How Birling Skateshop Helped Organize Free Indoor Skateboarding in Ottawa
As told by Adam Wawrzynczak Photos by Aaron Cayer This past February, the city of Ottawa launched a free weekly indoor skateboarding...
Growing up as a male skateboarder in the late ’90s and early ’00s, I encountered next-to-no women in skateboarding, and I didn’t really think anything of that. I saw Elissa, Cara-Beth, Alexis, and a few other women in videos and magazines, but I never thought to wonder why more women didn’t skateboard. There certainly weren’t any skating in my town. Moving to Calgary in 2003, I was lucky enough to meet Rhianon Bader and Talia Kaufman, two really cool women around my age that were also into photography and skateboarding. They had a website called Skate of Mind, filled with blog entries and photo scans. The drive they had, to make things, to experience things, and to be involved with things, was inspiring then and it’s still inspiring now. These two have continued to pour good into the world and I’m so proud to be able to call them my friends. Read on to find out how two skate rats from Calgary continue to have a hand in introducing skateboarding to people on the other side of the Earth. —Jeff Thorburn
Talia Kaufman: Where did you get your first skateboard?
Rhianon Bader: I really wanted to get a skateboard when I was in Grade 8, and around the exact same time that I was thinking about it a lot, my oldest brother was waiting at a bus stop and a pickup truck went past and a used skateboard fell off the back of it and he brought it home since he knew I wanted one I was super excited. And then, about a month later, it was my birthday and my other older brother bought me a pristine, original 1988 Tony Hawk setup with with Swiss bearings and massive Powell Peralta wheels. And it was cool because then I had two boards and I could rope my friends in to start skateboarding with me.
TK: Which was your mission forever more.
RB: Yes. What about you? How did you start skateboarding?
TK: I got my first skateboard from a boy on my bus, he was younger and he skateboarded, and he brought me a skateboard one day. It had like a hand painted graphic of Earthworm Jim, and it had tiny wheels…
RB: I remember, your wheels looked like condoms on bearings. They were mid-’90s wheels.
TK: They were small! But I didn’t know anything different. I just always used those condoms and they worked for me.
RB: How old were you?
TK: I was 14.
RB: So you joined my junior high in Grade 9, you switched schools, and I had started skateboarding the summer before, and then we met.
TK: I think it’s important for the public to understand that there were very few skateboarders in the school.
RB: Yeah I think there were like five kids at school that skated that I knew about. All dudes. And then us.
TK: That was when skateboarding was kind of struggling. It was 1997. Not much was happening in skateboarding then. It was a bit of a lull. But we didn’t get teased for skateboarding. We made ourselves stick out and be so ridiculous that making fun of us would be redundant.
RB: Yeah, because we were getting into punk stuff and some of the other friends we were skating with were really in rave culture, and we would wear hats with propellers on them.
RB: Do you feel like skateboarders on the whole were welcoming and friendly to us, our little crew? We had a handful of us girls that would skate together.
TK: Yeah, there were a few times we would go skate those spots downtown like the Board of Ed or James Short and there would be other people there skating but I don’t remember it being like a warm community. But I think your experience was a bit different because you started going alone more. Did you find it friendly?
RB: It wasn’t unfriendly. For me it was intimidating, but I was just getting into it and there were no skateparks. So there were just street spots and, especially on weekends, they would be really packed. People were nice but I was reallyshy. A couple of the older skaters were like older brothers in a way, but there was also this thing of wanting to be respected. So I remember like the whole time I was in high school I made a point of never dating any skateboarder because I didn’t want to be seen within the scene as like anybody’s girlfriend. I just hated that dynamic. It took me quite a while to really feel like I had friends, but then once I did that just like continued for years. By the time Millennium skatepark was built in 2000, I already knew everyone in the skate scene and everyone was super nice and supportive.
TK: For a not very social person you were a social butterfly.
RB: Yeah for a socially awkward person skateboarding was really helpful.I think of skateboarding as the guiding arrow. I grew up in the suburbs and you didn’t, but skateboarding actually made us leave our little areas and go downtown. At the time, in downtown Calgary, no one hung out there after work hours. It was just like skateboarders and homeless people. And it exposed us to the world. This was also when we started to go to punk rock shows, all-ages gigs.
TK: And when we started going to all-ages shows there was a little bit of social justice awareness that came with that. I think that did have a big influence on me, I don’t know if you felt the same, but I’m wondering where you think your sense of social justice came from?
