Where are you from? When did you start surfing and why?
Cleveland, Ohio. In 2004, I got on a soft-top in Australia when I was studying abroad there. All the foreign exchange students were sent on these trips around the country including a trip to take a surf lesson on the coast. I was stoked. I had loved surfing since I could remember. As a kid, my walls were covered with Roxy ads and skateboarding photos. I remember, pulling on the wetsuit in Australia was so hard but getting in the water with a board was insanely fun. I asked the instructors a million questions like how do you stay up on a wave? How do you keep going? After that lesson, our bus stopped at a strip mall for lunch and I bought a used wetsuit at an op shop (that’s what Aussies call thrift stores) for $12. I was committed.
I didn’t surf again until I moved to California in 2009. I got my BA in Chicago, moved to China, and traveled a bunch before settling in San Francisco. Along the way, I lost my Aussie wetty, so I got another one at Community Thrift in the Mission for $19. It was neon green and the crotch was down to my knees (clearly a dude’s suit). Friends said I looked like Tina Turner in it because of my short hair. I paddled out on a rental at Linda Mar on the worst day – winds blowing hard onshore and no discernible waves; but I had a blast and never stopped. In retrospect, starting surfing in my late-twenties was great because I didn’t care what anybody thought of me.
What type of board do you ride?
I ride the Zeuf egg shaped by Ashley Lloyd Thompson in Santa Cruz. Not only does this board ride like I’ve been on it for decades, the story behind the shape is amazing. Zeuf is a legendary surfer in Santa Cruz and my egg is the same shape she used to ride. A few years ago I was in Santa Cruz staying at Ashley’s and apprenticing in her shop. Zeuf was Ashley’s neighbor and like a sister to her so I Ashley told me stories about her all the time. She told me how kind, patient, and strong Zeuf was even in the face of cancer. Zeuf died before I got to meet her but I rode one of the eggs that Ashley had shaped for her. I remember paddling out at Pleasure Point before dawn on a weekday on Zeuf’s board. The tide and wind were aligned for these long peeling empty rights. As I paddled to the peak a sea otter swam along side me and stayed with me the whole session. She kept glancing at me while eating urchins and smashing crabs open on her belly. There was an energy that morning, like Zeuf was there in the sea and the otter and in her board. That was one of the most memorable sessions of my life. About a year later my amazing partner, Patrick, bought me a Zeuf egg for my birthday and I got to help Ashley shape it. I never leave home without it.
Do you have any book recommendations?
Do I?! Everything by Rebecca Solint. Her essay, Men Explain Things to Me, is a must read (only 5 pages)! Rachel Carson is the goddess of nature and basically the reason the Environmental Protection Agency exists – a true poet. Miranda July is wild and naughty and I love The First Bad Man. Emma Cline’s first novel, The Girls, launched my slight obsession with California cults. In the self help department, I turn to Augusten Burroughs’ This is How: Help for the self. Can I just say, Blondie is the best cure for the Donald Trump blues. When I need artistic inspiration, I turn to Margaret Kilgallen: In the Sweet Bye & Bye. I recommend the book I will someday build – The Herstory of Surfing.
Tell me about your project “The OTHER project”. Why did you create it? How you got into surfing, your observations and what led you to create this project.
It is difficult to explain what the OTHER project is without sharing where it began and the journey it’s traveled. In 2013 I was at a surf conference at UC Santa Cruz and Julie Cox was on a panel of surfers who were talking about surf media. Julie was the only woman on the panel so when I asked about women in surf media everyone turned to her. Julie said that addressing issues with women in surf media is important, but what about gay surfers, surfers of color, and the other groups who are excluded? Her response transformed me and how I think about diversity and inclusion. Here I was thinking I was all sweet for standing up for women’s rights and I realized I was ignoring and abandoning so many others…hence the name.
Fast forward two years and I was asked by the California Institute of Integral Studies to suggest some speakers for their women’s lecture series. I sent them five ideas including a female type designer, artists, activists, and a panel with women in the surf industry.
I was shocked and elated when they wanted the panel, which I named The Other Side of Surfing. On a Thursday in April the panel I assembled, including Ashley Lloyd Thompson, Julie Cox, Tiffany Campbell, and Bianca Valenti, chatted in front of an audience of over one-hundred surfers and non-surfers for two hours. They told incredible and hilarious stories and spoke freely about the sexism, homophobia, and racism within surf culture.
After the event I received emails and social media posts from all kinds of people thanking me, sharing their disappointment that I didn’t push these topics further, and basically telling me they were hungry for more honesty and conversations like The Other Side of Surfing.
The OTHER project was born from this hunger.
I see in my community a call to action, an urgency for real change, and a void. A gaping void in marketing, stories, films, videos, gear, magazines, you name it! A void that we need to fill.
