History, Charge, and Principles of Governance

Background and History

Planning and decision-making for Institute activities has gone through a few evolutions. In the important first pilot year in 2014, IWS co-founders Cori Schumacher and Krista Comer oversaw together details of both practical and of substantive nature.  In 2015, Krista Comer did much of the planning for the next training event, bringing in the considerable experience and smarts of Carly Thomsen, then a postdoc at Rice University. Mira Manickam-Shirley of BrownGirlSurf co-facilitated the 2015 meeting, invigorating and innovating our learning formats and sense of purpose.  Many others contributed their time and talent — Elizabeth Pepin Silva and Dayla Soul shaped in small and large ways the event we experienced. Dina Gilio-Whitaker brought an indigenous perspective with a workshop that exposed participants to issues of settler colonialism and how it frames much of surf culture, inspiring a language of decolonization into the Institute’s objectives. Working from the Women Who Rock (WWR) project in Seattle, Michelle Habell-Pallan held out for us the philosophy of  “convivencia,” the spirit of making our lives together as waterwomen. Our dialogues are themselves accomplishments and not easy to bring about, she reminded us, and we must cherish them.  The practice in these days was to welcome into the folds of planning and ideas-generation whomever had energies or thinking and wanted to devote them.  

The Moment of 2017

The Institute 2017 planning meetings marked a new and exciting moment.  Some fifteen women familiar with the Institute came together over the summer for an ad hoc planning dinner in Pacifica, California  — whoever was available, in town, and wanted to join in, was invited.  Out of that several-hour inspired meeting and ranging discussion, this year’s theme “Issues of Access” was launched.  In the threads of discussion that followed that meeting it also became clear that the moment of intensified interest warranted some next-step organizational structure to guide the Institute’s decisions and vision for its future.  Debts of gratitude are happily acknowledged to all of those who have shared expertise. A special thanks is in order to veteran organizer Sabrina Brennan, San Mateo Harbor Commissioner, for the quality of her suggestions about structuring grassroots organizations.  

Charge of the Steering Committee

A Steering Committee was an immediate next-step to take toward a revised Institute governance. As director, Krista Comer identified a number of participants from among this new critical mass of leaders, activists, and allies. As people particularly devoted to Institute affairs, she reached out to invite their deeper involvement. The Steering Committee is charged with advising the director as well as coming to group decisions about Institute themes, priorities, planning, and future directions.  During periods when actual Institute meetings are being conducted, there will be more time needed by the Committee to do the Institute’s calling.  But in general, the Institute flourishes when the participants’ and Steering Committee members’ work and organizations flourish.

Together, the director and the Steering Committee have established principles to guide them in their decision making.

Principles of Governance  

  • Political Educational Mission under “Big Tent” Philosophy.

The Institute is a support organization with capacities in the area of political education. Institute trainings provide a space for people to think, learn, teach one another, and apply what they learn in ways that make sense to them in the worlds they live. Politics always is policy and civic engagement, and always it is more than policy — it’s culture creation, art, film, it’s people working solo outside of organized politics.  The Institute gears itself to both policy and culture creation.

The Institute is not a non-profit or a single-cause political action group.  While the Institute as an organization will support many causes and campaigns, and while its members will support the causes of their own choosing, the principles of our decision making as a Steering Committee may depart from other grassroots organizations.  We do not necessarily seek media exposure to do our work (though we may), we do not primarily use the non-profit world’s language of “stakeholders” to describe members’ affiliations or investments.  At the same time, many participants in the Institute including some of our Steering Committee members themselves are non-profit directors and others spearhead specific-goal actions. Our philosophy is to mobilize for divergent multi-agenda projects.  

  • Relationships & Collaborations

Our relationships with one another, our bonds, are important to political outcomes.  Many women report unexpected collaborations —  one can’t predict at the beginning which people might be helpful to one another. Taking care to nurture these kinds of sustaining networks is something the Institute values.  Some women experience the Institute as rejuvenating, inspirational; others as challenging “in a good way.” The Institute will not be for everyone, though, and that is ok too.

The Steering Committee values this principle of relation because it sets a tone for us for our own conversations and work together.  It is a form of security that will help us sustain ourselves and our movements into the future.  

