In a time of challenge and struggle, Northwestern alumni answer the call to help heal a wounded world in the wake of the coronavirus.
The crash of the waves is a clarion call. For Gwenna “GiGi” Gainer Lucas, the pull of the sea is a low-thrumming signal that reverberates through her being. The surf brings reflection and rebirth.
“I am very aware of the joy and peace that surfing brings to me,” says Lucas ’01 from her oceanside home in Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
It wasn’t always this way. For a while, she stepped away from the water that helped shape her childhood. She never even considered dipping her toes into Lake Michigan when she was a student at Northwestern. And the sea was the furthest thing from her mind when she worked in retail development for Nike and Kate Spade in New York City.
“There was a long period when I lost my identity,” Lucas says. “I was building this facade of ‘I have to have the VP title and make X amount of money to be successful.’ But I knew at my core that something needed to change.”
The epiphany occurred in 2012 at the wedding of her college roommate Crystal Clark ’01 in Costa Rica. (Clark is now an associate professor at the Feinberg School of Medicine.)
“I took a surf lesson,” Lucas recalls, “and the minute I stepped on the board, I thought, ‘This is it. This is what I’ve been missing.’ I knew it instinctively.”
She spent the next 15 months figuring out how to get back on the board. She quit her job and returned to Costa Rica, where she spent a year doing contract consulting work when not riding the tides and swells. Eventually, she felt called to get more young girls of color into the sport — one that, in the United States at least, has been historically dominated by white men.
Lucas is the founder and executive director of SurfearNEGRA (which roughly translates to “Black female surfer” in Spanish), a nonprofit whose mission is to bring cultural and gender diversity to surfing. The organization helps pay for girls who live near the water to attend surf camps and, for those landlocked or uncomfortable swimming, opportunities to learn the fundamentals of the sport on terra firma. It’s all part of her effort to diversify the “lineup,” the place in the water where surfers sit on their boards to ensure the best access to breaking waves.
Lucas is also a founding member of Textured Waves, a collective of Black women who want to increase the visibility of diverse surfers. In 2020 the collective created the short film Sea Us Now, which re-imagines classic surfing scenes of the 1960s with Black women surfers.
“This initiative created beautiful imagery of women of color who thrive in their aquatic lifestyle — imagery that was nonexistent in mainstream media,” says Lucas.
Lucas grew up on the Gulf Coast in Tampa, Fla., where the water was a natural part of her life. Her parents, Alfred and Marion Gainer, took part in catamaran races, but they were often the only Black family at the regattas.
Lucas acknowledges that African Americans have a complicated relationship with water. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, before the slave trade, West Africans were known as some of the best swimmers in the world. Enslavers, however, saw swimming as a means of escape and prevented enslaved people from learning to swim. During the Jim Crow era, Black people were barred from most swimming pools and beaches, particularly in the South.
The long-term effects of those actions resulted in a cultural divide when it comes to watersports in the U.S. And statistics reveal that more than half of African American children don’t know how to swim. A 2017 study found that more than 65% of African American children couldn’t swim safely in the deep end of a pool. Only 36% of white children lacked the same skill.
Black surfers and Black women surfers are not as rare in other parts of the world, Lucas notes. But representation of people of color in surf media and sponsorship remains a global issue. And there are no Black surfers among the leaders in the women’s or men’s professional rankings.
“The ocean is the largest natural resource on the planet,” Lucas says. “For a whole people in our nation to have developed a complex or fear around water is very unnatural. We know what has led to this point. To be able to deconstruct that narrative and be on the water helps us reconnect with who we are."
The summer of 2020 was filled with upheaval. In the aftermath of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Lucas’ efforts to change her sport came into sharper focus.
“Not only are [Black people] capable of being anywhere we want to be — we don’t need permission,” she says. “Sometimes we have to build the opportunities for success ourselves.”
Lucas has formed strategic partnerships with brands to help spread her mission and raise money to send girls to surf camps. SurfearNEGRA partnered with Jacksonville, Fla.-based textile manufacturer Anact to create a Black Lives Matter tote bag, which features an image of Lucas (by photographer Malcolm Jackson) on American Beach in Amelia Island, Fla., one of the few beaches in the South where Black people could swim during Jim Crow.
Lucas’ organization also teamed up with accessory designer Raven + Lily to curate a collection of jewelry inspired by the spirit of surfing. Such collaborations with forward-thinking, women-owned businesses are intentional.
She’s received inquiries from “quite a few organizations in the surf industry who have been guilty of repeating monolithic aesthetics about the sport,” she says. But Lucas is not eager to work with them.
“What I’m conscious of is tokenism. I refuse to lend an image of the girls to a brand without a real investment in the culture.”
