freelance writer & editor

The skateboard activists helping change the world

This article was published in Volume 1 of the Huck Magazine x Levis Skateboarding Special.

Though often depicted as the prototypical public nuisance in popular culture, skateboarders have proven how powerful they can be when they rally round a cause.

British skateboarding just had its March on Washington.

When several hundred skaters pushed the best part of four miles down the middle of one of the busiest roads in London January 2014, they not only sent a message to Lambeth Council – specifically 27,286 handwritten objections to the Southbank Centre’s plans to redevelop the famous Undercroft skate spot – they sent a message to the world: when skateboarders mobilise around a cause, they are powerful.

Over the last few years, the likes of Skateistan, Ethiopia Skate, Long Live Southbank (LLSB), The Go Skateboarding Foundation, REAL Skateboards’ Actions REALized, The Tony Hawk Foundation, The Uganda Skateboard Union and many more have transcended skate culture and achieved landmark successes in the wider social sphere. The skate world is giving rise to both grassroots and larger causes at a rate never seen before. But why the sudden acceleration?

Skateboarders know what it’s like to stand up for themselves. The list of problems typically faced in the daily pursuit of concrete cravings is lengthy. From defending their right to skate in a public space and petitioning to have skateparks built, to dealing with security guards and everything that goes with that — challenging authority has, for better or for worse, always been part of the deal.

I think sports like skateboarding attract people who have high levels of efficacy and who work well individually ... it’s a very positive thing.
— Oliver Percovich

But now, the internet has made it easier than ever for skateboarders from all over the planet to connect and make good things happen.

Skateistan uses skateboarding to connect with and inspire hundreds of children in Kabul, Afghanistan, and now, seven years after its inception, has programmes in South Africa and Cambodia too. The NGO has been listed as one of the top 100 in the world by influential social review Global Journal, and 40 per cent of their Afghan contingent are girls. In fact, thanks to Skateistan, skateboarding is the largest female sport in Afghanistan. The organisation has also recently received backing from The Tony Hawk Foundation (an offer fronted by the Birdman himself) and the likes of Zero, Fallen, REAL and Spitfire have also shown support.

“When I first picked up a board, there were a couple of moments that made me think about the wider potential of skateboarding,” says Skateistan founder Oliver Percovich. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Perkovich and his family moved around a lot in his formative years, meaning that by the time he was a teenager he’d skated in many different countries and cultures. “Wherever I went, skateboarders would be very gracious in terms of letting me be part of their local scene,” he continues. “That really opened my eyes. I didn’t see that in other subcultures. Through skateboarding, these connections across cultures were made really fast. It wasn’t about where you were from.”

Percovich recalls skating in Germany as a teenager in an area where there were tensions between the Turkish and German inhabitants and almost no cross-cultural mixing. One day, a group of Turkish kids were harassing Percovich and his friends for having short hair, and began calling them Nazis. “The Turkish guy in our group spoke up and said, ‘Hey, I’m Turkish too. We’re not Nazi’s, we’re skateboarders. Piss off,’” he recalls. “That day, I realised that skateboarders can connect very fluidly and easily because of this shared love of a board with four wheels.”

Having experienced such high levels of uptake and growth with Skateistan, Perkovich is in a good position to reflect on the wider question of why skateboarders seem to be naturally inclined to take matters into their own hands. “I think sports like skateboarding attract people who have high levels of efficacy and who work well individually,” he contemplates. “I think activism is something that’s growing in skateboarding. It’s a very positive thing. It’s great that there’s more of a social angle – skateboarders are thinking about their cities and where they live and that they’re active in protecting that resource.”

Henry Edwards-Wood is a man who knows a lot about protecting his city’s resources. One of the brains behind the Long Live Southbank campaign, the 26-year-old Londoner has been working tirelessly for the past year to prevent the iconic Southbank Undercroft – the oldest continuously skated spot in the world – being turned into shops and restaurants under plans from the Southbank Centre (owner of the site).

Edwards-Wood wasn’t surprised at the outpouring of support the campaign received from the global skate community. “The biggest revelation was seeing how much the general public love the Undercroft and support what we’re doing,” he says. “The level of support from your average passerby has been overwhelming. For years we felt like these outcasts doing our thing while people walked past and laughed and stared, but when you’re campaigning on the tables everyday you realise just how much Londoner’s love the space and love what we do there.”

Looking at the bigger picture, Edwards-Wood believes the positive, grassroots, DIY attitude of the spot transcends the skate world. “It’s one of very few places in London that’s made by the people for the people rather than the usual homogenised and dictated culture provided by corporations,” he says. “I think that is partly why the campaign has been so successful — whether you skate or not, everyone sees it as a beacon of the people.”

I think a lot of funded arts institutions can learn a lot from us and how we operate without funding or a governing body and how engaging that is for young people.
— Henry Edwards-Wood

To date, LLSB has over 120,000 members and the Southbank Centre has received over 40,000 individual objections to their plans to demolish the site. The efforts of the campaign have contributed to making the planning application the most unpopular in UK history. Even the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has shown his support. “It was a breath of fresh air to see a politician come out and support politically active young people standing up for what they believe in,” says Edwards-Wood.

With regards to the potential the ready-made community of passionate, individually minded skateboarders represents in the wider social sphere, Edwards-Wood suggests society as a whole could learn a thing or two from the skate world. “One of the things LLSB has been championing is the diverse nature of what we do there,” he explains. “People from all walks of life come together in a linear community; we learn to coexist, to share space and to sort out our differences peacefully. I think a lot of funded arts institutions can learn a lot from us and how we operate without funding or a governing body and how engaging that is for young people.”

So what is it about skateboarders that makes them prone to heading to the proverbial picket line? Edwards-Wood has a hunch: “I think a lot of people start skating because they have certain values that don’t quite fit in with the competitive world of sport or the superficial world of fashion,” he contemplates. “You start to see the world more objectively when you skate. You see through the mainstream programming of the everyday person and learn to express yourself freely and challenge the status quo in a non-aggressive and creative way.”

For many young skateboarders in the UK, the LLSB campaign may be their first experience of joining a cause and fighting for something they believe in. And at the heart of it, they’re fighting to keep their culture from being swept aside by by the consumer-driven mainstream.

It could be argued that campaigns such as LLSB and Skateistan are letting a new generation of young people know that it’s okay to question everything, and that it’s possible to make changes – no matter how big or small they may seem at the time. “Skateboarding is all about creative and positive rebellion,” says Edwards-Wood. “It’s a way to live outside of the normal scope of society, by seeing the world as a playground and a canvas. We bend the rules without hurting anyone and we rebel by expressing ourselves in our often-oppressive environment by turning it into something more exciting. This is massively empowering for a disenfranchised youth.”

Challenging the status quo is a notion close to Percovich’s heart. And while he talks a lot about how skateboarding is positively influencing the lives of children in Kabul, he acknowledges that all young people deserve more opportunities. “The youth are a good investment,” he says. “I'd give some of the largest problems in the world to 12-year-olds. An investment in youth, in any sphere, has so much untapped potential. Hopefully that’s one legacy from Skateistan – that the youth will be taken more seriously.”