Justice Outside:  Black Surf Santa Cruz’s Fairy Grant Parent

This reflection is written by Esabella Bonner. Follow her on Instagram to learn more.

Have you ever been presented with an idea, vision, opportunity, or message that feels beyond anything you could have dreamed of or crafted on your own? And right when you start to feel like it’s too much, that you’re not capable, or that the dream is too big — you are given a sign from the universe, creator, god(dess), source, whatever belief you subscribe to, that it is possible, and just might actually happen. When the doubt, uncertainty, and outside noise gets too loud, Justice Outside has always been my sprinkle of hope. 

Justice Outside was the start of a series of signs reminding me that no vision is too big with the right support and that this idea of mine was going to be possible. It was a sign that there are other organizations out there — some with steadfast and unwavering vision and values and with a firm commitment to delivering on those values. It was a sign and reminder to be similarly unshakeable in my quest to fulfill the mission and idea that was gifted to me at a George Floyd Memorial Paddle Out.

I received an invitation to join a memorial paddle out for George Floyd from an ally and recognized that this opportunity should extend to  benefit the Black community. At that moment, I created a simple call to action on Instagram in 2020  and was presented with the vision for Black Surf Santa Cruz (BSSC) – equity in action. I saw the pathway to create a  tangible, beautiful, and necessary way for our community to come together and heal, grieve, make amends, honor and acknowledge history, and center our communities that were most impacted by this tragedy. The community that saw ourselves and their family members in George Floyd. For the mamas he cried out for. 

What was our community’s plan and actionable items to ensure equitable access for our BIPOC community at this event, most specifically our Black community? How were we going to ensure we would be centered and celebrated? I had lived in Santa Cruz for 15 years and had never put on a wetsuit or been on a surfboard prior to 2020 and was being invited to paddle out in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of white folks.

“Do they expect me to pay to rent a wetsuit and go out there with no experience? Are they thinking about the BIPOC community at all? Black people?”, I thought. 

In a mildly petty fashion, I posted a simple request on social media asking our community to make intentional space for the Black community. And to my surprise, our community CAME through. My ask was met by a surge of people saying they would be happy to let folks use their equipment, serve as a water safety person, assist beginners, place holds on rentals, and essentially it became clear that our community was committed to ensuring equitable access and that we collectively were going to make it happen. The idea was solidified when a local surf shop came forward and said they would put ALL their rentals on hold and available free of charge to support as many people who said they wanted to go but didn’t have the resources. 

I was stunned. And mildly concerned about what I had just gotten myself into…

Esabella Bonner (Founder/ ED) First time on a surfboard @ George Floyd Memorial Paddle Out, June 2020.

I ended up helping to facilitate a group of 15 to 20 of us, mostly first-timers. We met in the Cowells Beach Surf Shop parking lot and paddled out to join the rest of our community to honor the life of George Floyd. After 15 years of living in Santa Cruz, this was by far the richest, most diverse, healing, exhilarating, and illuminating experience of my life. It truly transformed me and gifted me with the vision/idea for BSSC – equity in action. 

“Let’s start a Black Surf Club,” we all joked as we paddled in exhausted and exhilarated. We kept our word and our group message alive and made our first pop-up surf lesson possible by September 2020 where I surfed and stood up on a wave for the first time ever! The idea and vision was officially birthed and in motion, as I felt all my fears, traumas, and self-limiting beliefs being lifted off my shoulders. I was free flying and gliding on my first wave away from all my problems. 

Esabella Bonner (Founder/ ED) First wave @ BSSC Pop-Up, September 2020. Photo Credit: Kaili Reynolds.

The ocean changed my life and presented me with an incredible insight and opportunity to turn that vision into a reality. This is when Justice Outside comes into the story like a fairy grant parent, giving us the hope and sustaining resources to make our work possible.

