One Small Step for Skateboarding is One Giant Step for Diversity

By Renata Simril and Neftalie Williams

L.A.’s own skateboarding pioneer Shogo Kubo and current technical master Daewon Song are being inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame on the evening of May 12. These two Asian-Americans follow directly after the crowning of the February 2017 TWS Legend Award recipient, African-American Ray Barbee. Barbee’s name now sits alongside one the most influential skaters of all time: Mark Gonzales. This year’s early ‘one-two punch’ of color is a small step in skateboarding, which has always celebrated the diversity among its community, but a giant step globally for representation of minorities in action sports and in recognizing pioneers who represent the amalgamation of cultures and lifestyles seen every day in Los Angeles.

Skateboarding has always been a hotbed of culturally-rich, diverse participants who inspire youth not only here at home, but across the globe. The whole world will soon recognize that skateboarding is an engine for global social change and a progressive tool for inclusion with skateboarding’s arrival in the Olympic Games for Tokyo 2020. When skaters take the stage, it shall symbolize more than a sporting competition. It will provide the platform for skaters all over the world to espouse the positive, inclusive cultural aspects of skateboarding, and discuss what it is that makes them a unified global community. Skateboarding’s communal nature, germinated right here in L.A. County, still provides the framework for the world’s youth to make skateboarding their own. Yet, there is more that could be done to allow more young Angelenos to participate in an activity that has had a positive global impact.

Here in Los Angeles, 81 percent of Angelenos ages 6 to 17 play sports — a figure identical to the national average. Still, there exist inequities in providing access for all youth. These barriers range from a lack of availability of certified coaches to high costs of equipment and fees for youth sports that limit the access, opportunity and participation of young women, minorities, and children from lower-income communities. Strategic investments in skateboarding can help close these gaps.

Skateboarding students with C Three Foundation Founder and Executive Director Derek Haskell. The C3 Foundation serves as a hub to direct philanthropic giving to underprivileged and underrepresented communities. (Photo courtesy of Neftalie Williams)

Why skateboarding? The LA84 Foundation’s 2016 Youth Sports Survey revealed that skateboarding has the highest “play frequency” of 20 sports included in the survey. That is, kids who skateboard did so more days of the year than any other sport — 90 days on average, compared to 60 for football, 59 for cycling and 55 for basketball. Most revealing in the study is that African American males are highly represented as participants in skateboarding, which we believe calls for a millennial reframing of what constitutes youth sports. The interest is clear, and with few barriers to entry (no team, coach, or specialty equipment required) as well as the global spotlight it will receive during the next Olympic Games, now is the best time to engage and expand youth interest in the sport.

We see three core areas of opportunity: dedicated spaces in urban communities; engaged sports professionals; and experiences that grow appreciation for the sport’s cultural diversity which fosters global citizenship.

Woodcraft Rangers, an LA84 grantee, is one organization looking to boost diversity and female participation in skateboarding. (Photo courtesy of Woodcraft Rangers)

The LA Department of Recreation and Parks reports 1 skatepark per 100,000 residents (as a point of reference there are 11 baseball fields per 100,000 residents). In communities that lack a dedicated skate space, kids will ride their boards on sidewalks, in public parking lots or in the streets, or worse still — they won’t skate at all. Constructing more public skateparks, especially in urban communities, gives young people safe social spaces where they can be active and avoid situations where they may receive safety or traffic citations.

The LA84 Youth Sports Survey also revealed that skateboarding is the most popular action sport among girls in Los Angeles compared to snowboarding and surfing. Despite this interest, girls still make up a relatively small percentage of total participants. To improve gender equity, skateparks should be alongside other safe sporting spaces allowing equal access to everyone. Placing skateparks and skaters ‘out of the way’ increases the odds of unfairly policing our youth and implies that they are not contributing members of California’s youth sporting class. This stunts the growth of women in the space and does not allow communities of color to flourish. Despite such hindrances, there are number of diverse professional and rising female skaters doing their part.

Professional skateboarder and advocate Vanessa Torres at the LGBTQ Experience in Sports symposium, hosted by the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society, in November 2016. (Photo courtesy of Neftalie Williams)

For example, L.A. County female skaters like Samarria Brevard, dubbed the ‘Serena Williams of Skateboarding’ and X-Games Gold medalist, bi-racial, Latina and LGBTQ advocate Vanessa Torres are key figures in the discussion of gender equity and empowering young girls. This month, 24-year-old Angeleno Lizzie Armanto will become the second woman to be featured on the cover of Thrasher, the world’s premier monthly skateboarding magazine. More safe-spaces need to be created to promote female faces and communities of color within the sport, which will inspire interested girls to hop on board.

Skateboarding is much bigger than simply the skater and his or her board. As a tool for cultural and sport diplomacy, the first United States Department of State skateboarding envoy helped Syrian refugees acclimate to their new homes in the Netherlands. Skateboarding has also served to empower young people in under-resourced communities in Cuba, Brazil, South Africa and Afghanistan. Providing opportunities for young people to experience the power of skateboarding through cultural exchange can help break down stereotypes and open new and interesting pathways for them to become engaged global citizens.

Whether in or out of the spotlight, skateboarders inherently use a D-I-Y (do it yourself) aesthetic to create their own non-profits which fight for gender equity, LGBTQ rights, and for communities of color both here and abroad. One example is industry legend Cindy Whitehead, whose ‘Girl is NOT a 4 Letter Word’ movement invites and empowers female skateboarders. These efforts are gaining recognition and also morphing into new formal endeavors like the Kennedy Center’s “Finding A Line” or this year’s “the Nation Skate” Visions and Voices event at USC. We need to allocate more resources to drive home that we believe in our youth and the miraculous manner they use skateboarding to envision a more inclusive, diverse, and socially just society.

USC Professor Neftalie Williams (center, first row) and his students, who learn about the skateboarding industry and how to grow the sport, at the Element headquarters with founder Johnny Schillereff. (Photo courtesy of Neftalie Williams)

LA84 is strengthening its commitment to expand youth sports opportunities in Southern California. Skateboarding represents a new pathway to engage our youth and develop them into the leaders of tomorrow. Join us in our effort to level the sports playing field for all children to well-prepare them for a life of success.

Renata Simril is President and Chief Executive Officer of the LA84 Foundation. Connect with her @RenataAngeleno and @LA84Foundation.

Neftalie Williams is an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and creator of its “Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business, Media and Culture” course.