Clear Story 03 – Lilly Woodbury – Chapter Manager – Surfrider Pacific Rim
Text and Photography by Jason Murphy – Co-Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director
Something of Consequence
What does it mean to do something of real consequence in the world? And what does it take to make that happen? A combination of talent, time and place, maybe? And a little of the right attitude.
Lilly Woodbury has talent and attitude to spare, but let’s start by considering the other factors: The combined factors of time and the place.
Over the past few months we’ve learned a lot about how fishing towns in BC have been hard hit by a number of forces; Declining stocks, unfair quota systems and not many other places to go from an economic perspective.
Tofino, British Columbia is different.
Blessed by an enviable location on a small peninsula on the West Coast of Vancouver Island where the Pacific Ocean insinuates itself east and north to form the complex series of islands and waterways that make up Clayoquot Sound, Tofino is just close enough to BC’s populous lower mainland to put it in reach for weekend escapes by those living in the province’s major urban centres, yet just far enough away, and just wild enough to make the escape worthwhile.
This, plus a heady mix of alternate attractions – surfing, sport-fishing, storm watching, whale watching, bear watching, kayaking and other wilderness pursuits, and a mostly welcoming attitude to the more groovy, nouveaux-hippy, lifestyle obsessions that well-off city-to-coast transitionals bring with them – yoga, food consciousness, liberal arts, etc – has allowed Tofino to make the transition from fishing town to fishing-plus with some grace and not a little style.
The right combination of proximity, remoteness and geophysical good luck… a magnetic attraction to outsiders with disposable income and a yearning to chase their perfect life…
For some it comes at the price of a certain kind of authenticity. Some speak of snobbishness. But while Tofino now boasts vacation resorts on its periphery, it is not a resort in itself. Authenticity remains, it is just now authentically something different than it used to be.
The old and the new sit side-by-side with varying degrees of comfort, but they get along out of economic necessity. They’ve had plenty of practice by now–Tofino has been a destination for surfers for decades–there are stories of pioneers of the sport in the area camping on the beach in the 1960s.
It’s a story that you see repeated with regional and seasonal variations in a small number of other places on the coast, near lakes or in the mountains in North America and across the world. The right combination of proximity, remoteness and geophysical good luck conspiring to create a magnetic attraction to outsiders with disposable income and a yearning to chase their perfect life, usually pivoting around one or two major recreational activities that have become a near religion for those that pursue them.
In that last category, few would disagree that surfing qualifies, and we’ve already told the story of how Surfrider Pacific Rim–the chapter of Surfrider Foundation based in Tofino–have, under the leadership of former Chapter Chair Michelle Hall – helped to make the connection in tourist’s minds between surfing, positive environmental choices and everything that goes into “living like a local.”
In that story we touched upon one of their key strategies for success – the hiring of a full-time chapter manager – to make sure that at least one person is focused on promoting and organizing the activities of the group day-in-day-out.
That chapter manager has a name, and her name is Lilly Woodbury; Lilly has been working towards where she is right now for all her life and she still has a long, long way to go.
Lilly began volunteering for Surfrider in the winter of 2015 when she attended a meeting by the, then minimally active Tofino chapter, and has been a part of things as it gradually became more active and more assertive over the intervening years.
To Lilly Surfrider is and was “Positive and proactive and inspiring and fun and engaging.” And an immediate draw for someone, like her, looking to start a career in the conservation business.
After university she traveled to New Zealand where she worked as an outreach campaigner for Greenpeace, but she continued to volunteer for Surfrider while she was there and she always knew her heart was in BC.
Reconnaissance activities identify the beaches where beach clean efforts can do the most good, volunteers are enlisted and boats are organized. A basecamp is established and groups fan-out from there…
When she heard that the money was going to become available for a full-time Chapter Manager position, she jumped to apply and got the job. That was around a year and a half ago.
It’s not a big shock that Lilly and Surfrider found each other. My immediate impression of her was that she is the living embodiment of the ideals of the organization. The Surfrider ethos brought to life.
From the start, Surfrider has surprised me with its mix of life-loving surf mentality and natural clear-minded professionalism. Lilly personifies this duality.
Equal parts chilled-out and switched-on, the first thing you notice is the been-to-the-beach complexion and aura of good health. Ask her about her work however and she gets right to the point. Surfrider Pacific Rim is not a big operation. Almost completely run by volunteers (Lilly’s role is the one exception,) this one full-time position has significant positive impact, and her combination of enthusiasm and professionalism all the more valued as a result.
Internationally, Surfrider is known for its beach cleaning efforts, but the Pacific Rim chapter was not the first group to get into it in the Tofino area – they took the mantle from and continue to work with Parks Canada and the aquarium in the nearby town of Uculet.
