Making waves: a Q&A with Emi Koch of Beyond the Surface International
Photos by: Nicolás Landa Tami
If Emi Koch sleeps, then she must do so with a to-do list for a pillow.
The 27-year old California native is a professional surfer, a masters student, a dedicated philanthropist and a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Her nonprofit, Beyond the Surface International, combines all of these passions by using surfing and storytelling as tools to build workshops that engage and empower at-risk coastal communities around the world.
"Our goal is to use surfing, mindfulness, audiovisual storytelling and the creative arts as tools to enable youth with tools to be stewards of their culture and environment for a sustainable future," explains Koch. "Vibrant coastal communities indicate a thriving ocean. Without healthy seas, our planet cannot support life. Today, seaside fishing villages are collapsing under unprecedented global and local stressors."
From teaching kids to surf, to providing audio and video training skills, Koch is helping stories from these communities be told. Below, read our Q&A with Koch, in which he describes how she moves from riding waves to making change, the inspirational people and places that inspire her, and how far she's come in this "adventure of a lifetime."
Do you recall the moment that inspired Beyond the Surface?
Yes...and it was actually close to the furthest distance from sea level! When I was nineteen, I spent one summer in Nepal. I was volunteering in a Tibetan Buddhist monastic school just outside Kathmandu, as an art teacher. My students were children who had either crossed over the border from Tibet, or that the monastery had taken in from the streets. One evening in Kathmandu, I met a group of skateboarders from the organization Skateistan, an NGO in Kabul, Afghanistan that uses skateboarding as a tool to empower young girls. Hearing their stories, it was the first time I had connected the dots that sports could be used for development and positive social change. I thought maybe surfing could be used as a tool for youth engagement and I sought out any initiative that were harnessing the transformation power of wave-riding in this way. After some research, I got in touch with the only surfing for social good initiatives I found: WAVES for Development in Lobitos, Peru, Surfers Not Street Children in Durban, South Africa, and the Kovalam Surf Club in Kovalam, India. After speaking with the directors – humble surfers who had an idea to do something beyond the surface with surfing – I bought a book on The Basics of Forming a Nonprofit for Dummies, read the first few pages, and an hour later, I had incorporated Beyond the Surface International as a support network for projects using surfing as a tool for youth empowerment and community development around the world.
"The ocean is a powerful space to create friendships and relate with the environment."
Was nonprofit work something that you've always felt drawn to?
After noticing I was better at wave-riding than school, I decided at a young age that I would pursue a career as a professional surfer. I started competing and attracting sponsors in high school and it looked like my path was manifesting before my eyes. However, I had a sudden change of heart when I went on a social service trip to Tijuana, Mexico in high school. Growing up in San Diego, California, when I crossed the border for the first time, everything shifted for me. I was immersed in unimaginable poverty, working with people who were living in such deplorable conditions yet who demonstrated such dignity and resilience. I was so inspired and in awe of their spirit. This experience popped the bubble I was living in and I decided to apply for universities because I wanted to “save the world” and I thought becoming a diplomat would be the best way to do this.
I got into the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and moved to Washington, D.C. Pursing a career as a professional surfer, my world was about me and my sponsors, upcoming competitions, maneuvers, and so on. Suddenly, in this city miles from a coastline, I zoomed out to see the whole world in its entirety, including all its social injustices and I lost sight of myself - where did I fit in this picture? I decided to take a year off from university to reevaluate the direction I was headed in. That summer, I took up a friend’s offer to travel to Nepal and teach for three months. After starting Beyond the Surface International, I went back to Washington D.C. and transferred to Georgetown University that fall and switch my major to Psychology with focuses in Justice & Peace Studies and Anthropology. That’s also when I signed with Billabong Womens as a team rider.
During the school year, I would support our partner projects from afar - fundraising, networking, and equipment like wetsuits and surfboards. During the summers, with Billabong’s support, I would offer my support on-the-ground with our local partners, teaching surf lessons, facilitating beach cleanups or upcycling projects, and making videos with the kids to promote their talents regardless of their socio-economic status. It’s incredible because the way Beyond the Surface International has developed over the past 10 years, I think is an outer reflection of the maturation, self-discovery, and blooming I’ve done on this adventure of a lifetime, from all the yins and yangs. I am incredibly grateful to all the youth, local communities, and partners for teaching me about resilience, dignity, and cooperation. Today, we work together with marginalized or remote coastal communities for socioecological resilience through the power of play, nonviolent communication, and self-awareness.
What is it about surfing that enables you to make connections in these communities?
Surfing is an extraordinarily powerful tool to build relationships. As surfers, we know this to be true within ourselves, surfing enables us to understand our innate power, how to synchronize with this liquid energy. It nurtures self-compassion and resilience. This effect extends outward to also make connections with individuals and entire communities. The ocean is a powerful space to create friendships and relate with the environment. Kids are usually drawn to a playful activity first. They are like the doors into a community. Once you cultivate relationships and connections, working together for some positive or the greater good comes naturally. While never easy, you build genuine trust with a place and that is the foundation of the projects you do.
Surfing has a really connected and engaged base. Can you talk about the support you've found from your community?