RB: I think it came from the punk scene, with the history of anarchy and communism, all this stuff we were hearing about for the first time. But I guess it also came partly from my mom and what she instilled in me. The punk scene brought a lot of awareness about things because there wasn’t much awareness in the mainstream, about things like colonialism or sexism or homophobia, all this kind of stuff that other people in high school weren’t talking about.
TK: Yeah I think we definitely have to credit our moms–we can’t credit the punk scene more than our moms, if they read this they’ll be upset! Both our moms had community-oriented jobs and my dad would probably have been considered a “social justice warrior” by today’s standards. What do you think was the first big creative project that we took on together?
RB: I can’t remember but I think where our creative stuff really started was when we both got really into photography at about 15. We took this night photography course at the local college with a bunch of 40-somethings. That was pretty cool because with that we started to make ‘zines.
TK: I always liked reading ‘zines but I don’t think I’ve ever made a zine in my life. I did really enjoy writing journal entries for Skateofmind.net!
RB: I don’t remember why or how that started. I think it started as just online journals, like blogs basically, but angsty teenage ones. Then we had a free Geocities website in 1999 or something, in 10thor 11thgrade. Me, you, and our friends Jessie and Sarah. We were writing journals and taking photos. We felt it was really important to have a crew vibe.
TK: I feel like you were the main driving force there. You had a vision and you rallied us around your vision for having this, like, girls skate, lifestyle, music thing, just so we’d feel a little bit less alone in the world.
RB: Yeah, I guess I was like a really big nerd and I was on the internet a lot and I was always looking for stuff about girls skateboarding around the world. Which was superhard to find. Like, I found little bits and pieces. There was a Scottish girls crew I tracked down and got in touch with; there was an Australian girls crew; and a big inspiration in the US was the Villa Villa Cola crew. Also, on the East Coast, they had Rookie, which was owned by women. I remember seeing this stuff and thinking, We should just put stuff out there because then people can find us. But I also didn’t want to do it alone, I wanted to do it with my friends, you know.
TK: And you went and taught yourself HTML and signed up for a Geocities account and Skate of Mind (skateofmind.net) was born. It had a black background and red font. Classic.
RB: And Skate of Mind is obviously a fucking awesome name.
TK: It wasn’t really a creative endeavour, but a kind of formative thing was when we went to Vancouver when we were 16 or something on a road trip. We got on a bus and we went to Vancouver with our skateboards, staying at a hostel downtown on Granville Street. We just went to every skatepark we could find and were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
RB: Oh, Vancouver was like Mecca for me. I didn’t know yet really about Barcelona or places so far away, but Vancouver was like a realistic paradise for me. I remember we went there, and you could get vegetarian food everywhere. It was warmer, there was a beach, there were like a million skateparks and Calgary didn’t have any skateparks, and there were girls skateboarding—actual crews of girls skateboarding! We kind of figured out later that it was a place where a lot of girls who had started skating a few years before us went and congregated. A lot of people moved from across the country.
TK: It had a good vibe. We were skating White Rock park one day and Michelle [Pezel] from Antisocial—which didn’t exist yet—was really friendly to us. She came up to us and introduced herself and told us that if we come through Vancouver again we can give her a call and she’ll take care of us.
RB: I think she showed up in a van with a bunch of people. They were three or four years older than us maybe. Anyway we got her phone number and this was the time before Instagram and Facebook so we just held onto a piece of paper with someone’s phone number and gave her a call like nine months later.We wanted to go to Slam City Jam, which at the time was like the premiere skate contest in North America, and I think we were 16, so we were poor teenagers and we didn’t know where to stay so we called her to ask if we could crash.
TK: That was great. We were well taken care of. I learned so much from Michelle on that trip about how to treat people. She opened her house up to us and all these other people and it wasn’t lost on us that we were nobodies in this scene and that she was treating us so kindly, driving us around and making sure we were looked after.
RB: Growing up in the Calgary skate scene was really cool and it was a really welcoming scene but Vancouver was inspirational for me.
TK: I didn’t feel that same frustration that you felt with Calgary, maybe because I grew up a little bit more centrally. Also, I felt like, until that point, when you moved away, everything that we’d done had been together like, skateboarding, photography, snowboarding, traveling. I remember you found the photojournalism college program and were like, “So we’re going to sign up for this, right?” After that I did make a bit of a deliberate decision not to go to Vancouver because I was like, “We probably need to have our own lives for a little bit.”
