Getting to know the grassroots organization in the heart of New York City’s skate scene.
Picture this. New York City, mid-80’s. Young Harold Hunter is skating in Washington Square Park, about to make history as one of the most legendary skateboarders to come out of the city. Even more so – he is about to become one of New York’s most iconic characters, mentioned in the same breath as his other Downtown peers such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol.
Harold’s story is special because it defies all odds. From living in a housing project to becoming the first professional African-American skateboarder in NYC. From a misfit to an international sensation. His trajectory inspires to this day, while his impact continues to make a difference thanks to the indelible efforts of the Harold Hunter Foundation.
Started by a group of close friends after Harold’s untimely death, HHF is a grassroots organization providing support, opportunity and advocacy for New York City’s skateboarders. Off the back of the annual Harold Hunter Day, we caught up with Ray Mendez – the foundation’s Creative Director and a life-long friend of the Hunter family.
What is Harold Hunter Day?
Harold Hunter Day started 16 years ago. It’s always been great to have an annual celebration of our friend that we lost, and now it has evolved into more of a festival with a four-day block of programming. On the front-end we lead more with cultural events – film screenings, photography exhibits, things which are related to the culture but are a bit more social. Then, on the weekend, we steer more towards the skate side of things. We also have some good old parties because we’re 90’s kids and Harold was certainly known for his ability to party. It’s very magical to see that this energy still exists and that Harold’s memory is still alive and so strong.
However, it’s not only to keep his memory alive but also to celebrate the legacy of the work that we do, which is having an impact on the youth. That’s what’s most important. It’s not lost on us that being part of skate culture changed our lives. It’s not very clear where our lives would’ve ended up without it, so we are very grateful. For me personally, it’s very important to pay that forward. Part of the reason why I’m so passionate about the Harold Hunter Foundation is that these guys are like a second family to me.
How did the foundation get its start?
I was always very close with the Harold Hunter family. The day Harold passed away I was actually with his older brother Ron. I told him – we really need to do something for Harold and maybe start a foundation. That was my initial thought, but the foundation was really spearheaded by another friend group – Priscilla and Jessica Forsyth. Jessica actually just retired from a sixteen year tenure at HHF. She led the charge – without her the foundation wouldn’t exist.
How did you and your friend group find skating and how did it impact your life?
We were kids that grew up with not a lot of direction. To put it simply, when we found skate culture it changed the trajectory of our lives entirely. To be honest, I’m a kid from the South Bronx who almost wound up being a product of my environment. I was going down a path which wouldn’t have ended up well, with me probably dead at some point. And almost immediately when I found skate culture, the shift was 180 degrees. I was so immersed in it that it took over my life. It was the only thing I thought about. What skate culture provided for me was not only another friend group but really another family. I’ve known Ron Hunter now for about 30 years and we’ve been friends that whole time, through skating. It has provided structure throughout the course of my life. It saved me because it provided an alternative to what I knew. When you find those other activities, they provide a window to a different world entirely.
We hear so many stories of people whose lives have been changed thanks to skating. What is it about the culture that makes it so impactful?
I think about this a lot because I fancy myself an amateur social anthropologist. You have to think about the type of people that skating attracts. A lot of times it’s people who are on the margins. People who don’t resign to the normal status quo, and if you are not fitting in with the norm, you may be going against the grain. Sometimes that could be difficult. Skateboarding gives these people a platform. The skateboard didn’t just take us around our neighborhood or around the block. It took us around the world. This is especially true in the case of Harold. A kid that grew up with not a lot of resources, not a lot of guidance, not a lot of family structure. He gets into an activity, gets really good at it really fast, and because he’s such a great personality – personable, funny – he becomes very popular, very quickly. He becomes a professional athlete in the sport, gets famous by being in movies, music videos, skate videos, and travels around the world as a professional athlete, living a really enchanted life.
You come from a situation where you don’t have a lot of resources and you’re just trying to figure it out for yourself, and then you find this vehicle and it’s a damn skateboard. And you take that and you ride it until the wheels fall off. That’s what Harold did. He became a globally recognized, not only skater, but also character. How remarkable is that? That this board with wheels on it could change your life so profoundly…
How does Harold’s energy and personality translate into the mission of HHF?
Harold was clearly not an angel. He did a lot of crazy shit like a lot of skateboarders (and a lot of people) do. But the one thing that is very important is that Harold cared about people. He was the type of person that would give the shirt off of his back to someone. And that energy is where HHF is really centered. In caring about others. In trying to support and uplift others. Being giving and selfless is very important in life so working with an organization, in Harold’s name, knowing that he was that type of giving person is a very good feeling.
What are some of the main projects which you focus on with the foundation?
