Friday, March 11, 2016

Why Librarians Should Care About Skateboarders: A Personal Outreach Project

Why Librarians Should Care About Skateboarders:
A Personal Outreach Project
Matt Allison

Mesa Public library in NM has a skatepark! 
            After Hurricane Sandy until the summer of 2015 the Peninsula Library served the Rockaway Beach community out of temporary spaces. As my staff and I waited for a fully operational library to reopen we had time to plan. I got attached to the community.  Along with the overall rebuilding I enjoyed seeing the surf community build a temporary skate park. I moved nearby in 2014. I got approved at work to have a special skateboard and surf collection. I got the green light to try programming. We reopened in September 2015. Making a connection to the skateboarding and surfing scene has been more difficult than I anticipated.  At work my pet project is to connect public libraries and skateboarders. For my area it’s logical to add surfing. This article will not focus on Storm Sandy or my own local library.  I opened this way for some background. I have a twofold problem with connecting skateboarding and libraries. I need to outreach and give skateboarders reasons to use their local library. Secondly I need to prove to librarians that skateboarders are a legitimate demographic to be aware of. The purpose of this article is to educate librarians on the unique concerns of the estimated ten million skateboarders in the United States and more worldwide.

Contemporary skateboarding is diverse and international

            Since this is for the Lowrider Librarian blog I’ll start with diversity in skateboarding. Anyone who identifies himself or herself as a skateboarder did so by choice. No one was born a skateboarder. This is an important difference compared to racial, gender, and sexual identity. However some choices in life alter how one lives.  Making the lifestyle choice to skateboard is the reason that skateboarders from all backgrounds have a strong bond.  Modern day skateboarding started with the invention of the urethane wheel in the 1970’s. This happened after the civil rights movement. There is no historical moment compared to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. However skateboard humor and culture can be racist. Just google search the popular skate magazine ‘Big Brother,’ from the 1990’s to see examples of racist humor.

Racism sucks

            I started skateboarding in a suburb of Baltimore in 1988. Quickly my parents were supportive. Shortly after I started my parents took me to a skateboard contest to watch.  They set up obstacles around a basketball court.  The contest angered my dad. He thought a black skater did well and got a low score.  There is no way to verify if my dad observed correctly, but it’s not impossible. In the early 1990’s hip-hop changed American culture and skateboarding. The baggy-pants era in skateboarding directly ripped off the hip-hop scene. In 1992 my family moved to Toledo Ohio.  On a visit to Baltimore I remember a skater I didn’t know well say something racist. The guy had a small skateboard sponsor.  He told us how a known black pro from California asked him to stay at his place. Then the guy bragged, “I told him no, there is no way I’m going to let a N---- stay at my house.” Hearing this back then made no sense to me. For one thing he could skate with a pro, secondly he could have a place to stay in California, and thirdly the guy could have gotten a legitimate sponsor developing that friendship. In Toledo, NYC, and most places I’ve skated I’ve observed skateboarders of all races use the N-word. Perhaps the teens are imitating hip-hop or movies, but adults say it too.


            Rolling Stone did a article and interview with pro skater Stevie Williams.  If anyone reading this has access to the August 9th, 2007 issue or full-text it’s worth reading.  Stevie Williams is an African American skateboarder from Philadelphia who helped develop tech street skating. In the early 1990’s the popularity of skating dropped. Those left progressed the sport. The 1990’s skaters made it an urban activity. This revolutionized the sport and led to lasting popularity from the mid-nineties onward. Stevie Williams in that article states he got shit from kids at school for doing a white sport, and he got shit from the skateboarders for being black. Today his company DGK is a popular brand in skateboarding. The acronym stands for ‘Dirty Ghetto Kids.’ An older skate crew called Stevie Williams and his friends that dismissively at the famous Love Park spot in Philadelphia.
            Years of marketing teen boys, and being under the mainstream censorship radar meant skateboard advertising went for shock value. There are also problems of subtler racism in the skateboard industry. In skateboard videos a black skater most likely will have a hip-hop or a soul song accompany his part.  For Hispanic skaters it’s a Spanish song. I’m not sure if that is stereotyping or an acceptable nod to their backgrounds. I know that in these skate videos the music is sometimes not the choice of the individual riders.

Judy Oyama Winchester skatepark, 1979

            Skateboarding has a lot of gender and LGBQT issues that would piss off many working professionals including librarians. I’ll start with gender since the majority of librarians are women. There is a non-profit called Skateistan, and they are making a difference.  I’m glad some skateboarders are now starting creative non-profits.  Skateistan is a school in Afghanistan that gives children an education while teaching them to skateboard. Most are street kids without schooling in that societal structure. The Afghanistan location was successful enough that Skateistan has expanded to Cambodia and South Africa.

