NEWPORT — The Women’s Expression Session, an annual tradition which includes a mock surf contest, free lessons and lots of community-building fun, saw record attendance last weekend at Agate Beach: over 40 people pre-registered for the event, over 20 signed up for lessons in advance and more for both showed up to the beach on Saturday.
The event was founded six years ago by the Northwest Wahines, a local group which seeks to connect, engage and empower women to find their strength and grit through ocean-centered activities and community. The event has a similar goal, which is why the contest doesn’t have traditional awards. Instead, there are categories like Gnarliest Wipe-Out and Most Creative Costume.
“We’ve done that because we really want to encourage people to come and participate,” said Olivia Schroeder, one of the session’s organizers, “and we know from experience and from hearing others, a lot of people shy away from going to surf events and contests because they don’t feel like they’re good enough or something like that is stopping them.”
While the Expression Session began as a mock contest simply to get people out on the water and having fun, it’s grown to include other activities and achieve other goals. For example, there are now free surf lessons open to anyone who wants to learn — complete with wetsuits and surfboards available to borrow. This is thanks to support from others over the years, Schroeder explained, in the form of mentorship, volunteerism and, most recently, a grant. But that hasn’t come without responsibility.
“As you build the community as we have done in the last like five six years, you not only get the support from people, but it forces you to be more organized because you are more accountable for your actions,” said Schroeder. “So I think as we grow and have grown the community, we’ve thought about ways that we can get support from people, but then we also try to reciprocate that back to those companies or back to the community.”
One example of that is the relationship that the Northwest Wahines share with the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians. This year, a number of improvements were made to the operations of the Expression Session thanks to a grant from the Siletz Charitable Contribution Fund.
“We applied for this grant and got it, and not only did it allow us to get wetsuits, but it allowed us to get a lot more surfboards,” said Schroeder, “and the biggest game changer was to purchase a trailer.”
This purchase meant that those taking surf lessons could borrow wetsuits and the organizers now have a single, organized space to keep all their supplies for their events and camps — including the surf camps they hold for the women of the Siletz Tribe four times per year.
A few of the women who have attended those camps came to the session on Saturday. One woman sang a blessing at the opening of the session and another woman smudged the circle and acknowledged ancestors and people who were on that land previously.
“I think those are really wonderful reminders for all of us, I think we often forget to think about those things,” said Schroeder. “And so that’s been a really huge gift from the tribe … we’re sharing the gift of surfing and they’re sharing the gift of their culture. And it feels like a really nourishing and positive reciprocal relationship.”
The opening circle of the session is one of Schroeder’s favorite parts, but she remarked that the best part is what comes after.
“I would say my other favorite part is seeing the lessons and taking people surfing — a lot of them for their first time — and especially the kids,” said Schroeder. “I mean, just the huge, huge grins on everyone’s faces and even more so for those learners who hadn’t experienced it before and who were having success as well. There’s nothing like it.”
She added, ““It’s great seeing people get out there and enjoy themselves, and do something that they might have thought they would never do or that they couldn’t do. To see people step into that bravery and that grit is really rewarding.”
Next year’s session has not yet been planned, but updates and announcements can be found at northwestwahines.wixsite.com/northwestwahines and on the Women’s Expression Session Facebook page.