Q&A: Surfer and Filmmaker Kyle Thiermann
Kyle Thiermann is a 21-year-old professional surfer whose organization Surfing for Change is helping reshape what it means to be both a citizen athlete and a young activist in a modern world.
The TED speaker and 2011 Brower Youth Award winner's media campaigns center around specific threats at famous surf spots — including his current project against a planned nuclear plant at Jefferies Bay, South Africa — and how to participate in these seemingly distant issues on a more local basis.
In the first of our Q&A series with athletes committed to environmental and related social issues, we talked to Kyle about how surfing and travel has shaped his dedication to his work.
SIERRA: When did you start surfing, and how has it influenced your environmental and social justice activism?
KT: I started surfing every day when I was 11. I’m the youngest of five kids, and we all surfed. I just wanted to be like them so I got on a surfboard as quickly as I could.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world from a pretty young age and see amazing places. A lot of the cultures I visited were what influenced me to adopt my outlook, [that] if you can help you should.
Change is simple; you don’t need to consider yourself an activist to become part of the solution. There are easy shifts you can make in your daily life that help your community and environment in huge ways.
A few of the easy things you can do right now are 1. Bank locally 2. Refuse single use plastic 3. Use social media to get issues you care about out to the world.
My most recent short movie is on a proposed nuclear plant at the wave at J Bay in South Africa. It ties into the power you have to create change thorough social media.
Was there a particular event or moment that led you to be more environmentally or socially active?
I’ve always felt like it’s natural for people to want to help others. My first movie in the Surfing For Change series encouraged surfers and surf companies to move their money into local banks. I documented how Bank of America, one of the largest funders of coal power worldwide, is using its customers' money to fund a proposed coal plant in a world-class surf spot in Chile.
I’ve documented that over $345 million dollars of lending power was moved as a result of the project, much of it from surf companies and surfers.
I translated the video into Spanish for use by the Chilean locals, and through a link on my website they received donations from people who found out about the issue from my movie.
Seeing firsthand how possible it is to create change is what’s led me to choose this route.
What role should you and other athletes play in public interest movements?
I heard a quote from Muhammad Ali, where he said he felt like his boxing career wasn’t truly fulfilling until he started using his skills on behalf of social justice.
Pro athletes come and go, but what makes Ali so iconic is that he used his public image to stand up for justice. I do my best to have any media attention that comes to me be on behalf of highlighting issues I care about.
Which other organizations do you admire for their work, and why?
I admire Annie Leonard and her [media] organization Story of Stuff. She does an awesome job making complex issues accessible to everyday people; her work and mine have a lot of similarities.
I have a huge amount of respect for the whole team that worked on the movie Thrive. Thrive is the most cohesive movie I’ve seen tying together what’s wrong with the world, and what can you do about it.
How could you see your sport itself becoming "greener?"
Surfboards could, and actually are getting less toxic. There’s an awesome organization called Sustainable Surf who are recycling Styrofoam and turning it into new surfboard blanks. I’d like to see more surf companies move their money into responsible banks, it’s hard to solve environmental issues when you’re money is in a bank that funds the destruction.
I recently posted a guide to finding a responsible bank on Surfing for Change.
--Benita Hussain / Images of Kyle Thiermann by Bevan Langley