Credit: PKGaza, Ahmad Mattar

Dropping In: Action Sports for Peace and Development

Dropping In is our blog series guest edited by select researchers, academics, journalists and experts in action sports for development, female empowerment, learning through play, skateboarding and more.

First up, Associate Professor, Holly Thorpe from the University of Waikato (New Zealand) discusses Action Sports for Development and Peace. Building upon a decade of research on action sport cultures, Holly has been working with Skateistan for a few years now, and her ongoing work with us is central to her current research agenda. Here she briefly outlines the concept of Action Sports for Development and Peace (ASDP) and what makes it unique.

Credit: Wahine on Waves: Fiona Duncan.

Defining Action Sports for Development and Peace (ASDP)

For many years, action sports were thought to be the exclusive domain of privileged, white, narcissistic Western youth. Stereotypes of surfers, skateboarders, snowboarders and climbers as hedonistic, thrill-seeking, anti-authoritarian, individualistic youth continue to proliferate in the mass media and popular cultural sentiment. Since the mid- and late- 1990s, however, action sports participants have established non-profit organizations and movements relating to an array of social issues, including, environment (e.g., Protect Our Winters) and female empowerment (e.g. Wahine on Waves).

In 2014, Holly coined the term ‘Action Sports for Development and Peace Building’ (ASDP) in acknowledgment of the recent growth of such initiatives around the world and the possibilities these informal, often unregulated, non-competitive activities offer for achieving positive policy outcomes in development situations. A recent mapping of such initiatives shows there are currently over 150 ASDP related organizations operating around the world.

Holly’s research illustrates how some ASDP organisations are taking inspiration from the unique ethos of these action sport cultures to develop new and innovative models for community development. Moreover, in a broader social context in which acts of social activism and philanthropy are increasingly celebrated, she examines how many action sport athletes and enthusiasts are utilising new technologies and the networks and resources available within their sporting cultures and industries to create change within local and international contexts.

A skater creatively adapts to the post-earthquake environment in Christchurch. Credit: The Press.

The value of action sports for development

In a recent article published in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics Holly argues that valuable lessons might be learned from existing action sports organizations seeking to improve the health and well-being of children and youth in developed and (re) developing nations. Action sports offer the potential for developing different skills and learning opportunities than the sports typically used in Sport for Development and Peace (SDP) programmes. In contrast to organized sports such as soccer and basketball, most action sports are non-competitive (although competitions are popular among elite performers), thus offering opportunities for children and youth to gain a sense of achievement without having to compete against, and beat, another team or player. Rather, participants can learn alongside one another and gain a sense of accomplishment based on their own skill development. When appropriately supported, action sports offer ample opportunities for individual empowerment through skills mastery (e.g., co-ordination, balance), as well as valuable social skills (e.g., communication, sharing of social space, understanding difference). Also, action sports can offer opportunities for unique social dynamics with girls and boys, and men and women, participating together (when culturally appropriate to do so). Furthermore, these activities can provide spaces for developing deeper understanding and respect for the environments (i.e., oceans, beaches, mountains, cities) in which these activities often have intimate relationships.

Many traditional sports require umpires or referees to control the play and discipline the players. Most action sports, however, are self-regulating with peer mentoring playing an important role in skill development and helping participants’ understanding of the cultural etiquette for sharing the space. There is also a celebration of play, self-expression and creativity in the use of space and movement in many action sport cultures, which may offer unique opportunities for learning new skills, communication and respect between participants in developing nations or war-torn communities. Arguably, well-designed and critically considered action sports programmes can offer a valuable contribution to the SDP movement by offering empowering learning experiences, encouraging self-expression and creative thinking and developing a different set of physical and social skills among children and youth from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

According to Thorpe, there is untapped potential in newer action sports (e.g., skateboarding, parkour, surfing, climbing) for making a unique contribution to the SDP movement and, particularly, in offering alternative opportunities for enhancing the health and well-being of at-risk children and youth in both developing and developed contexts. However, before governmental agencies or SDP organizations jump on the ‘bandwagon’ and start implementing action sport programmes in at-risk or developing communities, it is worth taking a closer examination of the informal, grassroots action sports participation already occurring within local contexts. With the specific aim of critically observing and identifying emergent themes within grassroots action sports initiatives in contexts of development, she conducted a series of case studies (including interviews and media analysis) in the post-disaster zones of Christchurch and New Orleans, and conflict zones of Palestine and Afghanistan, with results published in an array of journals as well as a chapter titled ‘Maximizing action sports for development’ in the Commonwealth Advisory Board on Sport 2015 report Strengthening Sport for Development and Peace: National Policies and Strategies.

A particular focus of her work has been the unique approaches to girls empowerment in ASDP. One of her recent articles on this topic features in the book Women in Action Sport Cultures: Identity, Politics and Experience (Thorpe & Olive). The chapter titled “The ‘Girl Effect’ in Action Sports for Development: The Case of the Female Practitioners of Skateistan” is co-authored with Dr Megan Chawanksy and is based upon interviews with five long-standing international female staff of Skateistan. In this chapter Dr Thorpe and Chawansky critically contextualize the rise in Action Sports for Development and Peace (ASDP) programs targeted at girls and young women within the ‘Girl Effect’. Despite some concerns about this trend, they offer the case of Skateistan to highlight the efforts employed by this award-winning organization to provide Afghan girls and young women with opportunities to participate in sport, education and employment, and particularly to consider the motivations, struggles and strategies being employed by international female staff of this organization. By creating space for the lived experiences and reflections of some of the amazing international female staff who serve as practitioners in Afghanistan, they show that there are valuable lessons to be learned from those who reflexively work behind the scenes of Skateistan and navigate space between critique and hope.

Credit: PKGaza, Ahmad Mattar

Action Sports and Youth Creativity in Sites of Conflict and Disaster

Holly’s latest research continues to prioritize the voices and lived experiences of youth in sites of war, conflict and disaster, and examines the unique strategies being developed by youth themselves to improve their own and others lives. In late 2015 she was awarded a three-year Marsden grant (NZ$300,000) from the Royal Society to study the potential of action sports for youth agency, politics and civic engagement in sites of war, conflict and post-disaster. Her project is titled ‘Sport the Red Zone: Youth and Social Change in Sites of War and Disaster’, with Skateistan being one of her four key case studies.

This research will be the first global investigation into the different possibilities such non-competitive activities offer for achieving positive policy outcomes in war and disaster situations, as well as the various forms of power and politics that enable or constrain such endeavours. Building upon her own and others previous research and preliminary case studies, she anticipates findings that reveal new forms of youth agency, resilience and resourcefulness that are specific to local conditions, yet simultaneously informed by global power structures and transnational networks.

Associate Professor Holly Thorpe. Credit: The New Zealand Herald.

Holly recently visited our headquarters in Berlin where she conducted interviews and prepared for her upcoming research on the various individuals and groups (i.e. local staff and volunteers, international staff and volunteers) involved in the skateboarding and educational programmes in Afghanistan. Holly is also working with Dr Megan Chawanksy to support Skateistan in their Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning for 2016.


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Find out more about Holly Thorpe’s insightful and inspirational research.