Initially, when the foundation started, we got really popular in NYC for sending kids to skate camp. We sent kids to Woodward skate camp – it’s like Disneyworld for people on wheels in central Pennsylvania. It’s like being transported into a different universe, especially for kids from the inner cities. That was the draw for kids to come to HHF, but that’s not the only thing that the foundation has done. The end goal is to provide a North, some form of structure to people who are traditionally non-structured. We work with people who have a non-linear trajectory. It’s not – go to school, find a job, have a family. A lot of the time their lives are zig-zagged and non-traditional, and so we have a variety of different programs.
Currently we have a mental health awareness program which we’ve been running for a while and which is getting a lot of momentum. We also have a Women and LGBTQ+ initiative which is really strong here and the folks in that community are amazingly passionate and dedicated. We have a creative careers program where we teach kids creative skills, because skaters are often interested in developing those. In skateboards and action sports content is very important and so we provide workshops in photography, filmmaking, graphic design, web design. We also have a Grow With Google certificate program.
Who are the participants of HHF? What is the biggest demographic?
This question makes me think of why I stress to people that Harold Hunter was the first professional Black skateboarder from New York City. I say that because we are kids from the 90’s and the 80’s, and we are kids from the inner city. When we did these activities the folks around us were like – why are you doing that? That’s a white boy sport. I got that a lot and I’m sure Harold got that a lot too. But I liked to skate! It was my passion, it was something I loved. It’s so interesting to see, 30+ years later, that the demographic has changed entirely. And that’s what it’s all about. It’s about opening up to this beautiful global community where we exchange energy and ideas and life. That’s what I think is so lovely about skate culture. It makes me very happy to be part of a community that thinks that way.
To go back to the question, HHF started with mostly young men. That shifted a little bit as HHF aged and those kids aged with us. Some of our first cohorts are now in their 30’s. And the beautiful thing about that is that they eventually become coaches and mentors in their own right. Paying it forward is a really big part of HHF. We have young men, young women, older demographics. The young learn from the old, the old learn from the young… There’s this really great exchange of energy across the board and I think, as an organization, we are in a really magical place.
It’s also amazing to see that, with your efforts, HHF’s reach became so much bigger than just its hometown.
Obviously New York City is our home. It was Harold’s home. But our goal has always been to grow beyond that. I think that’s appropriate because that was Harold’s reach. He was a NYC kid but people across the globe knew him. It’s remarkable to see the type of impact that he had. Because of that, I think it’s very important that HHF spreads its wings and shares its mission in other parts of the world.
Do you have any specific stories of skaters whose lives have been notably impacted by HHF?
HHF has a lot of success stories. Tyshawn Jones has now won Thrasher’s Skater of the Year two times, which is a pretty remarkable feat. He was an HHF kid who came to camp Woodward with us years ago and now he’s clearly one of the top athletes in skateboarding. But this is an interesting question because, for us as an organization, those “success stories” are great but they’re not necessarily our goal. Our goal is to provide a bedrock and an infrastructure. We’re very mindful that we’re not trying to create the next superstar pro-skater. What we’re trying to do is create a life-path for people and provide some resources and infrastructure to do so. We know that the statistics are that most of our cohorts will not go on to be professional athletes and skaters, but there are other means for them to have really great lives while still being attached to skate culture and working in the industry to some capacity. I’m very mindful about that in terms of professional development. That’s why we have our creative careers division. Because the goal is to provide opportunities. For me it’s about putting people in the right places so that they can grow.
Are there any other plans for the future of HHF?
Growing. We have grown substantially and we have an amazing group of talented individuals who work with us as our HHF staff, but they support us and so we have to support them. It’s about making sure that these people live great, sustainable lives. We’re non-profit and running a non-profit is a difficult task. It’s consistent fundraising, trying to get money in the door to help people. It’s sometimes a daunting task. But that’s why partnering with companies like THE SKATEROOM and other great organizations is vital. When you ask me about the future, I’m really excited about these relationships. The relationship with THE SKATEROOM is something Charles [-Antoine Bodson] and I started talking about five years ago. I guess good things come in time, don’t they? Maybe it took five years for the program with THE SKATEROOM and HHF to get off the ground but I’m very excited that it happened. We have a lot of great ideas and I can’t wait to see them all come to light.
It’s very fitting that the partnership launched together with our Andy Warhol Self Portraits collection. Andy Warhol and Harold Hunter – two NYC icons together on a project. It feels very special.
Harold Hunter, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring… Those are all NYC legends. Here’s a fun fact for you – Basquiat and Harold Hunter went to the same high school. They also got kicked out of the same high school. Also, Keith Haring and a lot of Harold’s friends from downtown were all friends. It’s really great to see this continuing thread. There’s something really magical about all of that and about how we keep the energy circulating. It’s really beautiful.