Why do we go skateboarding?

It’s Go Skateboarding Day. A time when skaters all over the planet take to the streets together. This year things are inevitably going to be a little different. For some, a more relaxed gathering is possible, for others it’ll be a lonely if not locked-down session. June 21st is no longer the day of laissez faire mischief it once was. At least for THE SKATEROOM, after seeing the effects of the pandemic on our partner organisations we’ve come to appreciate Go Skateboarding Day as something a little bit deeper.

When something you thought was a given is suddenly stripped away, it makes you realize what it meant to you. This isn’t a deep philosophical insight. In fact, after the past 18 months, it’s pretty much just stating the obvious. Nonetheless, for many people, skateboarding was the thing that got them through the hard times. It’s where they went to escape or to grow. And we’re not just talking about you or I, who might rely on those few sessions a week to keep fit and meet with our friends. We’re also talking about the communities of young people in Johannesburg, in Athenian refugee camps, in Afghanistan; who over the past fifteen years or so have made skateboarding part of their daily lives.

Take Skateistan, for example, our longest standing partner organisation. When Oliver Percovich introduced skateboarding to the young girls and boys of Kabul in 2007, he had no idea the impact it would have. But nearly 15 years later, Skateistan operates 5 locations across Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. For the kids they work with, skateboarding goes hand in hand with education and self-expression. It’s become a keystone in both their mental and physical health.

During COVID-19, Skateistan’s schools were forced to close. “We couldn’t manufacture ventilators or produce testing kits, but we could keep our students and families motivated and comforted.” says Ollver. “While our students were stuck at home, we helped them get as creative as possible through gardening, baking, doing artwork and making videos. They brought their Skateistan activities home with them.” By being agile, Oliver and his international teams have been able to extract that essence of skateboarding at Skateistan – creativity, inclusivity, empowerment – so the kids could continue to connect to one another and express themselves.

But skateboarders are always pushing forward. Skateistan knew that they had the ability to do more. Mbali Mthethwa, Programs Manager at Skateistan South Africa explains: “What COVID did was make it glaringly obvious where the differences were between the haves and the have-nots. So we provided food parcels, info about COVID, a support system and even a referral network for cases where we couldn’t really give direct support.” This extra support continues out of the pandemic, to become a key part of an organisation that was founded on a single skateboard.

Meanwhile in Athens, the past year saw the charity Free Movement Skateboarding’s sessions cancelled. This happened alongside the closures of camps to outside organisations, and the eviction of squats and community centres where they have now taught over 3,700 youth, aged 7 to 25. The team at Free Movement immediately started networking to find new ways of reaching their participants, ensuring COVID-safe policy was implemented into their adapted daily operations.

“Facilitated by the Mum Institute – a connection made through THE SKATEROOM and Zoumboulakis Galleries – we have been working under a government permit during lockdown, teaching in social care units three times per week.” explains Will Ascott, co-founder of Free Movement Skateboarding. “But the excitement remains the same. Kids fall the same, get up and try again the same, and ultimately they get that same sense of accomplishment. This isn’t something they’ve had to learn from skate videos, their persistence is natural, as are the bonds they form with each other through the sessions.”

Athens is opening up again. And with this light at the end of the tunnel, comes a chance to accelerate into a post-pandemic program for Free Movement Skateboarding. Having celebrated their fourth birthday this spring, the organisation is looking towards a much brighter horizon. “Today, Go Skateboarding Day is about celebrating our global community.” says Will. “It kind of fascinates me that skateboarding, when grown away from the Western culture we’ve built around it, still creates such solidarity as well as empowered individuals. This is why I go to work everyday, it’s why I go skateboarding.”

Free Movement, like countless other social skate projects, counts itself among the lineage of projects which begins with Skateistan. Fifteen years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find organisations like theirs. Now, however, we are able to make lasting commitments to support NGOs like these. Take Concrete Jungle Foundation, who in spite of the pandemic this year constructed a skatepark in Jamaica. THE SKATEROOM joined forces with artist and photographer Coco Capitán, as well as renowned fashion brand Kenzo, to give $51,000 towards CJF’s 1300 sqm Freedom Skatepark in Kingston and finance an entire year of their activity program for 350 kids.

The work of these projects has inspired others to do like them – and taught the world that generosity, inclusivity, diversity, education and empowerment are just as much part of skateboarding as the cultural elements people may more readily associate it with. The music, the fashion – that all changes. But skateboarding’s deeper power to impact and unite people, to bring them together even when they’re being pulled apart, is the same across the board.

Thanks Oliver, Mbali, Will, Clément, and all of the people who power our amazing partner organisations. And thanks to all the at risk youth who take part in those projects each week. You remind us what Go Skateboarding Day is all about.

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