Editors’ Note: Thomas Barker is the Director of Research for IASC, the International Association of Skateboard Companies, and a member of the TransWorld Business Expert Panel. Barker is dedicated to exploring important topics that relate to the skate industry, and the people and companies within it.
A class on skateboarding and the skateboard industry at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of California—it sounds strange, right? But quietly this Fall, an inaugural class of students enrolled in “Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business, Media, and Culture.”
After attending class as a guest speaker and seeing it in action, I sat down with skate industry veteran Neftalie Williams to talk about the class, academia, and the how this all fits into the future of skateboarding. Williams has worked in roles at Dwindle and the Maloof Money Cup, is an avid skate photographer, and currently sits as chairmen of the board for the non-profit Cuba Skate. Lately, he has brought his passion for skateboarding culture to the classroom on a grand stage. I caught up with him to hear more.
Can you briefly explain the class? And how the class came to be?
My class is ASCJ 420: Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business, Media and Culture. I designed my curriculum to provide students with insight and understanding into every aspect of the business and culture of our transnationally networked skate community. We explore issues of technology, race, class, and gender, and provide a framework for how skateboarding and non-skate players act as agents for public diplomacy and social change.
My original interest stems from understanding that skateboarding needs more allies and advocates! I wanted to take my experience from the industry, the Maloof Cup, TWS and other magazines, Dwindle, and my work as chairman for Cuba Skate, and turn it into something to educate and advocate for skateboarding from within powerful institutions. I also wanted to help create an avenue for our industry to find talented people who may be coming from outside our community.
From music to clothing, video games to cinema, skateboarders quietly affect popular culture, and my class at Annenberg allows me the opportunity to explore these relationships with my students.
The USC Annenberg Deans—Wilson, Benet-Wiser, and Bay— are dedicated to new curriculums that engage our students. My class represents a new way for students to understand the intersection of the communication, globalization, journalism and public diplomacy fields through the lens of skateboarding business and culture.
How does USC, as an institution of higher learning, view skateboarding?
USC Annenberg and the Public Diplomacy Masters Program understand the importance of skateboarding. From a research standpoint, skateboarders represent a multicultural international nexus of youth culture whose historic narrative presents a positive component of globalization. Annenberg has some of the leading scholars in the field of race, gender and globalization, so it’s a natural fit. In addition, our Public Diplomacy program and USC Institute of Sports, Media and Society, understand the benefits of our shared identity and global community as an organic avenue for cultural engagement. In fact, Annenberg and the Public Diplomacy program sponsored my photo installation, the Nation-Skate, with Cuba Skate at the Kennedy Center, alongside Johnny [Schillereff] from Element.
The class also has people that wouldn’t consider themselves skateboarders. Do these students ever surprise you with their take on skateboarding or use insight from the class in their other academic endeavors?
They always surprise me and it’s amazing working with them. An example would be the way they envision how skateboarding could use social media as an advocacy platform which would have a great multiplier effect, but instead it is mostly used to statically showcase products. Instead of just thinking outside the box, they think progressively outside the system to problem solve. This type of critical thinking is great for any organization, skateboarding or otherwise.
What are the students looking to get out of the class?
My students are looking to understand skate culture and learn how our world interrelates with business, governments, art, design and the global community. They learn how we treat ourselves in areas of diversity, examine our power structures, and compare and contrast the way traditional sports handle these topics. They all think skateboarding is cool and would like to work in our industry, or become our future allies and partners, which could manifest in a myriad of ways.
For example, let’s say someone in the class eventually works in the entertainment industry. When it comes time to portray skaters in the media, because they have been exposed to the concepts and guest speakers in my class, they might write or cast the skater as someone other than the stereotypical male slacker. They might act as advocates in the media, questioning negative stories on skate culture, or helping us gain voice in the media when it is time for advocacy. If we really care about skateboarding we need to look at not just what they can learn from us but how we can build community and understanding with people in communities other than our own.
Can you explain the mid-term? What struck you most about how they view the challenge of getting more women in skateboarding?
Their midterm was to increase the amount of women and young girls participating in skateboarding. My students understood that historically it has been difficult for a male-dominated skateboarding industry to properly advocate for women in skateboarding in any consistent, meaningful way. Without enough women in positions of power to contribute to the conversation, women still represent an “unknown” factor in skateboarding.
The class cited that skateboarding isn’t the only industry with this problem, and in fact, we could capitalize on our anti-establishment to break all the rules including gender norms, since it’s already in our D.N.A. To them skateboarding represented a populace with the best intentions, but without a clear pathway to change, we revert to societal norms, too.