They are changing the world

            In Afghanistan girls are not allowed to ride bicycles, but once Skateistan started the local authorities decided girls could skateboard.  As a result half of the students there are girls. This is a revolutionary statistic, and could point to a bright future for skateboarding. In the United States, and most first world countries skateboarding is a male dominated sport. One reason is the subculture. For too long the targeted audience was the American teenage male, and it shows. The rough politically incorrect humor targets male teens just like hip-hop music does.  I imagine it’s grating for a girl or woman to be surrounded by the misogynistic humor in skateboarding. Female skaters frequently get vibed out at crowded skates packed with males. My guess the percentage of the sport participation is still over ninety percent male.  The skate industry should be more inclusive of all genders. Jenkem Magazine did an interview with Vanessa Torres, a pro skateboarder and she discusses these issues. She now skates for a small company called Meow Skates that is owned by a woman, and all the riders are female. In my opinion skateboarding will continue to be misogynistic and sexist until enough girls and women participate to change the game. People think of football as being sexist, but not so much for soccer.
            The second reason for the gender problem in skateboarding is our society’s gender roles. Skateboarding is considered a rough activity. Some idiots think full pads should be enforced to have the right to step on a skateboard. The majority of skateboarders beg their parents for their first skateboard. I prefer that to kids getting forced into it.  Choosing to be a skateboarder is part of the experience.  I imagine girls have trouble getting that first skateboard because parents would rather their girls do other sports.
            In 1988 in our new neighborhood, there was a skateboarding craze. One of my sisters broke her rib early on and may have had parental pressure to stop.  Within two years in one accident I rolled over two fingernails that came off, and learning kickflips I got five stitches in my left eyebrow. I don’t remember parental pressure to quit.  At my elementary and middle school I was in special ed classes. Maybe my parents didn’t mind me doing something I enjoyed. In my old neighborhood the crew of boys skated and the girls did other things.

Tim Von Werne: Gay Skater

            Now on to homophobia, and skateboarding has it like most male dominated activities. I’d like to think it’s mostly kids an teens imitating hip-hop and movies, but many adult skateboarders use derogatory language.  Homophobic humor is part of skateboard culture. I’m a fan of the Berrics game of S.K.A.T.E. The game is a knock off of H.O.R.S.E in basketball and opponents get a letter if they miss a trick the competitor lands. On the pro level the difficulty and consistency is intense.  Watching the Berrics though I’m amazed how grown adults feel it’s okay to use homophobic humor in the interview segments. I’m against censorship, but the skateboarding world needs to learn differences with others are okay and homophobic humor is outdated.
            There are documented incidents in skateboarding history of pros fighting gay men. Today that is considered a hate crime. Growing up skating I talked the same as the others in my group. I used inappropriate humor in an effort to fit in. Moving to Toledo in 1992 I was fortunate enough to go to a progressive private high school.  When I used inappropriate humor in that school I was corrected.  Over the next four years on weekends my middle sister and I would visit our eldest sister at Oberlin College. She had a gay friend who became the first gay friend I had. I remember him telling me when he tried to get into skateboarding he stopped quickly. He felt that group of skaters he encountered were horrible people. I remember thinking over his experience back then. Today at skate parks when I hear homophobic slurs or humor by kids or teenagers I tend to ignore it.  I’m there to skate and not to be an authority figure. Young people need to have those thought changing conversations themselves. Their outlook may change during their college-aged years, especially if they go to college.
            One reason being a librarian is good for me is I’ve had gay and lesbian colleagues. Many I respect for the work they do.  This has expanded my life experience. I was diagnosed with mental illness at age seventeen, Afterwards I focused on my education. I took a step away from skateboarding and did not skate much in my twenties.  I’m fortunate I got a college education and the reason for that is my family support. I remember my mom helping me with my papers and assignments during my undergrad years.  Other skateboarders, even my age, have a different life story. For those skaters that did not go to college or that don’t work in a liberal field may not have had friendships with gay people. Today, skateboarding is important to me. I’m not going to develop friendships and possibly partnerships with New York City skaters if I argue with them every time they say something politically correct or what most librarians deem offensive. What I can do is not use hateful humor myself.  

Andy Roy (pro skater) on drugs

            One important thing librarians need to know about skateboarders is their use of drugs. Christian Hosoi was a top pro in the 1980’s, and in the 1990s spent five years in prison for smuggling large quantities of meth on an airplane. Amazingly, today he skates at a pro level.  In his memoir he states drugs are the ‘open secret’ of skateboarding. There is another memoir called Dreamseller by Brandon Novak, who showed a lot of promise at a young age but chose heroin over skateboarding. In the introduction to that memoir Tony Hawk wrote that a fall from drugs is so frequent with skateboarders it has become an industry cliché.  A lot of kids and adolescents can skate well. Then some hormones kick in, and they go wild. Some become burnt out before they can legally drink.  One of my friends, Ian, in a conversation said, “you can’t tame skateboarding, it’s always going to be a roller coaster.”
            Today more adults are skateboarding than ever before.  In my opinion people over 21 can do whatever the fuck they want as long as they don’t harm others.  Perhaps I drink more alcohol and consume more marijuana than I should. Recent research suggests the fully developed human brain reacts better to Marijuana than a developing brain. If Marijuana triggers mental illness, it’s more likely to do so to teenagers as opposed to adults. And there are more reasons teenagers should wait to use drugs.