RB: I knew I had to go, and I would have been stoked if you’d gone.
TK: Yeah, but you march to the beat of your own drum and I think anyone who meets you can see this right away. It’s very easy to just step in line and be like, “Oh and next we go to Vancouver and then we get motorcycles!” On a certain level I knew that I had to find my own identity and not just follow you forever. And I actually had a really bad time for a couple of years, but then I found my way.
RB: I remember when we did our journalism program at SAIT, we graduated when we were 20 and I remember having this feeling—I don’t know about you—but like, “How can we be journalists when we don’t know anything about the world?” We had gained all these skills, like how to write ethically, how to take photos and use Photoshop and do graphic design, all this stuff. But we didn’t have life experience, so I think that was a lot of impetus for us to do that South America trip. And then both of us went to do more schooling. You did International Development and I went to Vancouver and studied Political Science, which is pretty similar.
TK: Who were your earliest supporters? Was there anyone who really pushed you or stood out to you?
RB: That’s what’s cool about skateboarding—you meet a whole bunch of people that are really creative in different ways. So I think in Calgary, at different points, we connected with people like Dustin Koop, who was doing all kinds of filming stuff, and Jeff Thorburn also lived in Calgary at the same time and we were both doing photography. When we had Skate of Mind, it was cool because people around the world ended up getting in touch or we got in touch with them. One of them was Scott Pommier, and I was always looking at all the photographers in all the skate magazines—I was a total nerd, I knew everything about skateboarding at that time—so that was amazing to be in touch with an idol who was supportive. There were just these attainable idols that we had. Obviously Michelle [Pezel] and what she was doing with Antisocial, which I think started when we were in high school. That was super inspiring when she and Rick [McCrank] started that shop. To see a woman working in the skate industry was so rare. The only other one I really knew about was Megan Baltimore from Girl and she was super elusive, like you couldn’t know a thing about her. Still can’t. I was really hungry to find out what women in skateboarding were doing.
TK: And then we finished university, we got jobs, we still visited sometimes.
RB: Were you still skating much then?
TK: No. I was still skating a little. The summer before I started with Skateistan, I put in a big effort. I was like, “I’ve got to get up to speed, I’m really rusty!” So I’d go to the parking lot near my house all the time. I was really motivated.
RB: When you were younger, did you imagine working in the skate industry or were you interested in that at all? Like, what drew you to working at Skateistan?
TK: I really believed that all the sports I’d done growing up had made my life worthwhile, be it skating, snowboarding, soccer, or gymnastics. All these things made me a much healthier person, mentally and physically. For me, skateboarding represented ‘community’more than anything and because I had so many injuries, I didn’t really see a big future for myself in skating. I was pretty frustrated with my pace of progression, so I didn’t feel that attached with it in that sense. I studied International Development because I did want to change the world and work internationally and solve all the problems and was idealistic like this. I was aware of this idea of using sport for social change. That was really interesting to me. And I wanted to work in a way that uses sport to make people’s lives better somehow. So that’s why I was drawn to Skateistan. The skateboarding—although I had this love/hate relationship with it and it was really frustrating sometimes, it’s cliché but anything I put into it it gave back to me in spades. If I snapped a photo, wrote an article, or went on a skate trip, I got friends, I got opportunities, and my life improved in every way the more I did it. So when I started with Skateistan, I was super motivated to improve my skateboarding and I just made a conscious choice to try to not be scared of falling because I didn’t want to reinjure myself after surgery.
RB: Yeah, I think it’s relevant to say that. Your shoulders kept dislocating all the time when we were growing up, so that really held you back, I think, for going for it skateboarding and then you got surgeries later and were able to feel more confident.I think you’ve gotten better at skateboarding than you were back then, which is inspiring, you know, because so many people think, “I can’t start when I’m 30” and it’s like, “Why not? You can.”
TK: Yeah, for sure you can! But you have to start skating bowls because the knee pain can sneak up on you. But yeah, other people have much worse injuries to deal with and everyone has their fears, and that’s mine.
