Dropping In: Deputy Executive Director Claire Dugan Talks To “hey women”

Originally published by “hey women” by Julia Knolle

© Robbie Lawrence

Claire Dugan is the Deputy Executive Director of the NGO Skateistan. We met the New Zealander for an interview

I got to know Claire Dugan through friends last summer, sitting on a blanket in Tiergarten, and I still remember it well. Her Chloë Sevigny-like face, the bucket bag by The Row, and the first conversation with a stranger that somehow stayed in my head long after. The 31-year-old New Zealander works for the NGO Skateistan, an initiative that establishes and runs Skate Schools for children and adolescents in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. An exciting job, and one that I had a few questions about — and then got good answers to. Why it pays off to stay flexible, unconditionally support something you believe in, and what it means to be working on the ground in critical geopolitical areas, all of that she explains here:

How would you describe your job in your own words?

Deputy Executive Director at Skateistan, an international NGO that connects youth to education through skateboarding. Originally founded in Kabul, Afghanistan, the organization now runs programs at its Skate Schools in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif (Afghanistan), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Phnom Penh (Cambodia). Skateistan works with youth aged 5–17, with a particular focus on girls, low-income youth, youth living with a disability, and migrant youth.

How did you get the job?

Right time, right place. Skateistan was looking for someone with a finance background to establish a head office in Berlin. I was in Berlin looking for something different to do with my background in finance. I had spent a six-month career break living in Berlin and enjoying the city. When I was ready to work again, Skateistan was one of the first jobs I saw and it immediately struck me as a special organization.

Girls Youth Leaders Crew, in: Kabul ©Hamdullah Hamdard

What were you doing before Skateistan?

I worked as a chartered accountant for a business advisory firm in Auckland, New Zealand. I never wanted to be an accountant, but I had a feeling it would be a solid springboard into other things — although I had no idea what those other things might be.

What makes Skateistan, as an NGO, so special?

Skateistan engages some of the hardest-to-reach youth, in some of most difficult situations in the world. It doesn’t get harder than getting girls to skateboard in Afghanistan. Now Afghanistan has the highest concentration of female skateboarders in the world. At Skateistan, vulnerable children can play, learn, and be creative. Through skateboarding they build confidence. Through play they gain understanding of others. Through art projects they learn to think creatively and critically. We often overlook these things because for many of us, they were a given. But opportunities for such activities are rare or non-existent for millions of children. These qualities are essential for the children of today, so they can lead their communities in the future.

Outreach Session, Warming-Up in Phnom Penh ©James Darlington

What do you like most about your job?

It’s inspiring to be part of such a dynamic team, with such an ambitious mission. Everyone at Skateistan wholeheartedly believes in what we do and everyone is striving to do things better. This has been the driving force behind the organization’s success and growth.

What don’t you like so much about your job?

Our internet connection in Berlin! Sometimes it’s terrible. The internet connections at our Afghan Skate Schools are better.

Girls enjoying the Outreach Session, in: Phnom Penh .

What are the biggest obstacles in your daily work?

Emails! There’s way too many of them.

What does a typical working day look like for you?

Meetings, meetings, meetings! But it’s fun. I admire all the people I work with and it’s always great to hear their ideas. Most days I talk to staff in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. Skateistan runs four Skate Schools in three countries. It sees over 1,500 children a week, employs over 80 staff members, and engages loads of volunteers. There are many moving parts and a big part of my job is ensuring all those parts are moving in the same direction.

Outreach Session, Boys Crew, In: Mazar

How has your position developed over the years you have been working there?

I began as the Finance Director in 2012. We had one school in Kabul, Afghanistan and we were doing skate sessions around Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Skateistan was still very much a grassroots organization and a large part of my role was to establish organizational processes and formulize legal structures, so the organization could grow. And it did; we opened three new Skate Schools in the following four years.

As Skateistan became more established I began helping in other areas of the organization. It wasn’t officially part of my job, but it felt natural. This segwayed me into my current role of Deputy Executive Director. Now I coordinate all of our internal operations and oversee special projects and the implementation of our strategic plan.

What moment has made you feel the proudest so far?

My first visit to the Kabul Skate School. I saw one of our young female skate teachers drop in on a half-pipe and I was blown away. Being in Afghanistan and seeing first-hand what a small role females play in public life, and then watching a young Afghan girl fly down a giant skate ramp with such confidence brought tears to my eyes. Every time I visit a girls’ class at one of the Skate Schools, I feel proud to be a part of the organization.

If you are not at the office, what do you like to spend your time doing?

I travel a lot. My family is spread across New Zealand, Germany, and the United States. I usually see my family once a year — we meet up somewhere for a hiking trip. Last year it was at Yosemite National park, which was incredible. I visit my friends in different parts of the world. My partner spends half of his time in Zurich, so I find myself there regularly too. In Berlin I like to meet up with friends at my two favorite, albeit extremely different, evening spots; Redwood and Kim. On the side, I’m always trying to learn something new; last year it was tennis and knitting, with varying levels of success.

South Africa, Warm-up ©Tim Moolman

What role does Berlin as a city play for your job? Is there another city you could imagine living in?

Berlin really works for Skateistan — the time zones and flight times to Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa are all manageable. It’s also been an excellent place to build up the head office at a relatively low cost, with great access to talented young people that move to the city looking to do something different. Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to receive support from the German Foreign Federal Office as well. Right now we do most of our fundraising in the US, the UK, and Switzerland, which are all easy to reach from Berlin. Istanbul or Dubai would also work, geographically speaking. From a fundraising perspective, Zurich, Geneva, or London could be fruitful. But none of these places compare to Berlin — we all love living here. Everyone in the team lives a short bike ride from the office in Kreuzberg. Görlitzer Park is at the end of our street and we’ve spent countless summer evenings down there, sitting in the sun and watching the characters of Berlin pass by.