Interview with surfing/humanitarian Emi Koch

beyond the surface film india
emi koch surf
Emi Koch, a recent Georgetown graduate, is another stereotype shattering young female surfer with visions for a better world. Emi founded and runs the non-profit organization Beyond the Surface, which forges projects where sustainable development, youth empowerment, social justice and surfing entwine.  Despite her many projects, Emi still finds time to catch a wave or two.
I’ll be traveling to India later this year with Emi, along with Liz Clark, Crystal Thornburg-Homcy, Kate Baldwin and India’s first female surfer, Ishita Malaviya, to work on the first all-female surfing/humanitarian documentary in India.
SK: Where are you currently and why are you there? 

Emi Koch: This weekend I boarded a plane from Los Angeles for a two-day trip across the Pacific back to India and I am currently in New Delhi. How a Californian surfer girl came to be in India is a long story. India is a country that has a peculiar way of tapping into both your heart and soul and I’ve discovered this country to be nothing short of spontaneous magically balanced chaos and spice (spice that goes beyond the food).

When I founded Beyond the Surface International, I was a 19 year old sophomore at Georgetown University.  In the following summers, I traveled to our first three surf clubs with a sponsorship by Billabong Girls to provide whatever on the ground assistance I could with material and financial donations and had an incredible opportunity to engage with the super rad kids on the surf clubs.  The first summer, I went to Peru to visit WAVES for Development.  During the summer of 2011, I traveled to Umthombo in Durban, South Africa. Visiting the Kovalam Surf Club in India was the destination for my summer following graduation. At the beginning of my final spring semester, Patagonia surf ambassador Crystal Thornburg-Homcy and I did an interview together for Foam Magazine. Crystal was something of a mentor for me ever since I watched her surf and her interview in Sliding Liberia filmed by Dave Homcy (her now husband). Crystal is an amazing all around waterwoman but particularly a very graceful longboarder. Sliding Liberia was really the first surf film to really push social justice elements to the forefront on waveriding and the civil war that tore apart the country.
The idea to make a documentary on surfing in India centered around the youth in the Kovalam Surf Club organically developed out of our immediate conversations. As it turns out I was accepted into a yearlong sports for development and peace-building fellowship through the Dekeyser & Friends Foundation in Hamburg, Germany beginning in April. For the fellowship, I was so blessed and humbled to be a part of a group of 15 young people from around the world living together and learning from experts in our field and developing our individuals projects. My individual project became the film, embedded in the bigger picture for Beyond the Surface International.
I am in New Delhi currently working with a close friend and co-fellow from the sports coaching fellowship on his individual project. The Circle Project aims at moving towards establishing a holistic society by connecting the youth from rural and urban spaces. We will be facilitating an art workshop together both in the rural community of Ramgarh and then a collaborative weeklong workshop with rural and urban youths meeting together in Delhi. Beyond the Surface is also in Delhi collaborating with WASH United India in the area of water sanitation and hygiene and the use of sports to address taboo topics around health.
Later in the spring our incredible film crew will meet in Kovalam to launch our documentary. You can learn more about our film and ways to support our efforts by checking out our Indiegogo Fundraising page and our film’s website.
kovalam surf imagery


SK: Have you learned anything from surfing that carries into your work as an activist?

Emi Koch: I’ve learned that community development is like surfing actually… there are so many peaks and troughs… so many successes matched with so many wipeouts. But you learn from both experiences… like every wave you take. I’ve always approached the sea as a humble guest and I think I also strive to approach my activism as someone with just two hands and an open heart committed to working together with people to facilitate changes the community would like to see. I think big NGOs and government projects sometimes place so much emphasis on the rhetoric in the massive label of “community development” but I think just as surfing is simply about riding with pure energy, community activism is simply about speaking to people and forging relationships. If you loose that essence then your work is pointless because it is not rooted in fundamental person-to-person bonds we have the capability of creating as humans.

SK: What is Beyond the Surface? 

Emi Koch: Beyond the Surface International is an online platform, common meeting place, and networking tool for youth-focused surfing and ocean-adventure clubs, programs, and organizations. As a California-based 501(c)(3) tax-exempt public charity, Beyond the Surface International partners with local nonprofit organizations in coastal communities worldwide that use surfing, other water sports, and ocean adventure as tools for education, conflict resolution, health, and community development to raise funds and awareness. Furthermore, we collaborate with program directors, community leaders, and local youths to develop and then implement specific projects and initiatives that further each local NGO’s mission and the community’s vision. We believe that the innate ability for humans to create playful fun can be utilized as a highly effective method in addressing social issues and facilitating positive change. Beyond the Surface International also directs financial funding, material donations, and overall marketing campaigns for our specific community-based projects. Beyond the Surface International advocates for local people and entire coastal communities across the world to benefit from surfers traveling to the remotest of places in search of waves through sustainable tourism principles, methods, and practices.