RB: I always wanted a job in skateboarding but I couldn’t figure out how that would happen because it was so male-dominated and there were no female role models. And as I was getting older and getting really into skate photography, having all these mentors, I would talk to them about what’s it like going on tour. It just seemed like it wasn’t really set up in a way where a woman could go along on tour with guys. I could have just tried and gotten over it but I wasn’t quite ready to blaze that trail, you know?I’ve still never heard of a woman photographer going on a major tour. I don’t know if it’s happened but I have not heard of it. And I was wanting to do this in 2003, so I just couldn’t see a way forward. In Calgary, I was shooting a lot of guys who were teenagers. Brett Gifford and Sean MacAlister, some of those photos got published in Canadian magazines and then I worked at Color Magazine. But that wasn’t like a full-time job. That wasn’t going to be a career. That’s when I was kinda moving away from working in skateboarding. I was wanting to be a war correspondent and I was really into travel too. I was talking to people that had been to Afghanistan and I just felt like I didn’t have the experience but the stars aligned because around the time I was applying for a Master’s program, and I heard about Skateistan and that they were taking six-month volunteers.
TK: I remember you were so nervous for your interview.
RB: I was so nervous. It was my dream job to do something in skateboarding. They had a focus right from the start on getting girls involved. They were looking for someone with media and communication skills and I would be going to Afghanistan, which I never thought I’d get to do. So it was just like a dream for me.
TK: And then I applied about a year after you started. So you started in 2010 and then you dropped off the planet for a minute.
RB: I was not in touch with anybody. It was so intense. Man, we were working six days a week, like 13 hours a day. At home we didn’t have internet either, so you had to do all of your keeping in touch with people while at work.
TK: I was working at the Calgary Sexual Health Centre at the time and you would once in a while send an article or blog post from Skateistan and I’d be so psyched on it. I was passionate about my work at the time but this stuff really captured my heart. It made me think differently about the world. That these little girls could have access to skateboarding in these remote places was amazing. I was starting to feel trapped in Calgary. I was starting to see my whole life laid out in front of me, like, “Oh, then you get the bungalow, then you get married, then you have a kid…” You just see 20 years in the future. That wasn’t for me. I was ready to somehow get out of there. About a year after I applied I got an interview and then I started in Cambodia.
RB: And I was in Afghanistan. I fucking loved and still love living overseas. I’m living in Berlin right now. You had been living in Berlin, but now you’re kind of a global nomad.
TK: I think I live in a suitcase.
RB: Reluctant global nomad. How has it been for you, living overseas? Do you miss Canada?
TK: I appreciate Canada in a different way than I did when I lived there. I do appreciate the day-to-day kindness you can encounter. I appreciate our zany sense of humour, at least among my circles there. I appreciate my family and that kind of thing, and nature. Canada’s fine but I like moving around. One of the biggest highlights for me is just working with the various people I get to meet. Like some of my biggest role models in life are all the young women that work at Skateistan. They are way more advanced human beings than I am. I think it’s really important to have a very broad view of the world, to understand the world beyond your comfort zone. I always hoped that we would work together on some kind of major project, even bigger than Skate of Mind, if that’s possible. And now we do. And maybe it’s not the last thing we’ll ever do together either.
RB: Something that I think is interesting is that, in the last year or so, Calgary has become kind of this focal point of skateboarding for good. There’s so much going on with people running cool projects, like the 100% Skate Club, which is an all girls club. There’s the Hull Skateboarding stuff, using skateboarding to cope with trauma; there’s Academy Skateboard Collective that did the blind skateboarding workshops with Dan Mancina. There are no other epicenters for “skateboarding for good,” which is what we’re doing with Skateistan. It’s all spread out around the world and it’s kind of interesting that there’s so much going on at the moment in Calgary.
TK: At some point the marketers decided that they were going to pick a target market for skateboarding and it was going to be boys. And to pick a target market you have to be appealing to them in a way that excludes the other demographics. Skateboarding wasn’t necessarily segregated like that in the ‘60s and ‘70s at first.
RB: When I was younger I bought into this idea that women, maybe from evolution, our bodies aren’t built in the same way as men. But you see the level of skateboarding and you see that so much of it is mental attitude and what you think is possible. If the girls that are skating at the level they are today, like Lacey Baker, if they were around 20 something years ago they would be among the top skaters, male or female, you know? I just bought into these ideas and it’s like I didn’t want to be given special treatment.
TK: I still hear people definitely having that attitude that until women are as good as men they shouldn’t be featured at all. But then so what, women are supposed to secretly improve in hiding until they one day miraculously come out super advanced? It’s just a fucked-up logic.
RB: It’s stupid too, because at the end of the day women make up half the world, and if we want to spend our money on companies that support role models that are an inspiration to us, then we can put our money there and they can give us the content that we want. That’s what’s finally happening. It’s motivated by fuckin’ money but at least it’s happening.