Lucas’ drive to grow SurfearNEGRA has impressed those around her.
“She has worked tirelessly to amplify a platform and represent what is good in this world — especially in this moment,” says SurfearNEGRA board member Ethelbert Williams ’01, director of e-commerce for the Boston Beer Company. “As someone working in the private sector, I’m inspired by her transition from being a global corporate executive to now building a cause and leading impact throughout local communities.”
During its first two years, and despite the pandemic, SurfearNEGRA’s ¡100 Girls! program has placed 64 girls on the water by partnering with a network of 74 surf camps in 24 states. The nonprofit’s ¡Surf the Turf! program provides access to the fundamentals of surf for kids who aren’t near the water or are afraid to be in the ocean. “Many of them have never seen a surfboard in person and don’t know what a tide is or how waves are created,” says Lucas. “Some have never been to the beach.”
¡Surf the Turf! breaks down the basic movements of surf into physical education activities that are familiar to them, such as standing on a balance board or paddling while laying on a skateboard. “We also replace typical PE terminology with surf phrases and storytelling that brings them into the world of surf — without the need for water,” Lucas says.
“She’s creating a model that can be replicated throughout all sports to foster inclusivity and positive outcomes with diverse youth,” Williams says.
SHOWING GIRLS THAT THEY CAN
Surfing is an acquired taste, and Lucas knows that not all the participants are going to be converts — but that’s not the point.
“I like to keep it real,” she says. “There have been mixed responses from the girls, from ‘I’m not getting in past my knees’ to ‘I’m not getting my hair wet’ to ‘It’s the best experience I ever had.’ But what makes me happiest is that they tried it. In life, so many times we have in our head what we can and can’t do. We’re showing girls that they can.”
Deyona Burton attended surf camp at the urging of her mother. After her initial hesitation, the 17-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., found herself starting to enjoy it.
“At first, I didn’t like it,” Burton says. “But seeing GiGi surf gave me the confidence to keep trying. The next time, I was able to stand up on my board. GiGi was excited for me, and I saw Black women around me, cheering me on. It was really cool.”
For Burton, going to surf camp and working with Lucas went beyond trying a new sport. “GiGi continues to stay in touch,” she says. “She’s like a mentor and a big sister.”
Lucas sees the camps as an opportunity for girls to escape the pressures of society and be themselves.
“The girls who took to surfing felt a freedom to be exactly who they are, with their hair, their body, their ability,” Lucas says. “For this age range, 7 to 17, that’s extremely important. In everyday life, they often feel awkward. But in the water they are completely themselves. And for many, it’s the first time in a while that they have been able to disconnect from the pressures of the world and just be present.”
THE NEXT SET
Lucas recently completed the short film On the Side of Right with surfwear maker Seea, and she participated in a civil rights–focused exhibit that runs through May at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville.
She’s also reconnecting with her Northwestern roots, realizing that her experiences on campus have played a role in her current success.
“Northwestern taught me how to consistently navigate unfamiliar spaces,” Lucas says. “I developed a ‘dive in head first’ mentality.”
Lucas admits that her Northwestern experience was not always easy, but she’s grateful for the challenges.
“Northwestern was the first time that I got any grade below a B,” she says. “I was actually on academic probation at one point because I didn’t know how to apply myself. Once the sting of sitting in the dean’s office wore off, I got laser-focused on learning as much as I could. That clearly has translated many times over throughout my life.”
Lucas has recently started to explore the heritage and legacy of Black students at Northwestern. It’s great seeing places like the Black House finally get the awareness they deserve,” she says. “I am grateful to be a part of the collective evolution of Black Wildcats.
“It’s really cool reconnecting with the Northwestern community at my age,” she adds. “When I was younger, I didn’t feel like I could meaningfully engage unless I had something to show that would impress people. Now I’ve entered into a season of my life where purpose is pinnacle. And if anyone is blessed to be able to live with purpose and offer that gift to the world, it should absolutely be celebrated.”
The roar of the ocean now defines Lucas’ perception of success, both personally and professionally, and she couldn’t be happier. She reflects on the diverse lineups she’s seen abroad and hopes that one day it won’t be a big deal for women of color in this country to be part of the sport she loves.
“Ten years from now, I hope we are able to drop the adjectives ‘Black’ and ‘girl,’ ” she says. “They can just be known as surfers.
“I don’t know if I will be able to change everything. But this is not about being accepted. It’s about empowering women of color to do whatever the heck they want.”
Elliott Smith ’97, a proud alumnus of the Daily Northwestern, is a freelance writer and children’s book author. He lives in Falls Church, Va., with his wife and two children.