  • Prioritizing Women of Color Leadership & Social Movements (not Surf Charities)

Our Steering Committee prioritizes the leadership of women of color and indigenous women. In recruiting the Committee, this was a value shared by all.  Learning from and listening to women of color leaders and surfers is a practice that is crucial to our political educational mission and to formulating new communities of surfers.  White women have important roles to play in all aspects of the Institute, and will serve in those roles best when they think well about and have trusting and aware relations with women of color.  Perhaps in no area is the strength of relationships more important than in the ability to work together across differences that divide.

The Institute Steering Committee wishes to advance programs for youth of color and marginalized populations around the world by building long term surf movements.   Many well-meaning surf camps bring “at risk” youth to beaches and while the young people benefit from those exposures, and they are fun, our preferred model is less a “charity for a day” model than one that builds relationships in communities over time and inspires young people to have powerful long term relationships with beaches, oceans, and the environment.  Research teaches us that deep connections are a crucial part of good mental and physical health. Societies benefit when all people have informed relationships with the natural world, and the impact of positive relations is doubly significant for those living in densely urbanized environments.  Substantive appropriate curricula can benefit youth programs, and models exist now that might be emulated or drawn upon to build others, elsewhere, that do not recreate notions of who “really” belongs on the beach and who goes for a day.

  • Place and Environment

The Institute’s trainings to date have emphasized issues of place and environment, namely our relations to specific places, and to related and encompassing notions of envrionmental practices for a livable future.  

Relationship to place. An awareness of how places are socially constructed and are inseparable from processes of history; i.e., histories of indigenous dispossession and colonialism, are points of departure in understanding the pre-conditions for surf culture  in so many countries where surfing is practiced widely — especially those with the largest surfing populations. Surfing is place-specific and exists in tension with these histories. The Institute seeks to foster an awareness of these dynamics by recognizing the political structures created by colonialism and how it continues to marginalize Indigenous peoples in the spaces surfers utilize.  

Environmental Practices and Issues of Sustainability.  The term “sustainable,” while of practical use in linking the work of the Institute for Women Surfers to that of like-minded people, mistakenly suggests that current ways of life and consumption in the developed world can persist if only they are modified or made “green friendly.”  Climate science and worldwide activism related to climate change shows how insufficient such perspectives are.  Still, life is lived in the present, our work of political education involves offering events.  The Institute commits itself to waste-consciousness in its own operations, including plastic awareness as well of the impacts of sunscreen and beauty care products such as hair gel, which have been shown to be especially harmful to coral reef health.  

Urban Backpacks. The Institute asks participants to bring along “urban backpacks” for our trainings, including re-usable utensil, cups/bowls, and bottles for water.  

  • Engagements between Scholars and Non-Scholars

As the emerging academic field of Surf Studies creates more interest of scholars and especially younger scholars and graduate students in all aspects of surfing, we see new eagerness from those interested in women’s issues to attend and learn from Institute trainings. We welcome all motivated participants, including all educators, who bring skills to share.

We have drafted protocols that will aid scholars and graduate students in thinking through and making distinctions between their work, and the Institute experience. Trainings are not “open forums” or public meetings about which people can write or theorize without a) first having secured consent and b) considering how the Institute or participants benefit from the research.  The ethics of relations between community and scholarly experts are deep topics of feminist ethnography and oral history methodologies.

“Protocols of Engagement” will be made available to scholarly participants for review and signatures.   

  • Engaged Research

Engaged research refers to a method of research in which organizations or individuals collaborate with university researchers in designing projects with a goal or a question the organizations or individuals have deemed is of benefit to them.   Thus far, these kinds of projects have not been undertaken deeply through the Institute.  If or when such projects seem of use to all the parties involved, the Steering Committee will meet to consider what, if any, guidelines might be helpful to all parties.

  • Bylaws  & Funding

Steering Committee members will have participated in at least one Institute.  Additional matters related to service, appointments, and other issues are topics for future discussion.

As a Public Humanities activist research project, the Institute has sought and received small grants to support lodging and travel expenses for participants who contribute importantly to Institute training meetings.  As do many universities, Rice University wishes to to promote scholarship emphasizing public sphere learning between scholars and non-scholar authorities. To date, all funding for meeting expenses and for web presence has come from university research sources, as well as from Professor Comer’s personal research account. Professor Comer has received no compensation for her work as Institute Director.  The Institute charges no fees.  It is free and open to applications from the public.  

The director has consulted with others involved in planning about expenditures of funds, while retaining ultimate decision-making discretion. Future funding scenarios likely will continue to involve university research support.  It is possible, with foresight and collaboration, to seek larger grants and also to seek memoranda of agreements with other institutional partners.