Skateboarders can often be proudly stupid. We relish in action, not thought. So whenever someone starts talking about how skateboarding can be a passport to connect with people across cultures, or starts going off about the power skating can have for the marginalized, we’re often quick to get defensive and write off such thoughts as self-serious pretension. But, as skateboarding shifts more and more into the mainstream, as it enters the Olympics and gets covered in swooshes and stripes, it becomes increasingly important to be able to articulate what separates skateboarding from other “sports.” What, in essence, makes skateboarding special?
Neftalie Williams isn’t afraid to approach such yawning questions, in fact, he’s made the exploration of them his life’s work. He teaches a class on skateboarding culture at his alma mater USC Annenberg and has worked with the US Department of State’s SportsUnited program in the Netherlands to help connect young Syrian refugees with the local community, using skateboarding as the bridge. Curious as to how he sees the current state of skate, I called Neftalie up in New Zealand, where he’s currently pursuing his phD at the University of Waikato, to talk to him about how he went from skate-rat to skate-diplomat.
You teach a university-level class about skateboarding. Can you tell us more about that? Were academics always a priority for you?
No, definitely not when I was younger. The change happened in California during my undergrad in Communication and masters program in public diplomacy at USC Annenberg. I recognized that academia is the next extension for skate – the next phase of our development. I’ve been in the industry a long time and seen different aspects. I came up skating with the East Coast guys, Ryan Gallant, Armin [Bachman, co-owner of Orchard], PJ [Ladd], Charlie Wilkins and Jamal Williams. I ran a skate camp, worked at Skate Park of Tampa, contributed to Transworld, but in the back of my mind I’ve always strived for ways to make the skateboarding we love, bigger and accessible to more people. And not bigger in the sense of more commercial – if that were the case you could just start a company and put your vision out that way – but how can we have skateboarding recognized the way it should be? I think academia is the right path.
I want our next generation of skaters to see that they can choose more than one direction to personally impact the skateboarding world. There are students in my class right now who are skaters and engineers, but if we never show those perspectives or talk about that in magazines and media outlets, kids won’t know they can be more than just a pro skater, if they want to be.
What’re the students like in your class? Are they all skaters?
No, not all skaters. We’ve had, I’d say, one of the most diverse classes in all of USC Annenberg. It’s been a really diverse range of students with different backgrounds, both ethnically and academically.
So you don’t make students successfully complete an ollie in order to pass your class?
[Laughs] No, I wouldn’t do that. I mean, it’s not a gym class, however I will if they want too! I want them to push for sure – everyone should do that! But it’s not about them just being physically good skaters. When they start the class, I tell them that it’s not about skateboarding. It’s about creating a 360-degree view of any organization or ecosystem, then deconstructing it – what are their problems? How are they being addressed? Who needs to address them? How do you construct a plan to solve them? Yes, they look at skateboarding culture, but it’s really a way to examine race, class, ethnicity, and also advocate for youth education, and public diplomacy.
”Yes, we look at skateboarding culture, but it’s really a way to examine race, class, ethnicity, and also advocate for youth education, and public diplomacy.”
What perspective do these non-skating students bring to class?
A lot of times in skate, it’s just like, well, we’re skaters, we know what’s good, screw everybody else. This is fine but sometimes, we’re so insular that the moment you hear someone outside of our community ask basic questions, it can be really informative. You are hearing from people who aren’t trying to change skating or own it, they just think it’s great has a cool history. And that’s important because they’re not as attached to old ideas and concepts. Many of us in the industry only know how to do things in the way they have always been done. This isn’t terrible, but we want to continually grow and add new spheres of knowledge and influence to the skateboarding industry.
But let’s say a skater might read this and say, “Why are these non-skaters in this class? It doesn’t have anything to do with them.” Well, it’s about creating allies. For example, we often talk about the way skaters are unfairly represented in the media, right? When they write a part for skaters, they usually aren’t too smart or they paint the character in a really stereotypical fashion. These stereotypes continue because we don’t have an advocate in those fields. But if they knew a bit more about our culture, which will be the role of some of my students, then when it’s time to write a new pilot or movie they can dissuade writers from presenting tropes of skateboarding, i.e., “Oh, let’s have the white stoner guy be the skater,” My students will say, “Why don’t we have a young, smart Latina who’s in school be the skater?”
