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Lawyer, Surfer and Social Changemaker Becky Mendoza Is Promoting Women’s Empowerment by Riding Waves

In the parking lot behind the Encinitas building rented by Changing Tides Foundation (CTF), a women-led organization aiming to empower young girls through the act of surfing, a group of middle school girls are seated in a circle beneath an E-Z Up. They are ready to start their fifth week of an eight-week surf camp. 

Everything about the scene seems like a normal camp—wetsuits hanging in the background, talk of last week’s session, a colorful mural of a woman nose-
riding. But the topic of discussion for this afternoon’s lesson, led by a local female physical therapist, is anything but wave-related. We’re talking menstrual cycles. 

Surrounding the crew of young girls (who understandably break out blushing and snickering at times) are CTF founders and volunteers, including 41-year-old contract lawyer Becky Mendoza. Becky started CTF six years ago alongside some of her closest friends with the goal of creating a diverse community of people who feel connected to the sea and want to advocate for the planet and its inhabitants. 

One of CTF’s projects is the Women’s Outreach Mentorship Program (WOMP), a surf camp that empowers young girls to discover their strengths, find sisterhood and protect the ocean. Each week the organization shuttles the group of girls from a local Boys & Girls Club to the CTF headquarters, where they’re provided with wetsuits, a surf lesson, free gear, dinner and various lectures on breath work, journaling, body positivity, protecting the environment, ocean safety or, in this week’s case, female physiology.  

When the conversation veers toward the cocktail of hormones that lead to PMS, Becky offers her experience to the group. “Right before my period, around when I start to eat chocolate, I’m kind of mean,” she laughs. At that, the teenagers nod their heads in empathy. 

“The more girls we get into the ocean, the more girls are going to want to protect it.”

Anyone who’s crossed paths with Becky knows she is the antithesis of a mean person. Originally from Miami, she didn’t learn how to surf until she was in her second semester of law school. “I didn’t even get up on a wave my first time, and I got sun poisoning on the back of my legs. But I was so determined,” she remembers. “The fact that I kept going back, I was like, ‘OK, this is something I’m going to learn.’” 

She was instantly hooked. Between her law classes (while also earning a master’s degree in sport administration), Becky spent all her free time traveling up and down the East Coast improving her skills in the lineup. After graduating from law school in 2004, she moved to the wave-rich coast of Encinitas to work as a contract attorney for Major League Baseball players. 

In 2009, she started Action Sports Law Group and began working on contracts and obtaining visas for world-class athletes. All the while, she never stopped surfing. 

Becky never dreamed of starting a nonprofit post-bar exam, but CTF eventually evolved one year after an injury she sustained while surfing her home break—right before a planned trip to Nicaragua. “I did the splits on my board tucking into a barrel, pulled my hamstring really bad, and my PT was like, ‘You’re probably not going to surf,’” she shares. “Rather than canceling my trip, I made the decision to start fundraising to take water filters with me. I ended up getting enough to take 50 water filters. Afterward it was just one of those things where I was like, ‘I can’t not do this.’” 

A year later (with her surf injury healed), Becky attended a wedding in Mexico near Puerto Vallarta and took more filters with her, distributing them to locals in need of clean water. She ended up returning to the area three more times; helping disadvantaged communities was as much in her blood as was surfing and practicing law.

When she returned home after one of her trips south, Becky got on a FaceTime call with four of her best friends—Anna Santoro, Jianca Lazarus, Leah Dawson and Leane Darling Horton—to talk about starting an official nonprofit with the aim of helping communities wherever their travels (which were mainly wave-hunting in nature) took them. The women were all game, and CTF was born. They returned to Mexico as a group in 2016 to continue the work Becky had started.

In the following years, the crew broadened their scope, first partnering with an organization in Panama called Give and Surf to develop a 10-week WOMP program, which taught teenage girls—in a community struggling with high teen pregnancy rates and few career and educational opportunities for young women—how to swim, surf and be stewards of the ocean. They then went to the Dominican Republic to administer a one-week WOMP, followed by two more in Peru and El Salvador. The more volunteer work they did, the more opportunities arose to help empower young women on a global scale.

For Becky, teaching young girls how to surf is so much more than just pushing them into waves. It’s about showing the next generation of young women the power of lifting each other up and looking at their fellow female peers as allies rather than rivals. 

“Growing up, I was totally a tomboy,” she says. “I was the youngest of eight cousins and brothers and I was the only girl, so I learned to speak the boy language. I didn’t grow up in a very welcoming female environment and often looked at women as competition. I never really understood the power of female community, especially in sports, until I found the girls [the CTF cofounders]. Once I felt that connection, it was like nothing could stop us. I felt incredibly empowered—more empowered than I’ve ever been in my life—from other women. When I reached that deeper connection with nature and my female friends, it was so soothing for my soul. I think I would have been very different if I had been exposed to that at a young age.”

As CTF began gaining momentum with its global initiatives, the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and grounded Becky and her team for most of 2020. The break forced them to turn their attention stateside to their own community. 

“We realized that there’s a need here,” admits Becky. “There are kids who live 20 minutes inland who have never been in the ocean. For us, it was important to bring our WOMP program here by switching from a travel-based organization to a community-based organization. In the future we’d like to have different chapters that run WOMP programs all over the country, all over the world. The hope is that we can implement this curriculum on a broader scale and invite more inclusivity and diversity in the ocean.”

Now that CTF has found its sea legs, so to speak—with an HQ that regularly hosts community events—Becky is moving to a more hands-off approach, stepping down as executive director to serve as a board member and also to set her sights on other socially conscious entrepreneurial opportunities.

“I don’t know what’s next for me,” she says. “I just really, really want to help people— not only in a way that helps them pursue their passions but also that those passions could make the world better. It’s this social, entrepreneurial feeling I have inside me. I feel connected to bringing people along to experience beautiful things.” 

But for now Becky is working on building connections, both in and out of the water, with this specific group of middle schoolers–even if that means she has to disclose some of her premenstrual tendencies in front of them. She knows that helping young girls feel recognized and emboldened will ultimately benefit the community and the environment as a whole. 

“The more girls we get into the ocean, the more girls are going to want to protect it,” says Becky. “And I think that’s our bottom line here, that’s the thing that resonates with us: How do we get more people to care about taking care of our planet? Surfing is a great tool for that. And it’s got all these other benefits—saltwater therapy, empowerment and sisterhood.” ν

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