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Activist Spotlight: Steven Williams With The Los Angeles Chapter

Q: What is your current role with the Surfrider Foundation?
Chair of Surfrider Los Angeles Ocean Friendly Gardens (OFG) Program.

Q: Why and when did you get involved with the Surfrider Foundation?
I had been working as a plant biologist doing native plant restoration for several national parks, was back in LA, and heard about OFG…it was a natural fit! That was about 2008, and I became Chair in 2012. 


Q: What are some environmental issues that are affecting your local community?
Climate change and sea-level rise, coastal access and development, desalination plant proposals, shoreline armoring, water pollution, plastic in the ocean, dams/fish passage barriers… sigh! 

I’ve been doing Southern Steelhead Trout snorkel surveys in the nearby Santa Monica Mountains for over 20 years. I recently helped another group at a native beach dune plant restoration site… for habitat and sea level rise mitigation. As far as OFG goes, it is both challenging and rewarding. It’s sometimes challenging to get folks to make the connection between how our action in the upper watershed affects water quality downstream. It’s rewarding when you see them get it – that diverting roof runoff into a rain garden lessens street runoff into the ocean, and you get all the beautiful native birds and butterflies as a bonus, not to mention the savings in water use and energy needed to pump that water here!  

Q: What Surfrider projects have you worked on?
Mainly Ocean Friendly Gardens, though I am also passionate about the other programs and try to join them when I can. I support the chapter by educating volunteers, ensuring the transmission of institutional knowledge to new recruits through chapter meetings and speaking engagements, and facilitating the dissemination of local information acquired from other committees and groups I am affiliated with. 

Q: Are there any specific projects that you have worked on that benefited your community? If so, can you tell us about that?
In 2012, I helped to organize and install (with volunteers) the OFG at the old Venice City Hall building (now Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center) on Venice Blvd. It’s been great to have a local public garden to point to and to use as a site for OFG gatherings, education, and training. The garden remains intact and has flourished over the years, serving as one of our most cherished examples of the program's long-term approach to addressing many of our local environmental concerns. Since being installed, it has diverted thousands of gallons of stormwater into its two rain gardens, which feed the surrounding deep-rooted native plants, providing habitat for native wildlife and adding beauty to the community.  

Q: What has been the highlight of your Surfrider experience?
Probably early on, when we went to LA City Council meetings to successfully advocate for a stormwater capture/infiltration requirement to get the turf removal rebate. We also successfully campaigned to remove plastic turf as a qualifying turf alternative.  

Q: Do you have any personal experiences or campaigns/issues you're passionate about where the social justice and environmental movements intersect? If so, can you tell us about them?
Gentrification, which, in addition to the displacement of an economically diverse population, caused many affordable rental building demolitions, mostly replaced by market-rate lot buildouts. These often suffer the loss of permeable yards and green spaces that are potential OFG sites. New multi-story buildings also shade out neighboring yards, further reducing potential garden/OFG sites, which require direct sun for evapotranspiration. Rooftop gardens are not a meaningful solution… shallow soil depths disallow most native plant options. It’s complicated…we need more truly affordable housing… so much has been lost. We also need to integrate green permeable spaces into such projects. I’m on the Land Use Planning Committee of the Venice Neighborhood Council… I speak for the trees and other native plants threatened by the increasing density of lot buildouts.

Q: What can Surfrider do to foster an inclusive and welcoming experience? Do you have any examples from your experience where this is successfully happening?  
Have some chapter meetings further inland. It’s gonna be tough on all who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to live by the coast… LA is huge and our traffic/public transit sucks. We have discussed having some in proximity to stops on the east-to-west running Expo Line. In that regard, SFLA OFG has partnered with another group that built “a giant OFG” along the Expo Line… the Westwood Greenway. We’ve brought volunteers there to assist with the maintenance of the native garden. We also just completed an OFG project in Leimert Park, near South LA. SFLA has tabling events scheduled on the East Side for Earth Day. Our One Watershed initiative involves bringing children from underrepresented communities inland to the beach for a day filled with surfing and enjoyment. Last year, we did a cleanup at the LA River with Friends of LA River and are looking forward to more of that. 
Q: What is the most important thing you tell others about Surfrider?
Sign up and volunteer! I’ve seen various iterations of our executive committees and generations of program chairs come and go over the years…all great people! It’s rewarding work and you’re bound to make some new friends. 
Q: Why is being a part of the Surfrider ocean conservation community important to you?
I like to be around like-minded folks who care about the threats to our ocean and are motivated to take action. It gives me hope… even when everything is pointed in the other direction.  

Q: Anything else? 
Kill Your Lawn! Replace it with an Ocean Friendly native garden, with a rain garden to infiltrate stormwater runoff and feed your deep-rooted water-conserving natives.  If we all took responsibility for our stormwater runoff by replacing lawns with native OFGs, the ocean would be less polluted, we would use less precious water resources, and the native birds, butterflies, and other pollinators will thank you for it! If you don’t have a lawn, check with your local Surfrider chapter about other volunteer opportunities with their OFG program.

Last thought: When you know a lot about what’s happening with climate change, etc, it can be overwhelming to keep your spirit up. For me, it helps to prioritize the little changes we can make to reduce our impact/carbon footprint on the planet. I made the installation of OFGs my business, Selva EcoGardens, so I can feel good about the work I do. I have a nine-year-old son, and my partner is an ecology professor at UCLA… we all go camping and backpacking as much as possible… we don’t fly anywhere for vacations… CA has so much beauty. We grow food in our little side yard; I maintain two worm bins… they eat our scraps and their waste goes back into the garden. We ride our bikes as much as possible. We hang our laundry on a clothesline to dry. We wash and hang/dry out plastic bags for re-use… yeah, we’re THOSE people, LOL!  I recently joined the local outrigger canoe club… I highly recommend this to anyone looking to up their surf fitness/waterman/aloha game. Anyhow, we know our efforts alone won’t save the planet from its downward spiral, but at least we know we aren’t the ones sending it down that road!  OK, maybe this isn’t the best way to end this, LOL…go do good things!