As another example, if someone goes to your neighbor with a petition for a new skatepark, and we have more allies who know about the benefits of skateboarding from this class or other positive images of skateboarding in philanthropy or public diplomacy, they’re much more likely to be supporters of skateboarding. That is just what we need on our side – allies.
We did an article a while back highlighting some academic theses on skateboarding, but there didn’t seem to be too many papers to choose from. Why do you think there’s been such little focus on skateboarding in US academia?
It’s because we as skateboarders haven’t really connected with academic institutions or many cultural institutions. Part of this is because we don’t really have that great of relationships with schools other than to skate them.
If you’re a young skater, your connection with a university is not the same as someone who wants goes there to attend classes. Furthermore, in skate media we don’t often see someone skate and then go to class in skate videos, you see kids getting kicked out by security guards at the best skate spots in the city, which are often these schools.
In a small way this perpetuates that we should be at odds with academia and cultural spaces like museums, but if we flip the script and truly belong there, no one can control us anymore. Security guards aren’t ready for your student ID, trust me. My own campus security freaked out during my Citystars shoot at USC. They rolled up as per usual and I showed them my ID and said I would need at least another 2 hours to finish my research work. That was a beautiful day, and I want every skater to experience that.
”Security guards aren’t ready for your student ID, trust me.”
The way I look at skateboarding within academia or other cultural institutions like museums is similar to what happens with other underserved populaces. You have to be able to envision yourself in new places and in other spheres. As an African-American man, just being in academia is an accomplishment, and doesn’t happen that often, let alone it being groundbreaking by focusing on skate. These spaces are new for us. It’s a new way to see ourselves, and it’s going to help increase all of skateboarding and improve it for all of us.
I’ve seen you listed as some kind of special representative for sports diplomacy for the U.S. Department of State. How did this happen, and what exactly do you do?
That relationship partly began because I was the chairman of Cuba Skate for the last year-and-a-half and because of my photo section, the “Nation Skate” on display at the Kennedy Center. Miles Jackson founded Cuba Skate and we bring boards and skate supplies from the U.S. down to Cuba and do clinics and workshops for the kids down there, dedicated to fostering better relationship between the U.S. and Cuba using skateboarding as a tool for cultural diplomacy. Cuba Skate worked in Cuba for over 5 years, before the Obama administration restored diplomatic relations last year.
Is that how you got on the State Department’s radar?
Yes. They liked the work I was doing in Cuba, and also recognized that as a lecturer at USC with a focus in public diplomacy, I could bring a different level of understanding of my role as an envoy. As an academic and a skateboarder, I was bringing something new to the table. So I was recruited by the State Department to work with the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands, and I worked specifically with the Syrian refugee youth who were granted asylum by the Dutch government. It’s interesting because this was an amazing effort by the U.S. then and we now have a new refugee discussion to engage in here at home.
In the Netherlands, I lectured at the international high school there, talking with Dutch students about the new wave of migration to their country, asking them, “What are your parents telling you? What are you hearing in the media? What are your own personal feelings?” It’s incredible to have that conversation and to hear those kids saying things like, “We always want to have new people, but when I hear on the news that maybe they’re going to act this way, or maybe they won’t like us…” These are the real fears put out there and absorbed by a lot of people. And then to be able to say, “Okay, here’s skateboarding, here’s this transnational community, here’s how we’re all together, here’s photos of me in Cuba with the Cuban skaters, here’s South Africa, here’s Brazil.”
After I talked to the Dutch students about the refugees being granted asylum, and explaining the skate event we had planned for them prompted all the Dutch kids to ask me, “Hey, I know this is for the Syrian kids, but is it okay if we come too?” So we all skated together, a lot of them skating for the first time, and it was really powerful, too. Think about that: The kids that go to the international school in the Netherlands, many are the sons and daughters of ambassadors, diplomats, heads of state. Those kids are going to be in positions of power one day, and if you reach them early, like we did, then the way they think about immigration is going to be entirely different than the way their parents think.
Have you seen any difference in your reception abroad now that Trump is president?
Well, as an American in general, not in an envoy role, I get a lot of questions about the new administration while I’m doing my PhD research abroad. I have to look at it like this: I have to be a positive representative of the U.S. at all times, and remind people of all the good things America can be when it wants to. So that’s how I always feel, no matter who’s in charge, are we doing the best job and being the best Americans we can be? And that should be the standard of anything. I want people to know that your personal agency is to be the best you can, and that’s from voting and being active, representing your country the best way, and being the best global citizen you can be. So that was a very diplomatic answer, I know, I didn’t train in public diplomacy for nothing, brother! [laughs]
What are your thoughts on the Olympics? I know a lot of American skaters have reacted negatively to the news, the common argument being that by turning skating into an international sport, it loses the anti-authoritarian aspect that drew so many skaters to it in the first place.