RB: How has everything you’ve done in your life so far had an impact on what you’re doing now at Skateistan?
TK: Well what I do at Skateistan now is I’m the programs director, so I coordinate a small team, that includes you and a couple other rad people, and several others working at the schools.
RB: You coordinate a large team.
TK: It is large, yeah, indirectly quite a large team, so like the whole Programs department has like maybe 30 people across four countries, and my job is to connect those people so they can help each other out and share their knowledge with each other; to guide a bit with designing Skateistan’s programs, to make sure that we’re doing things at a super-high quality level. Like we want to lead in child protection in skateboarding programming worldwide, and in inclusivity with disability, with gender.
RB: What kind of programs does Skateistan do? Does it just teach skateboarding?
TK: About 30 per cent of Skateistan’s programs are sports and skateboarding related and all the rest is educational. Some of that educational programming is a little bit more on the formal side because it’s preparing children to go back into school, so that makes up about a third, and another third is more creative arts-based education, which also means learning about the environment, learning about activism, learning about democracy and practicing these skills. Everything that you wish you’d learned in Social Studies, where you’re thinking, “Okay, I’m not getting real-life skills here,” that’s what we’re trying to bring the kids in the classes. We do locally designed programs but with support from the international team. And then the rest is leadership programming and self-guided learning and tutoring and stuff like that, so yeah, it’s a big variety and we’re flexible.Oh and we do Goodpush, which is our newest initiative, led by you, and that’s how Skateistan is trying to share its knowledge that’s been built up over the last 10 years and influence the social skate sector in a positive way and just make all the programming that we’ve developed more accessible to all the wonderful [social skate initiatives] that have started up around the world in over 60 countries.
RB: If you look at how important it is to have diversity within your organization, I think that’s something that might come from skateboarding where you’re exposed from a young age to a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds. People have different strengths that you respect. Some people skate really well or really fast and have good technical skills, some people are just really funny or always positive, there are all these different things that people bring. So what do you think from your past has made it possible for us to do this?
TK: This job does throw a lot of weird stuff your way. But I think the biggest skillset that I developed through skateboarding, but also through my other work and my education is the community building piece. I think I see connections and possibilities where maybe it’s not always that obvious.
RB: I think that’s also the skateboarding thing, and everyone that skateboards and travels knows this, you can build instant connections with people you have nothing else in common with. I mean that’s how Skateistan started. Ollie, the founder, was skating with kids, like 10-year-old girls and boys from Afghanistan. How are you going to have anything in common with them, aside from having fun skateboarding?
TK: I remember I used to feel so self conscious like walking around with my skateboard, as a grown-ass woman in my 20s, through an airport or something. Now it’s the greatest icebreaker that I could possibly have in any given situation, whether it’s going through the airport in Afghanistan.
RB: It’s disarming!
TK: It’s totally disarming. Immediately people want to connect with you. If you have your skateboard with you, you’re on a different plane of existence. You’re not a woman, you’re not a man, you’re a person on a skateboard and that’s the way people want to interact with you. It’s cool. I think because Skateistan was quite grassroots, there’s always a lot of work to do, and that’s been motivating for me.
RB: That’s another thing, all of us at Skateistan, especially from a skateboarding background, we bring that really DIY element, like we are just really willing to do whatever and try everything we didn’t know how to do before. We’ll just say we’re going to do it and do it. And that’s what’s cool now with the Goodpush Alliance, the thing that I’m working on, it’s like we’re basically helping everyone else so they don’t have to totally reinvent the wheel. It’s so good to make things accessible and build community and build a network. What I think is cool is with Goodpush, we’ve already been connected with over 100 skateboarding projects around the world that are using skateboarding to do something good, usually with kids, and a lot of those projects there’s probably like two degrees of separation through skateboarding you know, you always know somebody who knows that person and it makes it so much easier.
TK: Yeah, and I think something that we bring, that the staff at Skateistan and the people at all these projects have, is this comfort with a bit of chaos and then being able to do something creative with that chaos, which is totally skateboarding, 100 per cent. It’s this chaotic tool that can go out of control and throw you to the ground, or you can tame it and do something creative with it, and like these environments that people are choosing to live in, or that it’s not a choice and they grow up in, they’re often chaotic environments and people are doing something really creative and awesome in these environments and that’s why skateboarding’s perfect in these places. It’s not an organized sport; it’s a disorganized sport. That’s my insight.
RB: We can end it there. I think that’s a hammer.