotionally safe space to come and try something and not feel as though you have to do it perfectly and overachieve in or order to be seen or respected in the space.
Glorious: Is this a full-time job, what else are you up to?
Jessa Williams: I’ve been in tech marketing since 2015. I worked for Uber for about four and a half years. They moved me out here to LA, but then I got laid off. After that, I worked at Tinder, then Cameo, which is another app out here, and then Facebook (Meta). Since living in LA, I’ve had four back-to-back layoffs in four years from global tech brands. The great thing is that I learned so much from working for those companies and brands, and now I’m pouring all of that into Intrsxtn Surf. It’s really a one-man band, though. I have the team who teachers with me at our events, but behind the scenes, I’m the one doing everything, so it’s very challenging.
Glorious: The imagery that has surrounded surfing and media for decades is of a tanned, slim, blonde, white couple walking along a beach carrying surfboards, but if you look at the population, those types of people are rare.
Jessa Williams: And that’s the reality, right? The perception of who surfs is really questioning who gets to surf or who identifies with the lifestyle. On the surface, it’s about surfing, but it’s truly about freedom of movement in the outdoors and in the ocean, and we’ve been pushed away from those places. As women, we either don’t feel safe in some of these places or we’re being objectified.
At the moment, I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I want to do, but I have really invested in Intrsxtn as a brand and I’m building it up to be so much more than just our community meet-ups. Most surf lifestyle brands are owned by white men, promoting the same imagery over and over through the decades. So, this is my way to show my community at meet-ups and events that surfing is for us too, and then create branding to share the message with people who aren’t here in LA with us on the beach.
Glorious: How many women attend your meet-ups, and what is the initial reaction from the women when they first attend a lesson?
Jessa Williams: Generally, there are usually 25-50 women at our meet-ups. At our last event, we allocated 25 spots for lessons, there were also around 15 women who no longer needed lessons but still joined the group to surf together as a community. The best thing about the growth of our community is that it has been organic and the women that come to our events heard about us from a friend, or randomly stumbled across our page on Instagram.
The focus is on beginners, which is crucial to me. Our events are not training people to become amazing surfers but more so trying to create a positive entry point for women to explore the ocean and surf in a safe environment. Most of the women and girls who join my events have never surfed before, and they haven’t even touched a wetsuit or surfboard. They show up nervous, or scared, or sometimes super excited and free, and we get it. It’s like, “I see you, I know how you feel, and I’m here for you so you can focus on those feelings and not have to worry about anything else.” However, once they try it, they get stoked on it and leave with really high energy! It has been so fulfilling to see friendships form between women who met through surfing with Intrsxtn, and hear stories about how someone came to one of our meet-ups alone, as a transplant in this big city, and left with a new interest in surfing and new friends they made in the water that day.
Glorious: There are several Black surfing community groups in the US. Do you believe that you experienced an extreme case of harassment and that Black surfers are becoming more accepted?
Jessa Williams: That’s a difficult question to answer. We are growing in numbers, going out into the water together. However, there is still a racist, macho, misogynistic, and homophobic culture that exists. Some of these guys, they believe they have a divine right to the ocean. Being out in the water and surfing is the last truly safe space for a racist white man in America. What I mean by that is, when these men are in the water without mobile phones, they feel safe from having their conversations filmed and shared on social media. When I confronted the man who harassed me, he wasn’t as brave outside the water. He flipped the conversation, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t hurt me,” as though I was the aggressor.
Glorious: What’s next for you and Intrsxtn Surf?
Jessa Williams: I’m seeing the impact of Intrsxtn Surf as the community grows, and I’m fully focused on it. We don’t really charge for the meet-ups, because we want to keep them accessible. I provide the boards, wetsuits, and lessons at the meet-ups for free. So, support from brands is absolutely crucial in order for us to be able to exist as an organisation. Currently, I’ve been working on a clothing line, creating a capsule collection so we have an apparel brand to sell online. I’m also making efforts to apply everything I’ve learned about brand marketing and events to seek support from different brands, organisations, or groups.
We’re entering our spring and summer season, so we have a series of events coming up. Last year, I organised our first surf retreat. I called it a “Staycation Surf Retreat” because not everyone has the time or money to take a week off and travel to an island. Instead, I curated a weekend experience at a beach house a few hours away, where a group of us surfed intensively. That’s what’s next for us – expanding the programme and gaining support from those who share our vision and can truly uplift Intrsxtn Surf.