All these people saying the Olympics is going to co-opt skate, but, let’s be for real, are you going to let skateboarding get co-opted? I think skateboarding is going to co-opt the Olympics. I don’t see how skateboarding won’t continue to be the same culture that it’s always been. I mean, unless someone is going to fall asleep at the wheel — and I’m not sleeping — so I expect it to be just the same amount of everything that we’ve always done.
But isn’t there a huge contradiction with having skating — which is supposedly all about universal connection — in the Olympics, which pits one nation versus another nation?
Yes, definitely. But it’s already in there, so we should espouse our values at every single turn, from who announces it to what ads are running. Every single time we can, we should let people know what’s great about skateboarding. If the narrative of the Olympics is that it’s Spain versus Argentina, at every point we should be stressing about how that isn’t important. We should alway be saying things like, “The guys and girls from Spain and Argentina skate together all the time — they were just on tour together — but in this particular contest, they’re representing their country.” That’s how you’re in charge of your narrative. You’re only co-opted if you allow yourself to be. That’s fine to say you don’t want the job, but then make sure you appoint people who are going to carry it forward in the right way. Don’t just advocate like, “Oh we shouldn’t be there.” We should be everywhere and we should be in charge of everything!
So what can the individual skater be doing on a day to day basis to right the ship, so to speak?
I would say for the local skater, just be themselves and be skating, but know that academia is not the enemy. Whatever you do and what path you chose you will still be a skater and in pushing your own goals you might create a new combination of skateboarding life we haven’t seen yet. And that’s what I’d like to see the platforms of skate media do, shine light on new aspects, make sure kids know it. If they only feel they can do this – whatever this is or you can skate, that doesn’t help them. There are a lot of really good skaters who excel at a lot of other things too. We should be empowering them by giving the support they need so they don’t think they need to drop out of school to be a pro skater. I also don’t want kids to think that being a traditional athlete is the only way to attend college on a scholarship, either.
There’s a new thing I’m doing with Thomas Barker, Keegan Guizard from Collegiate Skate, and Brian Blakely at Transworld called the College Skateboard Education Foundation. It’s still a bit hush hush, but part of that project is encouraging skaters to go to school via scholarships. I’m co-chairing this new non-profit, but there will be a formal announcement outlining our board and our partners soon.
Why do you think we’ve been so bad at breaking out of that skater stereotype?
There’re a few things to keep in mind here: Most of the people who are the leaders and titans in our industry are younger than your parents. They did it on their own, and they did it without degrees. And, as an industry, we’ve struggled to survive, so we’ve taken hold of the fight or flight mentality. Some of the discussion around minorities and underserved communities is similar, that if you’re always in that head-space you can’t plan for the future because you don’t know when the rug is coming out from under you. Who are we going to look up to? What has academia done for us? Why would we even have that discussion? There’s no reason for the industry to think about it. It doesn’t immediately generate revenue, it’s too long term, and it’s sad because the rest of the world looks at our space and goes, “You don’t even care about educating your future generations” and that is always the marker of when an industry has matured. You improve upon your next generations in ways not afforded to you. And that’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s the truth.
”It seems small, but how we talk about ourselves is really important.”
When I critique our media and our space, I say this coming from the same level and in being in culture and industry. I fully understand that we’ve always been in fight or flight mode, and that to keep the lights on you sometimes have to do what you know how to do. But we’re at a stage where we can step up, and allow others to create new ideas and spheres of influence for skateboarding and I want to lead that. I want help to create those new spaces.
I overheard this kid the other day on the train saying something like, “I’m not buying into that, that’s just participating in consumer culture and contributing to gentrification.” And when he said that – “buying into consumer culture, gentrification ” – I laughed, because, how did he know that dialogue? He knew it because it worked its way through academia, through media, into the public circle and into real discussions which become regular common knowledge. That’s what we need to do with skate; we need to have everyone be able to say three good things about skateboarding everywhere, and then we won’t have so many obstacles. It seems small, but how we talk about ourselves is really important. That’s what this is all about, changing the way we talk about ourselves and passing that knowledge on.