When one stirs up the classic image of California surfing, San Francisco is likely not the setting of that picturesque vision.
For one, the Northern California waters are often frigid in a brain-shattering way. For two, the lack of constant sun doesn’t immediately inspire the local population to dawn a bikini or some trunks and hit the coast. No, a neoprene wetsuit should probably be involved in your outing if you want to prevent the onset of blue-lipped, body-shaking shivers that no one could ever describe as pleasant. Despite these indisputable facts, the surrounding waters of San Francisco are home to some serious swell. One of San Francisco’s own native sons is intent on bringing the water, the waves, the wetsuits, the wipeouts—basically the whole bit—to our city’s underserved youth.
Johnny Irwin founded City Surf Project, a non-profit organization with the mission of serving San Francisco’s youth through surfing, in 2015. The number of youth served by CSP since then exceeds 4,860 and counting. With over 150 surf outings a year, the organization operates within schools from five districts of the city, those being Bayview, Mission, Excelsior, Sunset, and Fillmore.
Irwin learned the ways of the waves back as a kid, though he admits he didn’t tackle Ocean Beach until he was about fifteen years old. “I actually learned to surf in Southern California while on summer vacation,” he said. “My father surfed Ocean Beach and hung out at Kelly’s Cove, but wouldn’t let me start surfing in SF until I could prove that I was a strong enough swimmer.”
In his small San Francisco high school, Johnny was one of the only kids that surfed. He notes that though there’s a much larger presence of surfers in the city now (much of that due to the tech boom and a World Surf League organized contest at O.B. in 2011), the culture isn’t entirely ingrained in San Francisco as it is in other coastal towns. For a few reasons, Irwin wants to change that status quo.
“Although there are more surfers here, there still aren’t many homegrown (born and raised in SF) surfers. There is not big surf scene amongst SF youth. Most of the young surfers come from Marin, Pacifica, and Half Moon Bay,” Irwin said. “I would like to change that so that kids growing up in SF can have the same positive outlet I had. We are starting surf programs at different schools in the hopes that these schools will start creating surf teams to compete against each other like other traditional sports, and like they do in other cities such as L.A. and San Diego.”
He sees City Surf Project as an agent for change in creating a sustainable and diverse community of surfers within the city. By spending time in the water, Irwin believes, the inherent drive to love and protect the earth and sea comes naturally. That’s how Johnny himself came to support environmentalist efforts.
“Surfing has allowed me to connect with mother nature in way that has deep sense of gratitude and respect. Surfers get so much from Mother Mature, and we must find a way to give back and protect her,” he offered. “Most surfers are environmentalists through symbiosis.”
Not only does CSP hold environmentalism as a core tenet, but it also seeks to change the lives of the youth it serves by instilling a level-headed confidence stemming from the physical activity of surfing as well as the ever- applicable lessons the sport teaches. Such lessons are humility, hard work, dedication, and perseverance.
From a cultural perspective, Irwin works to ensure the mission of City Surf Project runs much deeper than solely giving his group of fledgeling youth surfers the confidence and resiliency to tackle life the way they learn to tackle the water. CSP’s mission is also about peeling back the historic lack of diversity within the institution of surfing.
“Surfing has historically been a white male dominated sport for a myriad of social reasons [i.e.] Who is able to live near the costly coastline? Rich people. Jim Crow laws actually forbade African Americans from learning to swim or attending public pools,” Irwin said. “There is a surfing documentary called “Whitewash” starring the musician Ben Harper that describes the historical issues of access to the coastline. City Surf Project is striving to break down those barriers that have been put up and use surfing as a way of bridging communities.”
In just a few years, the organization’s work has been monumental. The surfing community at large has taken notice, and thousands of local kids have gained an opportunity they previously had been barred from accessing. Something to be highly considered, however, is that this labor cannot run on love and dedication alone. Financial support enables CSP to establish the bandwidth to reach more youth per outing, and organize more outings per year.
“We have grown steadily as a program and have changed many lives through surfing. It has been difficult to keep up with this growth with staffing and operational support. Judging by how many youth we take surfing, it would appear that we have a much bigger staff than we actually do. We are spread extremely thin,” Irwin admitted. “To put it simply: Funding, funding, funding, we need more funding. Although we work with schools, we are not funded by them.”
// Follow City Surf Project and check out their programs on their website; citysurfproject.com. Originally published in Issue 7. Photography by Lorenzo Cirelli.