I was recently moderating a panel of women in the snowboarding industry and the repeated message from them is: If you want to see it – Make it yourself. Mahfia TV is making media showing women, girls, LGBTQI folks, people of color; truly diverse content. Coalition Snow is making gear just for women and girls; revolutionary! I often look to the skateboarding industry for inspiration and examples of how to make what you want in the world. It’s like they stopped waiting around for Thrasher, Transworld, Creature Skateboards to include them and they made their own industries like Meow Skateboards, The Skate Witches, and more. Even if mainstream companies wanted to diversify, they can’t because of corporate sponsors and a homogenous staff. So, I’m trying to make something I want to see in the world. The OTHER project is about diversity, honesty, and creating stoked spaces. What is a stoked space? It’s a place that is free of butt-ads and bro culture. A place where kids can go to get inspired and where we can all be ourselves. Stoked spaces can exist in surf shops, shaping bays, online, on social media, in lineups, at skate parks – anywhere!
Conceptually, the OTHER project is based on the philosophical ‘other’ that was part of Hegelian philosophy in the 1800s. Feminist writer, Simone de Beauvoir, adapted the concept of the ‘other’ in the 1900’s to refer to women in male-dominated cultures. In 1957 Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, a novel that argues that gender inequality can change. Today I am trying to further evolve the concept of the ‘other’ by questioning the status quo, creating stoked spaces, building industries, reshaping the media through example and innovation – ultimately positioning the OTHER as dominant and free.
Since The Other Side of Surfing, the OTHER project has put on The Other Side of Skating which was a night of all ladies skateboarding films, including Getting Nowhere Faster and an extended trailer for Quit Your Day Job (feature out now!). I interviewed surf filmmaker, Dayla Soul, about her film, It Ain’t Pretty, about the women’s big wave movement. I have put on fundraisers for Skate Like a Girl, Save our Surf, and more. And authored a petition called Stand with Bianca in an effort to communicate with the Titans of Mavericks why it is important they add Valenti as a competitor in the 2016 contest.
What are your plans for the OTHER project? Do you have a website I can link to?
Right now I am most excited about a new partnership with the Women’s Sports Film Festival. During the three-day festival on September 28-30, the OTHER project with be helping to curate a series of symposiums with filmmakers, stars in the films, and more. I also just got the go ahead to put together a panel I call “Fearless Filmmakers: First Time Females in Film” with Dayla Soul (It Ain’t Pretty film), Kate Webber (Kim Swims film), and Susan Sullivan (founder & curator of Women Sports Film Fest). Someday I’d love to curate a panel with Lauren Hill, Westerly, and others in Australia. My biggest hope is to hear from my community about what we want to see in the world, to find partnerships, and to mold this project into what we want.
What’s going on with your new teaching gig? I read that you’re going to be using readings from surf publications. Can you tell us more about your classes and curriculum?
Sea State hired me last year to teach journalism for them. They are a study abroad program that travels to surf destination around the world. My journalism course will be in San Sebastian, Spain and in Portugal in June. What I am most excited about is the immersive education model where students are rarely sitting in a classroom, rather they are out in the world meeting locals, learning about local issues, and crafting their own ideas and stories. I have taught in a traditional college classroom for years, and although this educational model has its merits, I think immersive learning is more exciting and fosters a space where both my students and I can thrive together. We have some incredible visits lined up while abroad, including a studio visit in Lisbon with world-renowned surf photographer, Ricardo Bravo. Kepa Acero from Pukas Surf in Spain. The artists and activists behind Skeleton Seas in Peniche.
My curriculum is radical! I hope I have crafted some compelling lessons about culture, gender, and sustainability within surfing.
For one lesson we are going to look at two articles about Lisa Andersen – one in The Surfer’s Journal and one by Jenna Irons in Salted. A lot becomes apparent about the audience, tone, and character when you juxtapose these two publications and I think we will have some great discussions after reading and reflecting.
Is there anything else you’re up to? Writing a book? Making a movie? What else is going on?
What else? I’m starting a zine with two incredibly smart and talented folks – feather weight and Lady Days – called SEAWITCHES. My op-ed essay Nature is a Woman’s Place: How the Myth That Bears Are a Danger to Menstruating Women Spread, was just published on Jezebel. My piece offers some much-needed perspective on Laird Hamilton’s recent provocation that menstruation is the number one cause for shark attacks. I’ve got another story coming out in OPENHOUSE Magazine this winter. While I’m in Portugal with Sea State I’ll be researching a surf story, so stay tuned! While overseas I’ll also be doing an Instagram takeover for @shewolfproject. I’m toying with the idea of turning some of the incredible interviews and conversations I’ve recorded into podcasts (wanna help? message me!). My personal website, margaretseelie.com, should be launching soon. I just celebrated five years of working at Mills College, which is pretty incredible and heartwarming. I’ll continue to be stoked on Surfeminism, Traveler Surf & Swim Club, Seventh Wave Surf Shop, Queers Makin’ Beers, Mahfia TV, Brown Girl Surf, Skate Like a Girl and all the stoked spaces I love. So yeah, making the revolution.
Thanks for having me, Surfeminism! Keep up the great work.