Planting Seeds with the Concrete Jungle Foundation

Group picture of the construction of the Freedom Skatepark in Jamaica (2020) Credit: Ayden Stoefen Credit: Ayden Stoefen
Concrete Jungle Foundation’s work aims to empower communities across the world through the medium of skateboarding. One of the things CJF does is to build skateparks and provide on-site training in the field of skatepark construction. Their apprentices are being equipped with skills which transform the trajectory of their lives and open doors to opportunities they might not have otherwise imagined. We sat down with Construction and Outreach Manager Lisa Jacob, as well as Programmes Director Tim van Asdonck to learn more about this inspiring organization and the action-focused approach which drives it.

What is Concrete Jungle Foundation?

Tim: We are a charity organization which builds skateparks and implements youth programmes in developing countries. After the construction, we assemble local teams, provide youth programming and community work. We are currently active in Jamaica, Peru and Morocco where we have our skate projects with local teams who manage them. The main focus for us is to transfer skills and to ensure that the teams work in an autonomous manner. We have a big emphasis on local sustainability.

How did each of you get involved with CJF and what were those journeys like?

Tim: I started working with CJF right after the first skatepark was built in a neighborhood in Peru. It was built on the grounds of a school and was going to complement the curriculum. I was the person that came in to organize the programming - what can you do for the youth through a skatepark. I stayed there for a year and during that year we saw that what we were doing was really working. That was the moment when CJF realized - we’re able to make this work in one location, let’s see if we can do it in other places. That’s when the project in Angola started, which is where I met Lisa. Lisa: I met CJF for the first time when I came to volunteer on the construction of the skatepark in Angola. Then I joined the next one in Jamaica where we started the Planting Seeds Apprenticeship program. Even though I was used to building skateparks for various skate charities, I felt like the CJF approach was much more different than what I experienced before, in terms of local involvement and engagement as well as community building. I’ve understood then that coming and building a skatepark is not enough, skills transmission and local ownership are the responsibility of the NGO. At the time I also joined the CJF board, and later on I joined the staff

How do you identify new territories for expansion?

Tim: At the start it was a lot of figuring out what works, what doesn’t and what we need to look out for. At least for us, the main criteria are that there is a local organization or local scene that is active, or that something is happening in the place, and that whatever we’re going to build is in good hands. Looking at the long run, we really want to invest in quality and local sustainability, so we want to make sure that there is a local team that can handle it because we’re not going to be there forever. Building-wise there’s also a lot of criteria that can either facilitate a construction or make it a lot more difficult to happen. Lisa: The tricky thing is that the construction sites are usually far away from a big city, so sourcing materials can be a difficulty. Different local contexts also require different legal frameworks, country to country.

Do you additionally find any social or cultural challenges when trying to implement those projects, especially with social skateboarding being a relatively new concept?

Tim: It’s always a challenge trying to introduce something new. A lot of the people in the communities we work with don’t know what skateboarding is at first. The way that you present skateboarding and the skatepark project is super important. It’s also where the strength of our work lies. We’re building a skatepark as a social facility for the whole community to enjoy and for the kids to benefit from, not only to have a recreational space but also to have educational opportunities. Presenting it as a community initiative that we are providing, instead of focusing too much on skateboarding when people might be skeptical of that, is really important.

Could you tell us a bit more about the Planting Seeds Apprenticeship programme?

Lisa: The Planting Seeds Apprenticeship programme is meant to give opportunities to the local youth to join the construction and learn all the skills which come with skatepark building. This is also an employment opportunity because participants get paid to take part in the project, ensuring that they have a chance to join. It’s also important to make them feel that they are a very important driving force of the project as this makes them feel ownership of the space. They have to be part of it and they have to be at the forefront of any new developments that their scene is going through. That’s why it can’t be just foreign volunteers creating this for them - they have to feel like they are the agents of change in their community because it will be them in the long run.

How do you inspire participants to come on board this project?

Lisa: We start with outreach within the local scene. We see who is active in their local skate scene. Then we meet with them to get to know more about them and their current and future projects, and we select people who are motivated and who we see potential in for the long run. Tim: It doesn’t necessarily have to be that participants go into work in construction after the programme. We’ve seen a lot of apprentices who now work as skatepark managers, skateboard teachers or have developed different interests. We know that people’s interests differ and, even within the construction, we’ve seen that some people gravitate towards different types of work. So it’s a lot of adjusting and seeing where people's interests lie, what they want to learn and how they can grow. Lisa: The first step is to get them involved, then when they get exposed to new opportunities and new learning processes, they are able to discover themselves.

