Birling the Skatepark Effect
Wesley Lee, Drop down to 50-50. Cayer By Adam Wawrzynczak There was once a time when skateparks acted primarily as warm-up spots....
Recently, during the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition’s All Aboard Celebration of Skateboarding on Granville Island, a panel of skateboarders convened on stage for a discussion unlike anything most in attendance had ever heard. The panel, co-moderated by Everett Tetz of New Line Skateparks and Academy Skateboard Collective, and Rose Archie,the founder of an All-Womxn skateboard contest in Vancouver called “Stop, Drop and Roll”, dug into issues that have always been issues, but until recently, have not been part of an ongoing public discussion, neither within skateboarding nor beyond.
While the discussion itself was wide-ranging, common threads emerged, and takeaways, both as starting points and guiding social lights, were clearly received by the crowd. A video of the discussion is now available. If you’d like to know a bit more about what to expect before settling in for the one-hour-and-twenty-minute discussion, allow me to introduce and touch on a bit of what each of the panelists had to say, and ultimately, what some of the key takeaways were for me, that may be things you can keep in mind as well.
As you probably know, John is a former professional skateboarder from Aberdeen, Scotland. John rode for Blueprint early on, before moving to California and joining Zero, where he made an international name for himself with appearances in Zero’s Dying to Live and New Blood, along with a slew of other videos.
In 2011, John’s sister, Katrina, tragically lost her life to suicide. In the subsequent years, John stepped away from professional skateboarding, finding himself in a fog of confusion and depression. More recent years have found John digging further into his family history to find the source of not only his sister’s mental health issues, but also his own.
Earlier this year, the death by suicide of professional skateboarder Ben Raemers shocked the skateboard community, forcing the often-shied-away-from topic of mental health into the light. This, on top of what he’d already gone through, compelled John to start the “Why So Sad?” campaign. In addition to challenging skaters to send in photos of Sad Plants, a trick John himself is battling in the hopes of receiving a nod of approval from Lance Mountain, one of the saddest planters out there, the campaign is creating awareness around mental health in skateboarding, while also raising money for various suicide prevention and mental health support organizations, both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Ultimately, John wants us to become more educated on the topic of mental health, to acknowledge that it is important to everyone, and to be open to talking about both our own challenges, as well as those of our friends and family.
A lifelong skateboarder who has made continually larger waves in the industry through her undying determination and dedication, Kristin currently serves as the executive director of Skate Like a Girl, a non-profit organization that reaches over 7,000 skaters in Seattle, Portland, and the San Francisco Bay Area each year. Her experience as a youth mentor, skater, and activist informs her unique approach to improving equity and access in skateboarding, inspiring nontraditional skaters globally. Kristin founded the Wheels of Fortune event in Seattle, co-founded The Skate Witches zine, and also contributes regularly to the Vent City podcast and various skateboarding media outlets, including the most recent issue of King.
Kristin’s voice, in an industry filled with the voices of men, mine included, has been a welcome and necessary shake-up. If we agree that we should diversify our skateboard community/industry, that has to happen at all levels. We need to give power to groups to shape our culture, to have their say, to make decisions that affect them directly. Giving space to people like Kristin, and truly listening to what she has to say, is something we can all benefit from and build off.
A certified child and youth care counselor who has been working at Hull Services in Calgary since 2010, Joel has extensive experience working with children who have experienced trauma and abuse. In 2015, Joel founded the Push To Heal project, connecting skateboarding and neuroscience as a treatment alternative for high needs young people.
On stage, Joel spoke to the healing power of skateboarding that he has seen countless times, firsthand. That power is something most skateboarders have probably felt themselves, that calming feeling from just skating down the sidewalk, but Joel is taking it a step further, recognizing the power of skateboarding and introducing it to kids not only as a fun activity, but as a means to heal the human brain from past trauma. Joel plans to continue to build the Push To Heal project, eventually establishing a skateboarding-based treatment and education center.
A direct descendent of Pitikwahanpiwiyin (Poundmaker), Joe is a skateboarder from Maskwacis, Alberta, and is a member of the Samson Cree Nation. Sent to one of the last residential schools in Canada, part of a government institution that is now recognized as a form of genocide, Joe survived traumas that many of his peers did not. These harmful institutions extended far beyond school though, and Joe continued (and continues) to face challenges shared by Canada’s First Peoples, carrying the genetic scars from the generations of trauma his people have endured.
Through all of this, skateboarding has been a tool for Joe to overcome adversity throughout his life, helping him to focus on a positive activity that not only kept him busy but also challenged him to grow. Joe wants to get Canadians talking about a history that most of us weren’t taught in school, a history that’s hard to sit with, but a history that we need to face. Only when we come to terms with the atrocities that our nation was built on can we contextualize the challenges that our First People continue to face. Now pro for Colonialism Skateboards, Joe is using his story and abilities to inspire a new generation of First Nations skateboarders, as well as all other skateboarders.
A relative newcomer to skateboarding, Jonah moved to Vancouver from Calgary in early 2019. While Jonah briefly tried skateboarding in Calgary when he was younger, the pervasive homophobia he encountered kept him off the board for years. Arriving in Vancouver, and after easing his way back into riding a skateboard, Jonah noticed that something was missing in the local skate scene: traditional skatepark environments were still intimidating, particularly for a visibly queer beginner.
Rather than let this challenge be a deter him from skateboarding, Jonah instead started Vancouver Queer Skate, intending to bring a community together to create safe spaces for people of all orientations and gender identities to learn to skateboard. Quickly, a network of allies started to form, ensuring that queer people felt included in the Vancouver skate scene. VQS has since hosted several meet-ups and partnered with other community groups to introduce countless new people to the new and exciting world of inclusive skateboarding. Jonah’s words and work are a continual reminder for us to make space and value everyone equally.
Admittedly, after listening to this panel discussion on stage, followed up by questions from the audience, I, and I expect many others, felt a mix of emotions: admiration, for these people to bravely get on stage to speak their truth; pride, that these people are part of our skateboard community; hope, that we are turning a page not just in skateboarding, but in society, to a place where these people can effect change through the work they are doing. But many also may have felt a degree of trepidation, some sense of being overwhelmed with the question of, “But what can I do to help, to be an ally, to all of these issues?” But I know that that fear, that trepidation, is something that all of these panelists have felt, and I’m sure continue to feel, so that’s no reason for us not to act.
Firstly, remember, you don’t know anyone’s story. You don’t know what they have faced in their day, let alone in their life to this point. And that is often true even of our closest friends. So make space for them, physical space to skate, but also space to talk, if they want to. Ask your friends and ask your fellow skaters how they are doing. Make it known that you are a person that can be trusted, a person that can listen without judging. Personally, I know myself to be accepting of all people. But that’s only an internal thing that I know. It’s only as I spend more time listening to people like these panelists that I can look at myself objectively and recognize that a tall, white, bearded man that’s relatively comfortable on a skateboard may be an intimidating sight to many people that might arrive at the skatepark. I know that people have no reason to fear me or feel uncomfortable around me, but I understand now that it’s on me and only me to make that clear. So, how can I make myself and our shared environment less intimidating? A simple starting point is to say, “Hello.” Acknowledge those around you. Make it clear that you see them, with your words and your actions. And listen. More than anything else, just listen. You don’t need to form an opinion on everything. Just listen. And hear. Listen and hear.
Story and photos by Jeff Thorburn