Great Idea: Risks and Rewards

Marginalized youth making positive connections through skateboarding

Competency and Community: Skateboarding for Marginalized Youth

In Afghanistan girls are not allowed to ride a bike, or even fly a kite. These two activities represent just some of the prohibitions imposed by their culture. Skateistan, an award-winning global organization, introduced the Afghan girls to skateboarding, a sport so new to the country that it has not yet been forbidden. Skateistan aims to empower and educate youth through skateboarding. Working in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South America, they do much more than give kids skateboards and build skate parks. Their program introduces education and skateboarding skills to marginalized youth around the world. According to their communications manager, Hannah Bailey, one of the biggest takeaways of their program is its unifying effect.

Closer to home, an Alberta-based non-profit organization called Academy Skateboard Collective has also found that skateboarding is a vehicle for positive change in marginalized youth. “At the forefront, it also builds relationships and community,” according to Everett Tetz, who is the founder and director of operations. Inspired by the global program Skateistan and desiring to learn more about their outreach, Tetz flew to Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa. “I came back here and thought there was a real need for that here. We have our own marginalized populations here in Canada based on our own history, and I thought skateboarding is such a great vehicle for social change and building relationships.” Using the universal culture and language of skateboarding, the Academy seeks to connect marginalized communities and vulnerable youth. Through this new sense of belonging, the youth grow confident enough to interact with adults, support their peers, form friendships, learn to trust, respect, and mentor each other.

Tetz says that although the public’s perception of skateboarding being for kids on the fringe has changed, skating still attracts troubled youth who are seeking out non-traditional activities. “It just attracts a unique kind of kid that doesn’t view the world the same as everyone else, and I think there is a lot of value in that, and the kids know there is value in that. That’s what empowers them.” Given the right opportunities these youth can grow up to be leaders. Tetz explains that the Academy is an umbrella to three different categories of their work. The first is transporting equipment and resources to isolated communities such as Indigenous reserves in the north. They also work with the Central Alberta Refugee Effort and recently landed immigrants. Finally, the Academy directly supports and sets up school-based skateboarding programs across the nation with skateboarding class curriculums.

Avery Acheson is the intake and settlement manager for the Central Alberta Refugee Effort. Speaking of the Academy she says, “For us it was an instant fit, we had a group of kids that just loved trying anything new, different, and exciting.” The refugee kids began to engage with their new community and make friends. They were also motivated to learn English through these friendships, reading skateboard magazines, and watching videos of tricks on YouTube. Skateboarding gives youth a community to inspire them, guide them, and challenge them to grow.

Tetz is also a former vice-principal of a middle school in Red Deer, Alberta. The Academy became the extension of the work he was already doing at the school. As a result one of Canada’s first school based skateboarding programs was founded. Originally designed for students on the margins, it became so successful that other students wanted to sign up. The program eventually became a stand-alone class where students not only skateboarded, but also learned to design their own graphics for t-shirts. The curricula developed by the Academy teach the entrepreneurial skills needed to build a successful business. These learnings are replicated across the country in other schools.

Through the Academy Skateboard Collective students are invited to take risks, sometimes fail, and to find solutions to overcome problems they encounter on the skate park and in their everyday lives. Their future is a world where challenges will become increasingly more complex. Persistence, critical thinking, and complex problem solving are needed to overcome these challenges. A survey released by IBM in 2010 found that creativity was the most sought-after quality for future employees, according to more than 1500 Chief Executive Officers from around the world.

In the sport of skateboarding there is no coach, manual, or textbook, so self-directed learning is something that skateboarders intuitively understand. Their habit of persisting, in spite of falls and failure while endeavoring to master a trick, becomes second nature to them. Most skateboarders view the world around them as a playground in which they test themselves over and over on a board, maneuvering it around obstacles, down a set of stairs or onto and across a handrail. Skateboarders are always challenging themselves to become better. The skateboarding culture not only promotes community among its participants, but also motivates them to set personal goals. In our media saturated society, the challenge is how to engage youth through physical activity. The students, who often represent various socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, learn how to negotiate their differences as they skate together. Children and youth who might be viewed as “troubled” or “at risk” continue to be attracted to the free-wheeling world of skateboarding. The cost for the skater is low; all he needs is a skateboard and a place to skate, which makes the sport accessible to most youth. There is minimal parent and adult supervision, which is a plus for students who have struggled with authority. The importance of positive role models and mentorship of the youth is vital to the success of the Academy. The program works to connect hard to reach youth with caring adults in a positive and welcoming setting. As they achieve growth in creativity, complex problem solving, persistence, and self-directed learning they are attaining qualities considered crucial to be a success in a complex world. The Academy Skateboard Collective creates a community where the members find an outlet for their youthful energy while simultaneously gaining the skills and qualities necessary to become lifelong learners.

By: Alison Zenisek