‘I do belong here’: A community leader explains how the outdoors can feel like a scary, non-inclusive place

Surfers form a circle during the Liberation Paddle Out in 2021.
Surfers form a circle during the Liberation Paddle Out in 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Says local United Way head Keisha Browder: “We went to Natural Bridges and then to Henry Cowell. And it was like, ‘Wow.’ So beautiful. And I’m saying, ‘I do belong here.’” She is participating Sunday in the second annual Liberation Paddle Out, part of Santa Cruz’s celebration of Juneteenth.

One potential problem with concocting a cool idea that catches fire, such as the nonprofit club known as Black Surf Santa Cruz hatched by Esabella Bonner: finding time to practice what you preach.

“I have not been living up to my end of the deal and surfing enough,” admits the 27-year-old BSSC founder, who grew up in Santa Cruz yet never considered entering the ocean until two years ago.

Keisha Browder at last year's Liberation Paddle Out.

Watching the two-year-old club grow to 180 members has proved out the original premise for Bonner: There are probably many others out there feeling the same way, feeling left out of something amazing.

Bonner vividly remembers, though, the facial expressions that accompany life-altering moments she has witnessed.

She freshly recalls the baptism of Keisha Browder one year ago.

The executive director of United Way of Santa Cruz County, a former hurdler at the University of Washington, tugged on a neoprene wetsuit for the first time that day at the inaugural Liberation Paddle Out, an event put on by Bonner and BSSC as part of Santa Cruz’s Juneteenth celebration.

The emotions of that day still give Browder the chills.

Though she is a California native who had been in Santa Cruz a full decade, Browder wasn’t comfortable in the very outdoor spaces most Santa Cruzans use to justify the astronomical cost of housing.

But the formation of the Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters initiative in the wake of George Floyd’s death opened a unique door for her. Browder suddenly found herself on hiking trails at Natural Bridges State Beach, eyeballing monarch butterflies, and under the canopy of giant redwoods amid banana slugs at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, feeling comfort doing something she’d never even considered.

Browder didn’t really know why. But it became, she says, an awakening of sorts about the heavy historical and psychological barriers many people of color don’t even realize exist, yet keep them from exploring the natural world. Suddenly — magically — those roadblocks were being removed.

Browder recalls that it was on one of those hikes when Bonner said to her friend: “So you know, we surf.”

On the eve of the second Liberation Paddle Out on Sunday, Browder laughs about that pivotal moment in her Santa Cruz existence and reflects on what it means to break down barriers in ways many of us struggle to comprehend.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Surfers prepare ahead of Liberation Paddle Out last June.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout Santa Cruz: Ready to talk some surfing, Keisha?

Keisha Browder: I’ve been practicing for this all day, remembering how to use the word “gnarly.”

Lookout: [Laughs] You’ve got to use it at least five times, I think. So you hadn’t ever donned a wetsuit before?

Browder: It wasn’t even on my bucket list. You would think being a California native, growing up in L.A., gosh, the ocean is right there. Why would you not be a swimmer, or lover of the ocean or of the surf? I just really never envisioned myself being out there. And I’m learning more that it wasn’t because anyone told me that I couldn’t be out there. I just didn’t feel that I was welcomed.

Lookout: Maybe you didn’t picture yourself out there because you didn’t see people who looked like you out there.

Browder: Right. When I first moved to Santa Cruz 10 years ago, people would invite me on these hikes in the redwoods. For me, I just carry a historical, different connection to being in the woods. For me, there was just this imagery of being alone and being hurt. You know, lynching. This is where Black people were lynched and killed and no one would know. So I was never comfortable accessing a lot of these outdoor spaces that we have in Santa Cruz County.

Keisha Browder celebrates her exit from the ocean last June.

Lookout: But the Santa Cruz County Black Health Matters initiative helped change that, right?

Browder: Yeah, I felt safe enough to partner with others who looked like me to go on my first hike. We went to Natural Bridges and then to Henry Cowell. And it was like, “Wow.” So beautiful. And I’m saying, “I do belong here.”

Lookout: You spent a decade living here yet not doing the things most people come here for in the first place? Doesn’t that seem crazy?

Browder: Yes, absolutely. But, hey, good news, and I’m so glad. Thank goodness there was a group to nudge me, to say, “You’ll be safe. You’ll be fine. You can go out here.” Now I’m going, “This is what everybody’s talking about.”

Lookout: And so the ocean was the natural next frontier.

Browder: When Bella joined the group, she said to me, “So you know, we surf.” And I thought, “Oh boy. While I’m conquering fears and anxieties, I might as well get out there.”

Lookout: So you grew up in South Central Los Angeles, probably no more than 10 miles from the ocean, but it might as well have been 10 million miles.

Keisha Browder on last Liberation Paddle Out day.

Browder: I would go and get on the rides at the Santa Monica Pier, but I wouldn’t get in the ocean. No way. And so last year, I added it to my list. I said, “Well, if I’m going on these sunset hikes and learn about all the species in this area, I better try surfing.”

Lookout: So that day last year at the Liberation Paddle Out was Day 1?

Browder: My first time in the ocean here in Santa Cruz. It was an adventure that I will never forget. When I waded in and got to my tiptoes, and had no choice but to get on that surfboard, that’s when it got real. There was an ally, I wish I could recall her name, a white woman, and she could tell I was a little nervous. She just paddled alongside. I asked her questions like, “Do the sharks know not to come over here?” She looked at me and told me I was safe. She said, “I’m not gonna leave you.” That’s the Santa Cruz I want to be a part of. She could sense that anxiety, and she made sure I paddled out safely, that I was comfortable. She saw when I was getting tired and put her toe on my surfboard. She helped me get out there to form that circle.

Lookout: How did that feel?

Browder: Liberating. And it felt safe. Here we were, 90 people out there in a circle, giving honor to our ancestors. I lost both of my parents (in the past decade). I dedicated my flowers in the paddle-out to my parents because I wished they could have seen me tackle this fear, seen me stand tall and say, “I do belong. I do get to take advantage of all of the majestic beauty here in Santa Cruz County, that I do have a place here in the water, in the woods, in parks. I belong and I get to do that.”

It was such a liberating feeling, then coming back to shore and seeing hundreds of people lined up from all backgrounds, all ethnicities, various races. Clapping, cheering us on. “You got this, you can do this.” I cried. And for the first few seconds I couldn’t understand why I was crying. Then I realized this is what it means to live in this community. This is what inclusion feels like. And I don’t ever want to lose that feeling here in Santa Cruz again.

Lookout: And then you caught your first wave that day too, right?

Browder: Yes, this young junior lifeguard, probably between 12 and 14, he saw me, smiled and said, “Do you want to learn how to catch a wave?” Yeah, but do I trust in my life in the hands of a teenager? [Laughs] I did, he gave me great instruction and I caught my first wave. The joyous look on my face …

Lookout: There’s great cultural history that goes along with surfing, including a few Hawaiian princes who got it started right here.

Bella Bonner, speaking at last year's paddle-out.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Browder: I really respect and want to honor all of that tradition and history, so that when I do gain the confidence and the skill set to go out there by myself, I am fully aware. When we were out there at the paddle-out and then I was catching that wave, I was thinking, “You know, this ocean doesn’t really care about our ethnicities, backgrounds or social-economic status. It doesn’t care.”

Lookout: It just wants everyone to be stoked. Wait until you’re doing it every day.

Browder: That’s gonna take me a while. It’s cold out there.


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.