Surfrider Pacific Rim’s contribution has been to take beach cleaning in the area to a whole new level. Not content with organizing debris collection activities on along Tofino’s miles of beaches, they have taken the effort to the most remote and environmentally sensitive parts of Clayoquot Sound – an area of some 350,000 hectares (860,000 acres), and Lilly has been a big part of making that possible.
Reconnaissance activities identify the beaches where beach clean efforts can do the most good, volunteers are enlisted and boats are organized. A basecamp is established and groups fan-out from there, collecting and logging debris which is sorted into large bags or “super-sacks” that are then barged back to Tofino and back-shipped for free by a generous trucking company to a depot on the mainland where there are received by Ocean Legacy - another BC NGO that has focused their efforts on finding ways to recycle things that others can’t (we hope to bring you more about Ocean Legacy and the views of their staff in the future.)
On some occasions, they have helicoptered debris out.
It’s beach cleaning taken to an impressive level of organization, scope, and professionalism, and, while Lilly relies a lot on the expertise of a wide range of expert volunteers to make sure that everything goes off safely and without a hitch, she is the one who wrangles it all.
“I’m part of the glue,” she says, “checking-in and learning from the whole network.”
And she stresses how important it is that the whole effort is enjoyable and rewarding for those involved.
“What’s the point of doing all this if we’re not going to enjoy ourselves?” She tells me, “Environmental work can be so daunting, at the end of the day you have to remember to have fun as well.”
This is a point that has arisen a few times in our travels when speaking to people taking action on marine debris. In many ways it is a great opportunity for a kind of “entry-level activism” that emphasizes the opportunity for volunteers to spend time in often beautiful sometimes remote locations to do a job for sure, but also to have a good time doing it.
While the logistics can be tricky, the message is an easy one to communicate and absorb – trash is bad, picking-up trash is good, doing that will make you feel good and if you can do it while doing the sport you love of experiencing an amazing location with some like-minded people, so much the better. As Lilly puts it:
“Enjoy the fruits of your labor! Clean a beach and then go surfing!”
It’s training wheels for activism, and it helps build community.
Proactive Culture Building
Lilly has a unique perspective when it comes to this side of things. She described to me how in Tofino a virtuous cycle of activism and community has been created where one feeds into the other.
Community supports activism which strengthens community which then makes more activism possible.
It’s a new, more profound spin on something we’ve seen time and time again at Sealives so far – activating community is key.
So–a remarkable girl-meets-NGO story; an inspiring tale of perfecting the art of remote beach cleaning operations and doing it in such a way that it can be replicated by others. But there’s more to this tale and the first clue to uncovering it is the part I left out: Lilly’s educational background.
It’s a simple idea but something that Lilly clearly feels deeply about… creating the opportunity to build the culture and community that you want to see rather than accepting one that is forced upon you from outside.
It won’t surprise you to know that Lilly focused on Environmental Studies in University. It may surprise you to learn that she studied Media as well.
Bring it up and the conversation expands to her other passions – films, particularly surfing and environmental films, and the annual Surfrider Pacific Rim Short Film Festival.
The festival had its first run three years ago, has become one of the chapter’s signature events and helps Lilly and Surfrider flex what Lilly calls their “Culture creating powers.”
“A big point of the film fest is to highlight environmental issues… but to also celebrate local cultures.”
It’s about film culture and the environment and the links between them.
“We celebrate our local culture, we have a local program.” “We show national films and we show international films, so in one night people get to celebrate the West Coast here, the Pacific Rim, but they also get to celebrate cultures from around the world.”
“I love all that because we have so much to learn from one another.”
It’s a simple idea but something that Lilly clearly feels deeply about and has thought about on a profound level. In her eyes, It’s about building culture and community from the ground up; about creating the opportunity to build the culture and community that you want to see rather than accepting one that is forced upon you from outside.
The connection between surfing and passion for conserving the environment is key, but the subtext runs deeper. In her words:
“We don’t have to rely on mass media and corporations to create our culture, we can do it for ourselves, and that’s good for us, good for our community and good for our local environment.”
When I ask her what she gets out of all this she focuses on the emotional rewards, not just from doing good for the planet, but from knowing that others are as well.
“It never stops blowing me away,” she says, “there’s so much this planet has to teach us.” And “It floods your heart with joy to think about how much people really care and how much we’re really trying to turn things around.”
When people ask her why she is so passionate about the environment, her response is “how could you not be?” “It’s our very existence.”
And last but not least, what she sees as the vital link between environmentalism and the people who are part of the living environment too.
“Social and ecological justice are one in the same thing and to create sustainable change you have to see them as linked because that’s the truth of it.”
Lilly is a community architect. Creating structures for building community one action at a time and building a network of expertise. Applying her talent and her positive attitude in her time and place. Working at a local level - for now. Doing something of real consequence in the world. And then heading to the surf.