They understood our core values, embraced them and were able to look at the issue in a holistic manner. The class engaged our media outlets, industry leaders, CEO’s, pro skaters and NGO’s. Then using the perspective of skateboarding as a network, they identified what areas of the system needed to support each other and partner to meet individual needs. This engagement across the board would have a multiplying effect and increase the amount of women participating in skate. After the initial research stage they created twenty dynamic new strategies.
What is the final project going to be?
Their final project explores how to engage the Olympics in a way that is beneficial for skateboarding. The Olympics shouldn’t happen to us; rather we should find the greatest way to impact them. The students will act as a discovery group for an NGO tasked with crafting a positive strategy for the skate industry, then present their ideas to our class and to industry leaders.
Who were the guest speakers and what did each bring to the table?
We started the semester with Michael Marx, former president and CEO of Spy Optics and Marketing director of Globe shoes. Michael is a motivational leader and his presence has established a standard for creating a positive work environment and empowering one’s workforce. One of the goals for the class was how to improve female participation in skateboarding, so the following modules introduced them to the rest of the skateboarding ecosystem. Once meeting all parties involved, they could craft effective strategies and partnerships.
In media, we presented Colin Clark from the Ride Channel, and learned the needs of a media company and the forces dictating content creation. Next, I surprised them with Vanessa Torres, and presented the role of the athlete as an advocate and professional. Pro Skater Amelia Brodka and her boyfriend Alec Beck from the Tony Hawk Foundation and the freed Santa Monica courthouse campaign, presented on advocating for a non-profit and creating awareness campaigns. Thomas, you helped them understand the role of research and a trade association. Dave Gitlan, from Globe visited and presented the deck construction, design, and multi-tiered marketing campaigns. Finally, Fred Van Schie, arrived to add effective social media tools and techniques in time for their midterm campaigns.
From there Don Brown presented a historic perspective on the business and staying vital in a changing market. Nano Norbrega, from Dusters, presented marketing towards the non-core skate market and the foreign market. Torey Pudwill, Mimi Knopp, Cindy Whitehead, and Bod Boyle are helping round out the semester. My class is available again in the Spring and I am already setting up the next schedule of guest speakers. I’m also hoping to add a class specifically in photography and digital content creation in the Fall of next year.
From my own research I’ve found some academic research and studies done on skateboarding, but they have mainly been done in other countries. Why do you think U.S. academics haven’t done more research on skateboarding?
Few people in the skateboarding industry are heavily involved in academia, so there hasn’t been a natural synergy. For many of us, the base level of our relationship with academic institutions usually comes from skating them, and then being removed from campus by security. Not the best way to develop a friendship. We also don’t have another image of skateboarding existing within academia, so the concept is perpetuated and college comes to represent a place to skate and not a place to learn, when it should be both.
Also, academia also assumes legitimate industries would encourage scholarship in their areas because it’s what paves the way for any community. If a business uses cutting edge technology to make boards stronger, you would naturally encourage discussion about the R&D in those types of circles. The same holds true for innovations in art and culture, and it’s a formula most industries use.
Do something great, talk about it, and encourage others to improve upon your work. Plenty of people have PhD’s in hip-hop culture or in art, but not in skateboarding culture, and we touch every aspect of culture in our world. It’s very important from an advocacy standpoint and just like any underrepresented community, if you don’t have a seat at the table your topic and interests won’t come up. This is what I am trying to change.
In addition, in the U.S., the study of sport tends to be directed towards the larger business of sport as sport-entertainment and fan culture engagement rather than sport as a way to discuss larger issues of race, class, gender equality, and social change. In contrast, skateboarding is the perfect space to discuss these things because our engagement and sphere of influence crosses so many subjects in a positive manner.
Lastly, many leading scholars and cultural theories originated in Europe, making them experienced in critiquing cultural exports and artifacts as a whole. Students in Europe are encouraged to examine culture from a distance and to continue to add to theories and apply them to new areas. That is the benefit of college accessibility in Europe, and the support to explore higher-level thinking and add to the historically respected position as a scholar.
A trade association can present this argument but is inherently biased. However, academia’s role is skateboarding is to provide a basis of understanding for the layman, reframing of the argument, and advocacy.
To thrive you must build allies with academia and institutions outside of our sector that can validate our work and values. We made progress with the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center, but our next space needs to be academia.
I propose we create an Institute of Skateboarding and Actions Sports at U.S.C.
It’s a natural fit. I’m teaching the first curriculum dedicated to skate business and culture at a major institution, and Rodney Mullen did the first skate TED Talk here. It would provide us the clout and resources to create a myriad of partnerships, strengthen the work of IASC, and shed light on important sectors of the skate industry. Most importantly, it will establish a sustained, respected environment where we future skaters can contribute to our legacy in a multifaceted approach. Even Milo went to college!