Kyle Thiermann, 22, started working nearly four years ago on his video series, Surfing For Change, which centers around social activism. Today, the professional surfer utilizes a combination of his talents and passions to travel around the globe documenting social issues that he feels should be on the radar of youth in the surfing community and beyond.
His latest project, a trip to Nicaragua, will highlight Butler’s Curve of Tourism, a theory that outlines the rise and eventual decline of tourist locations due to the impact increased traffic has on the environment and infrastructure in those areas. Teaming up with one of his sponsors, Patagonia, Thiermann will debut his short film—which has been created from more than 14 hours of footage he gathered on the trip—during a release party at the brand’s Santa Monica store.
On a recent visit to TransWorld Media headquarters, in between traveling and editing his new film, we caught up with the extremely busy Thiermann to chat about how Surfing For Change got its start and what he hopes to accomplish through his project.
When did you first become interested in social change, and environmental issues?
I've always dug traveling and surfing, and through that it set me on the course I'm on now. Ever since I was big enough to carry my own board bag my parents would take me on trips to places like Mexico, Peru—a lot of poor surf destinations in Latin America. When I was on these trips I remember my Mom and Dad would make a point to have me interact with locals there. They would tell me, "Kyle, these people are just like you, you were just born in Santa Cruz and they were born in Peru so they weren't given the same advantages as you." That helped me develop the mindset that given my unique position as a pro surfer, if I could help, then I should.
From your experiences working on the last six video projects, what are three specific ways more youth can get involved in social issues and influence change?
Put your money in a local bank, that's number one. Whether you're a business executive or a grom, if you have your money in a local bank it's being lent out to support your local economy. If it's in a bank like B of A, that bank is most likely using your money to fund some pretty bad environmental destruction.
Here's a list of the top 20 worst banks in the world http://solari.com/campaign/Tapeworm20.htm
Number two is to shop locally. It's pretty simple, if you get a T-shirt from your local surf shop instead of Target, more money stays in your community. If you spend $100 at a big box store, on average only $13 dollars stays in your local economy.
Third, I'd recommend phasing out plastic bags and bottles from your life. It's pretty easy to keep a reusable bottle and bag in your car. One of the major myths the plastic industry created is that bottled water is cleaner than tap. A bunch of studies have been done that prove most tap is actually cleaner than bottled water. Also, plastic leaches into water so when you drink water that has been sitting in a plastic bottle for months it's pretty gross and toxic.
The issue of plastic is applicable to business as well. I was just down at Patagonia headquarters in Ventura and went into their cafeteria and there wasn't one plastic bag or bottle in sight.
Why do you think these issues should be in the forefront of everyone’s attention, especially surfers?
I focus on systemic issues—things you can do on a daily basis that will move upstream and affect the system positively. As surfers, our numbers are big enough to affect real change, and by shifting a few daily decisions we can have a big impact.
What message are you hoping to send the surfing community about social activism?
I'd say that the most important way to influence change is to follow you're passion. That might sound weird, but throughout school we're told to follow the rules and not ask questions and then you'll succeed. Today we follow all the rules and end up forty grand in student debt and moving back home with our parents. The people who are succeeding across the board are following their passions and finding a way to make a living at it. I'm not saying everyone should drop out of school, I just think nourishing our passions is really undervalued in current society so it's something we need to take into our own hands. Once you're doing what you're passionate about and using it on behalf of something bigger, I've found that life starts getting really satisfying and fun.
How did you come up with the idea for Butler’s Curve of Tourism in Nicaragua?
I just got back from Nicaragua filming for our next Surfing For Change video on questioning whether or not Nicaragua is going to follow this same social curve that a lot of surf destinations have followed in the past. It basically goes like this; a village gets discovered because it has good waves, a bunch of surfers start traveling there, everyone is stoked for a while because there's money going to the community, surfers are scoring good waves, the place is developing. After a number of years though, the social and environmental issues start catching up to the tourist destination because they didn't have the foresight to create community programs to deal with the issues that would inevitably arise. You can see this happening with trash in Bali, or crime in Tamarindo. We went to Nicaragua to cover a story about a small town called Gigante. People there are working to set up community programs and infrastructure to potentially help the small town follow a more sustainable curve, which so many surf destinations have missed out on and are now suffering the consequences. The video will be out at the end of November on surfingforchange.com
What other social issues are you hoping to tackle in the next year, and why are you passionate about them? Why should other people be passionate about them?
Right now I want to cover stories of people doing awesome work in surf destinations around the world. The more research I do, the more I learn that although there are big problems, people are implementing solutions on a scale to combat the problems and I want to share those stories through our short internet videos.
What is the number one global or local issue that the surf community should be concerned about right now, and how can they get involved to incite change?
Stand up paddle boards, haha! I don't know how we're going to solve that one, maybe Chris Cote knows.
Seriously though, I'd say plastic pollution is at the forefront of issues we face today. Change starts when the citizen demands it. It can be as simple as refusing plastic bags and telling the storeowner at your favorite taco shop you think it's lame that they use plastic bags. That might sound small but hey, in the 50's a bunch of black people got together and refused to ride segregated buses. That small decision ignited a movement that changed the world forever.
What has been your favorite trip so far and why?
I got some of the best waves of my life in J Bay last year while making our video on the proposed Nuclear Power plant there. People in South Africa are awesome.
What is your number one favorite surf spot?
The Santa Cruz Harbor mouth, no question.
Talk about the involvement of Patagonia, Clif Bar, and Sector 9 – what has each brought to the table to support your project?
I made a conscious effort to associate with these specific companies because they all do business in a way that reflects my values. If I put a sticker on my board I want to feel good about the brand I'm representing. These companies are not scared to make bold statements, which I need because Surfing For Change is a bold series and I need my sponsors to stand by me when I release these videos.
How did Patagonia approach you about partnering with their store to release your upcoming film on Nicaragua tourism?
I had a meeting with them last week in Ventura and we were talking about how to get this next video out to people and they came up with the idea to do a store tour. I think it'll be super fun. We're going to start in Santa Monica on November 29 then move up through Santa Cruz and San Francisco.
Anything else you’d like to add?
In addition to Patagonia, Sector 9, and Clif Bar, I'd like to thank Pacific Wave Surf Shop and FCS for their support.
People can stay in touch with us through:
Facebook at Surfing For Change