Earlier this month, the Surfrider Leadership Academy convened in Ocean Shores for the group’s third and final retreat. They applied their improved leadership skill set by giving a presentation to a small group about the complexities of making sustainable locally caught seafood available to coastal communities and visitors. It was an issue that the group identified as important to the health of coastal communities and our marine resources. They decided to investigate the issue further as a group project and spent several months engaging their network to better understand the challenges and opportunities.

What is the Surfrider Leadership Academy?

Before we get into the details of this year’s academy, a little bit of background would probably be useful. The Surfrider Leadership Academy began on the Washington coast as a few stand alone training sessions focusing on facilitation skills, collaboration, and public meeting requirements. These were primarily geared towards coastal Marine Resources Committee (MRC) members and offered at the annual MRC Summit. They were extremely well received, so Surfrider began exploring what a more formal leadership program might look like. We teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, the Packard Foundation, The Harder Foundation, the Northwest Fund for the Environment and Resource Media to develop a strategy for a program that could be offered to existing and emerging coastal conservation leaders. After researching similar programs and potential partners, we decided that Context Partners had the right expertise and experience to help us design and launch a leadership program. With their support, we designed a program based on input from the coastal community and launched a pilot program in 2015. The pilot was a great success by all accounts and we used the feedback and lessons learned to improve the program and offered the full Surfrider Leadership Academy this year.

The first retreat at Lake Quinault

It all began in early August at the Lake Quinault Lodge where the cohort met for the first time. The retreat was largely focused on self awareness, understanding group dynamics, and storytelling. The public narrative framework developed by Marshall Ganz was a major focus of the first retreat and provided the curriculum arc during the program. Participants first developed a “Story of Self”, which they continued to refine throughout the program. They then developed the “Story of Us” where they defined their shared purpose as conservation leaders on the Washington Coast. This guided them as they settled on their “Story of Now”, or their call to action, when they decided the focus of their group project and how they would engage others in it.

Who are these leaders?

Here is the amazing group of leaders that made up the Surfrider Leadership Academy class of 2016:


From left to right:

  • Jennifer Hagen – Marine Biologist, Quileute Tribe
  • Aaron Parker – Fisheries Water Quality Specialist, Makah Tribe
  • Stena Troyer – Science Specialist, Harbor Wildwatch
  • Katie Wrubel – Natural Resource Policy Analyst, Makah Tribe
  • Jessica Helsley – Executive Director, Coast Salmon Foundation & Partnership
  • Becky Mabardy – Outreach and Projects Coordinator, Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association
  • Joe Meyer – Marketing and Business Development Specialist, Greater Grays Harbor Inc.
  • Kevin Decker – Coastal Outreach Specialist/Economist, Washington Sea Grant

They are a very talented group with diverse backgrounds and experience. It was impressive to watch them grow together over the course of the program. In August they were relative strangers. By December they were a tight knit group of leaders working in unison towards a collective goal.

Curriculum and program principles

Once the group decided on the topic for their project they began mapping their network. Networked leadership is the underlying principle of the Surfrider Leadership Academy. It is an approach to leadership that has been championed by our colleagues at Context Partners and focuses on collaboration and relationship building, which are the principles required to tackle the current and future resource challenges on the Washington coast, and for that matter, in many other geographies and issues.

After the cohort mapped their network they selected several informed community members to interview. They then convened via a live webinar to share their discoveries and identify next steps. Community Centered Design (CCD) guided the group through this phase of the program. In a nutshell, the principle behind CCD is that engaging communities closest to the issue is the most effective means for finding solutions. With this in mind, the next task for the cohort was to share their research with the community in order to see if their assessment was accurate or if they needed to keep digging.

The second retreat and the Coastal MRC Summit

The second retreat was deliberately built around the 2016 Coastal Marine Resources Committee (MRC) Summit at Long Beach this past October. It offered the perfect audience for the cohort to share their group project and to get feedback, both positive and negative (or as the cohort framed it “momentum” and “friction”). MRC Summit attendees sat through a short presentation that described the cohort’s research and their initial conclusion before they divided into small groups to receive feedback. In general, the project topic was reviewed favorably although it was clear that it was a complicated issue with many different challenges.

Incorporating feedback and the third retreat

It was a relatively short but very productive couple of months that concluded in early December in Ocean Shores. Here, the cohort continued to refine their project and developed a presentation that described their journey throughout the program. Alumni from the pilot program and several strategic partners attended that presentation and the whole group gathered after for a social hour and dinner. We concluded the program by reflecting on the entire process, discussing the highlights, and identifying areas for improvement. Though the 2016 Surfrider Leadership Academy was coming to an end, the entire cohort vowed to stay connected and work collectively on the current and future challenges of the Washington coast.

Looking ahead

We are confident that a third year of the Surfrider Leadership Academy will be offered in 2017. Make sure to check back here for the announcement in late spring/early summer. In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about the Surfrider Leadership Academy feel free to contact Casey Dennehy.