How many people are involved in the construction of one skatepark?

Lisa: It depends on the size, complexity of the design and the timeline we have to complete it. But it can vary from 8 to 25 people. When it comes to apprentices we had 6 in Peru and Jamaica and 4 in Morocco.

Are you able to share any stories of apprentices who have taken the skills they have acquired during the programme and used them within further work?

Lisa: In Peru we have Jhikson Akamine Garcia who is currently CJF Peru’s construction director. Jhikson started working with us as a skate teacher then became a Planting Seeds apprentice and then part of the Continuity of Learning framework in Peru. We saw the potential and motivation he had so we made him come to Morocco to ensure that he could keep on learning and pursue his interest. There, he showed even more initiative and responsibility and wanted to take more on his shoulders. Tim: He also found a lot of opportunities by himself after that, because he really had the motivation and the initiative. He started taking on skatepark repairs and additions in his hometown and then eventually he ended up securing his own, completely independent skatepark build for a children’s home in Peru. Over six weeks they built it and it was the first time when he had to do all the planning, budgeting and management himself. Lisa: We also partnered with The Skatepark School, which is an educational program in the design field, done by industry professionals in Australia. He got a grant to follow the online course which was great. He also got the opportunity to go to Cambodia with New Line Skatepark to extend the Skateistan facility there. Now he is building a mini ramp in Peru.

Taking part in CJF programmes is undeniably a huge learning opportunity for the participants. Has it also been a learning curve for you as organizers?

Tim: Everything is a constant learning process. Which can be a difficult part but also a fun part. We’re trying to help kids with their personal development and growth, but this also goes for us. We started this thing not knowing a lot, we were just very passionate about something we were doing. And then it was a lot of learning along the way - learning how to deal with certain situations, certain cultural differences... It can get tiresome, but it’s also nice because you never get stuck. There’s always something to do. Lisa: That’s very true. Every project and cultural context is different. You have to navigate and find your way around this. Sometimes you can see things as problems but in the end there is always a solution that can be found, especially working together. This kind of project is not something you can achieve alone. The whole team has to be on the same page and adjust to each other and work towards the same goal and dream. It’s really satisfying when it all works out.

Tim: We always have things in the pipeline. I can’t say anything specific yet before it’s been announced, but we are always working on expanding and developing. It’s great to keep engaging with the communities that we work with and to see what is there in terms of development. Lisa: It all started with skateboarding but skateboarding is really a tool and excuse that we use for people to develop themselves on a personal, professional and social level. All the life skills which are inherent to skateboarding can be applied to a broader aspect of life. But the skateboarding culture is really creative and interesting, there are so many things related to it - designing, filming, photography, building. Learning new skills, meeting new friends and getting new enriching experiences through common projects.

Are there any other leading projects which you are focused on right now apart from the Planting Seeds Programme?

Lisa: There is also the Continuity of Learning. We started this programme as a follow up to the PSA programme, because we noticed that after the 4-5 weeks of being involved in the skatepark build the participants were hooked, not just into construction but also in working towards a community project and skateboarding development in their own country. Everybody expressed the desire to learn more and get more opportunities like this. We wanted to follow up and give them a chance to learn more things like carpentry or welding. Because even if you get exposed to it during a skatepark build, you need more time to master the craft and transfer your skills further. And there are so many useful and interesting crafts out there to learn that can help you in the employment realm, in your personal creative endeavors as well as just being able to develop your skate scene and share the culture among your peers. Tim: Something we have also been developing over the past two years is the skate classes we teach called the Edu-Skate Programme. They don’t necessarily focus on skateboarding but rather life skills - respecting each other, creativity, perseverance etc. Over the past two years we’ve been working to share this program with other skate organizations and to work together on the programme’s development. We work with our method within our specific context but we also see that there are limitations there, and there must be many ways to work with a program like that. We have a global network of 11 social skate organizations and everybody that joins it can use the Edu-Skate programme and we develop it together.

How can people support the foundation?

Lisa: The best way would be to join the CJF family, which is a donor program. We have family members all over the world who care for and support us. Some of them are really engaged, doing events for us, screening our documentaries, and talking about CJF in many different ways.

CJF is all about creating life skills and opportunities that go far beyond just skate culture. Why then did you choose skateboarding as your tool - was it just a coincidence that it became your focus?

Tim: You could see it as a coincidence because at the core it comes down to being really passionate about something. But actually it’s not coincidental because the passion that we have for skateboarding is what bonded us and made our organization happen in the first place. Skateboarding changed our lives and we would like other people to benefit from it.