Reverend Mac Shorty, an African American community advocate and lifelong resident of the community of Watts in Southeast Los Angeles, went to the beach for the very first time on a recent trip organized by the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Mujeres de la Tierra.
Of his first excursion to the beach after decades of living only thirteen miles away, Rev. Shorty said, “This is a wonderful experience, just to have access where access at one time was not granted to people of color, black and brown. To see the kids having fun means a whole lot.”
Rev. Shorty’s experience as a Black Angeleno never having gone to the beach is not uncommon or surprising, even in a state like California that has some of the strongest public access laws in the country. A 2017 UCLA report found that one third of African Americans visit the coast less than once a year, and that sociocultural and physical barriers can prevent residents in BIPOC communities from accessing the coast—even communities that live only a few miles from the ocean. It’s clear that even legally guaranteed public access does not necessarily ensure that the coast truly is open to all.
The lack of genuine access is not helping to conserve our coastline, either, and actually may be hampering conservation efforts. Late last year, our friends at the Hispanic Access Foundation released a report on restoring, regenerating, and conserving biodiversity while also increasing equitable access to nature and mitigating climate change. The report details how, when complemented by reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring access to nature for all results in healthier communities, better functioning ecosystems, and a more stable climate. Additionally, as we’ve written previously in this coastal access series, while innumerable adverse social impacts arise from inequitable access to green and blue spaces, when access is increased there is greater knowledge and concern for nature, leading to more communities nurturing their natural environment.
Because existing laws do not (and perhaps cannot) ensure equitable access, some NGOs and community organizations have stepped up to fill in the gaps and connect their communities to the ocean and other natural spaces. One such organization is the group that introduced Rev. Shorty to the coast, Mujeres de la Tierra, which has been fighting against the effects of environmental racism placed upon vulnerable communities—particularly immigrant, low-income communities of color. In the summer of 2021, Mujeres launched its “Vamos a la Playa” program to bring inner-city families and children from Northeast Los Angeles, MacArthur Park and Watts to the world-renowned, sun-drenched beaches of Malibu. “This is the first beach outing for about 95% of families who have been part of Vamos a la Playa, and there is something horribly wrong with that,” Mujeres Founder & Executive Director Irma Muñoz said in a recent interview. “We have experienced racism, white privilege and ignorance from a few Malibu residents and beach goers, but that will not deter us from bringing more families of color to experience a family day at the playa.”
The effects of the trips have been life-changing for families from these communities as they learn that beaches and open spaces can be public spaces for all. Children want to know more about ocean life and what they can do at home so the beaches remain clean and healthy for all to enjoy. And it is not just the youth of the community that are affected by the program. “It is such a thrill to see kids run into the chilled ocean and hear their squeals of happiness, as well as watch their parents’ emotional reactions,” said Ms. Muñoz, noting the impact the trips have on the adults that attend.
While the Vamos a la Playa program is making a real difference for some families, there is only so much the team of five staff members at Mujeres de la Tierra can do. Increased support from state and local governments and the philanthropic community is needed to expand this program and support other programs like this. It would also help, as Ms. Munoz mentioned, to have wealthier coastal communities be welcoming to all who visit the beach. When looking for solutions to climate change and access to nature, comprehensive policies, widespread buy-in and centering equity are what will truly set us on the right path. Mujeres de la Tierra is a shining example of what happens when this buy-in centering equity materializes and what can be achieved throughout California with more monetary and societal investment.