SK: I hear you’ve teamed up with the Center for Surf Research. What is the nature of your collaboration?

Emi Koch: Yes! We’re super excited to work with Dr. Jess Ponting at San Diego State University’s Center for Surf Research on understanding and documenting surf tourism’s development in India. Surfing has now reached the “farthest places” across the earth and now the growing problem is that “as travelling surfers continue to expand their horizons to the farthest corners of the globe they pave the way for larger scale tourism industries to follow and too often create a legacy of soiled destinations, disheartened and distressed communities, and missed opportunities to replace poverty with sustainable livelihoods” (Center for Surf Research). I will be researching the impacts surf tourism is having on India’s coastal communities looking specifically at one fishing village which has become a sudden epic surf spot for shortboarders to SUP.

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SK: What role does surfing play in your activism? 

Emi Koch: Creative and innovative methods and approaches towards community development and youth empowerment is my big passion and surfing is one grassroots activity and pure people-to-people interaction that is dynamic and thought provoking through just being a really fun thing to do. So surfing plays a huge role… as it has connected me to coastal communities all across the world from South Africa to Peru to India to Mexico to Israel! These are really exciting times for surfing because the “sport” has reached the farthest corners of the world from where surfing originated. The pure stoke is there from simply the act of wave-riding but the industry’s influence is lagging which in ways is really amazing because in these parts I almost feel surfing is in its most basic form… which is downright beautiful.

SK: What projects are on the horizon for Beyond the Surface?

Emi Koch: We have a bunch of epic projects happening…

She Sells Sea Shells is just launching this spring. It might be hard to say but the idea is pretty simple: young girls in coastal communities meeting together in small groups making necklaces using sea shells found along the beach and funds generated from sales will be split between covering production costs and the rest into a trust fund for the girls. We hope to start more jewelry making groups for young girls living in coastal communities in India which also serve as discussion circles on issues they are facing or want to address. The idea is to create a safe space for these young girls as well as to facilitate the generation of some sort of independent financial support for them, by them.

As a joint project across all fronts we are launching for 2013 as the year of the groms. Each month we are highlighting one young participant in the surf clubs on our platform. Our grom of the month has a page on our website with information about their story, goals, and how people can support their initiatives. Check out our current grom of the month, Henry from WAVES for Development in Lobitos, Peru.
I have lots of ideas for new projects but this is my first year out of college and I need to balance my enthusiasm and passion with the need to move slowly and deliberately.
SK: How do you keep from getting overwhelmed in your work?

Emi Koch: That is an ongoing challenge!  I am the type of person who loves having a million things going on at one time but that also comes with a price of feeling overwhelmed most of the time so I make lots of lists and then things gradually get accomplished.

SK: Do you still find time to surf?
Emi Koch: The ocean and I have a really awesome relationship. I grew up on the beach and I never thought I could ever survive existing far from a coast. But I just spent the last four years in Washington DC for college and the move to the other side of the country at first was really difficult. I had never lived in such a busy city far with so many serious faces. Surfing was so much of a passion as much as it was a coping mechanism to deal with craziness that life presented for me or I found myself in. I feel like I carry the oceans in my heart and wherever I go I bring those feelings with me… but of course there is no better feeling than jumping back into the sea after months spent in big cities or middle-of-nowhere’s… it’s like the world just gave you a big hug when you dive under a wave. And you feel home. There’s nothing like that. I cherish the moments I spend in the ocean but I’ve followed my heart all across the world and know the ocean will always be there when I need it. Life’s been unfolding in unanticipated events that I have to believe happen for reasons… but I find time to surf when the time finds me.

SK: How can others help with Beyond the Surface? 

Emi Koch: Funding and spreading the word are the two biggest ways individuals who are passionate about our initiatives and mission can help Beyond the Surface. We are always in need of funding for our projects and so are the surf clubs we’ve partnered with on our platform. Donations can be made online via a link to Paypal from our website. Spreading the word about what we do and what we are about is also super appreciated!

emi koch surfing humanitarian



  1. This is a fantastic interview. Its inspiring to read about young ladies in the surf world who truly want to give back, as the ocean gives us so much. Lots of love from a fellow sustainable/humanitarian surf obsessed lady in Humboldt! Cheers to advocacy and stoke!

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