Positive mentorship is powerful!

I believe that adult skateboarders and the skateboard industry should make more of an effort to mentor the teenagers in our sport. One of my friends, Julian, put it well, “if you go to skateparks enough and see the same kids you feel like their grandparent.” Basically older skaters want the young skaters to do well. Skateboarding is a time consuming activity and becomes an obsession. Young talented skateboarders don’t get special treatment from their schools.   Skateboarders of a young age who are good, skate with people of all ages in their region. Kids that play school sports usually play with kids their own age. That has advantages in many ways, but not when it comes to drugs.  Many teenage skaters unnecessarily go through pressures their older skate friends are facing. In 1994 when I was seventeen I had a psychotic episode. I had another one when I was eighteen, and the last one when I was twenty.  As a result I was diagnosed with a type of schizophrenia.  Too much weed at a young age was a factor in what I went through. And skateboarding is very much the reason I partook so much at that age. Vice did a documentary on a promising British skateboarder Paul Alexander. He was better than I ever was, and I’m fortunate I respond well to medication. I got shivers watching the documentary on this skater because of my own experience. I’m sharing this because I realize that’s why I care. Most people are able to separate hobbies from work. I feel with my librarian career going well I can make a difference in the skateboarding world through my work. I just don’t know how.

Artwork by Gonz

 The unique lifestyle of skateboarding does have positive attributes.  A lot of talented artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs were skateboarders first. In New York City I’ve met a lot of self-supporting independent working professionals who skateboard. All of the skateboarders I’ve met in New York City in the last seven years have been amazing, and I feel part of something. I don’t know how much I can expect from my work pet project. One thing I ask librarians is if you see someone walk into your library holding a skateboard with some attitude, and maybe a hoodie on to realize his or her life is more complex than one may assume.

Interview with woman skate pro Venessa Torres:

Here is a documentary of Paul Alexander, a talented skater who became mentally ill

This is a popular series on Vice called Epicly Latrd, they interview a lot of skateboarders, and try to get he real story.  This may be disturbing to some, but it’s happened to others even if the Antwaun Dixon story is an extreme example of it. On youtube this has a lot of views.

On a good note, here is one of Stevie Williams part, he is a success story and owns one of the most popular skate brands out there, called DGK.

If you are interested in getting involved in library programming and skateboarding,  then please join our FB group:  


Inetmom said...

Hey Matt! I am so interested in your work and impressed with your insight. I'm a library grad student who works doing after school outreach in rural low income areas. Not many skaters - but some! Your work ties into so many aspects of 21st century literacy skills - especially cultural competence. (An area I'm really interested in since the kids in rural Hispanic areas are so culturally isolated and need more exposure to this kind of literacy before they leave these close communities.) Informing, mentoring and inviting the skater community to interact in library spaces is so important, and on so many levels. Thanks for your post! If you have a blog I'd love to follow your work!

Matt Allison said...

Thanks for reading and commenting. Your work sounds important. I used to have a blog for five years, but recently took it offline. I'm going to PLA next month, and I may goal is to get more involved in library land to get ideas from others for the location I work at. Cheers. -Matt

Cord of 3 know said...

What you're doing is authentic, powerful, truth. What librarianship should be about. Kudos Dude!

Anonymous said...

Very informative. Have you figured out a way to reach out and bring skateboarders into your library yet? I was thinking about outreaching to them to, and have struggled. But, I think that I may have found a way. We are currently trying to combine our outreach to the skateboarding community with the video editing software that we offer already. We still have a lot of work and planning to do, but outlook is good. Many of our community's skateboarders lack a camera or the ability to photograph or tape themselves or friends doing their thing. If we could find a way around 1 of our policies, where no equipment leaves the building then that would be a huge step for us. But right now, we rely on the skaters and their friends to shoot their footage and then bring it to us. Then we give them access to the software and give them a little room to explore how to do it.

Nicholas Sewani said...

There's no doubt in my mind that librarians can help skaters. I have dealt with mental illness, and I found reading to be one of the ways to deal with and overcome my symptoms.

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt in my mind that librarians can help skateboarders, especially those with mental illness. I have dealt with mental illness myself and reading is one of the ways I handled and overcame my symptoms.


How to solve the illegal immigration problem