After nearly a year of exhausting my savings and a community GoFundMe to try and make this vision come true, I followed the idea right into unemployment. I spent the evening before my 25th birthday brimming with self-doubt, uncertainty, and general birthday grief. The fear that I wouldn’t actually be able to lift this idea off the ground was starting to take up more space in my body. 

I had been experiencing months and rounds of rejection for funding without fiscal sponsorship and fiscal sponsorship without funding and I was becoming weary of the nonprofit industrial complex and becoming one of them. I journaled and cried and ultimately spent the night thinking about whether or not I should take “meetings” on my birthday as a newly unemployed person.  

The meeting I almost bailed on was an introductory call to learn more about Justice Outside and their Liberated Paths program. I was convinced (and mildly traumatized) that this meeting wasn’t going to be any different than anything I had heard before: “You need to have fiscal sponsorship or 501c3 status to be eligible for funding.” Why waste more time to be rejected (on my birthday!!!) before they even hear about my idea? My vision! The idea that I couldn’t shake from my mind.

The idea that people kept declaring as bold and radical, for me, I didn’t see it as that. I see it as love. As necessary. As a calling and vision that I couldn’t ignore. That got so loud it caused me to quit my job. So loud that I was willing to sacrifice my entire livelihood to see it through. 

I sat there begrudgingly before the facilitator, Efraín, began the meeting with a land acknowledgment –a real one. The kind of land acknowledgment that asks you to not solely acknowledge, but rather to move into action and my ears perked up. He continued by talking about their grantmaking program and how you didn’t need fiscal sponsorship to be eligible and that their intention was actually to fund seed ideas just like mine! 

I turned my camera on and was locked in. I was intoxicated by the realness of every person in the meeting who shared their stories, experiences, and visions – people actually in the same boat as me. A big idea, and a big vision, but no resources, kickstarter, or tangible funding. 

I had been operating off of a GoFundMe and my entire savings account for the first year and a half of BSSC’s existence. It felt like an investment I was in a position to make when I took the leap and left my cushy recruiting job. That was until I realized that I was going to make the jump and no longer had any savings to sustain myself personally. 

“Positive obsession,” Octavia Butler would call it. I liked that term. Even tried to coin it myself, but in those moments of desperation, another voice in my head usually called it just plain stupid. 

I was living in my scarcity era. I didn’t know what grants could look like. I’d never dreamed or thought about it before. I was getting to a point where I wasn’t even believing it was something possible or accessible to me before the Liberated Paths Informational meeting. 

I entered the Liberated Paths Grant application process and applied for $15,000 of funding, just trying to match and slightly exceed the GoFundMe amount we had survived off of for the first couple of years and pay off acquired debts.

A couple of months went by and I got an update and grant agreement letter sent to me. The agreement letter awarded $20,000, but the email said $15,000. Oh they must have made a mistake, I thought. No way, no way, no way!!! 

I responded excitedly in gratitude and earnestly to tell them of their error. “You meant to put $15,000 in the grant agreement, once you fix the error I will sign the agreement.”

They responded quickly. “Oh, we meant to do that, we are excited to fund you $20,000 for the next 2 years, totaling $40,000.” 

WHAT!!! OUR first-ever funder – $40,000 over two years. You mean you believe in this idea beyond just a year?! My brain hadn’t even dreamed that far out yet. You mean you believe in me? What?! What?!

And that’s how Justice Outside sparked hope in this big dreamer and gave us a sustainable source of funding to actually get this idea out of my brain, lifted from my shoulders, and off the ground. I am forever grateful for Justice Outside for continuing to be a beacon of hope and resource for Black Surf Santa Cruz and a container to grow and maintain our courage in this space. 

For the last three years now, Justice Outside has been an invaluable resource to myself and BSSC, a newly formed 501c3, and has sustained our work and vision through several resources including access to professional development opportunities, networking, mentors/coaches, sustained funding, and most importantly, hope.

George Floyd Memorial Paddle Out, June 2020. Photo Credit: TerryWay Photo.