I’ve received a lot of support over the years from the surfing community and industry. When I first started Beyond the Surface International, I got picked up by Billabong Womens as a free surfer. I used my sponsorship to travel during summer breaks in university and work on the ground with our first local partners. When GoPro first came out, they donated a GoPro kit to our project and the kids started to film themselves surfing. It was amazing to put the power of storytelling into the hands of the kids themselves so they could make their own videos highlighting their talents. Today, I’ve created incredible partnerships with socially-minded surfers, such as the girls behind gate Changing Tides Foundation and my mentor, Liz Clark. I’m also moving away from working with the giants in the surf industry to work closer with companies that champion sustainability such as Mizu, a water bottle brand dedicated to keeping the environment clean and preserving its resources, and Avasol, a purpose-driven company makes a natural, affordable and sustainable sunscreen with biodegradable packaging!
I’m usually based in remote coastal regions of the world but now, I’m back in my native San Diego for at least this next year to pursue a Master’s degree at UCSD’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation so, I hope to reengage with the Southern California surfing community I grew up in.
How do you decide which villages to work with?
It happens serendipitously usually. We either are traveling through a region and make contacts with community-based partners who wish to collaborate with us. Otherwise, we are approached by local contacts who are excited by the workshops we offer and believe they could be beneficial for their village.
"When we listen and then, champion their ideas, we show that there is value in their stories."
Aside from surfing lessons, you're offering your skills as a storyteller in an effort to help people in this communities tell their stories. How has the response been to that?
When have the people who lack the financial resources had the opportunity to share their side of the story? There are many levels of storytelling. At the community level, when we work with kids to tell their own stories using cameras for the first time in their lives and then, screen their productions for their families in their villages, these kids become local superheroes. The older generations feel this overwhelming sense of pride. We come in as outsiders with the specific purpose to listen while they do the talking. It is normally the reverse, especially, sadly in the field of development work.
Taken quite literally, as Maya Angelou said, ”There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Imagine if you never shared your life story or never realized it. What if it was interpreted and then, told by someone else. How might you feel? For sometimes the first time, locals feel there is great value in sharing their cultural heritage when normally, in these parts of the world, they should look differently or copy the things the foreigners do because that is progress. Otherwise, they will be left behind or fade away.
When we listen and then, champion their ideas, we show that there is value in their stories. This is powerful beyond description, especially in these times where small-scale coastal communities are collapsing under unprecedented global social and ecological stressors. Why should we listen? Because vibrant coastal communities indicate a thriving ocean. Without healthy seas, our planet cannot support life. If we support our coastlines, humanity’s got a fair shot at a sustainable future. There is also value in an outsider sharing their experience in a community with an outside audience because others from a similar background to that outsider can more easily digest the story and information.
Can you talk about some of the biggest successes you've had so far?
It is hard to measure “success” because we don’t focus on numbers but rather feelings because those are the roots of behavior-change and I think we’re just getting started so I hope in the net couple decades, we can really see qualitative results. In some villages, I see the kids really taking action to keep their beach cleaner while in other villages, youth are more willing to express themselves than they were before. Both are signs of progress to me as success is relative and every coastal community I work with is distinct and has been dealt a particular hand of cards. However, I think one of successes that has stood out to me was a group of girls from a community in Peru where women generally lack a safe-space to voice their dreams, who made a stop-motion animation on “How to Make Dreamcatchers” and then, their video went on to win the kids’ choice award at an international children’s film festival. These girls today exhibit more courage and self-trust then before. It feels pretty incredible to see and just motivates me to keep developing programs for deeper impact. In the same community of Lobitos, Peru, I’ve seen how through mentorship, one local surfer who took to photography now makes a living as a surf photographer and teaches photography to the younger kids, cultivate the next generation of creatives in his community.
If you could select a memory from your work to this point, a moment that could define the reward you get from the hard work you put in, what would it be?
Perhaps, one of the fondest memories I have is when I was working in Karnataka, India with my friends Ishita Malaviya and Tushar, founder of the Shaka Surf Club. We took one of the local girls surfing with us one evening and it was just so magical. The moon was rising behind of temple to the back of us just as the sun was setting behind the Arabian Sea. The girl was so afraid of the ocean yet was she decided to face her fears, putting her trust in me which was a great honor. I pushed her into a few waves which she on her belly and you could feel joy just radiating outwards through her squeals. As night fell, shooting stars blazed across the evening sky. I will never forget that enchanted moment. I think it challenged me as a person to be more open or aware for the magic that life presents to us. Our job is to take note of it. I think also my memory of work with two groups of students in India two years ago, we created two videos that were calls to action in regards to plastic pollution washing up on an island next to Mumbai, India’s largest metropolises and the second, documenting a titanium factory that is disposes its waste into the sea, right through a fishing village. The students used stop-motion animation, photojournalism, and documentary filmmaking to capture the issues and present them in a way to challenge the status quo. I loved working with the kids and teenagers to share their ideas and then, share them with the world.
How can people best support your work?
If our work resonates with you and you’re interested in supporting us and our workshops or programs, the best way is to donate. Unrestricted funding allows us to cover expenses that grants often limit such as equipment (cameras, surfboards, yoga mats) to travel costs between villages, sense usually the communities we work with are relatively isolated. You can visit our websites to learn more about ways you can also work with us on-the-ground, spread the word, or donate!
On Instagram: @BeyondtheSurfaceIntl
On Facebook: @BeyondtheSurfaceInternational