Skateistan has developed an innovative, youth-led programming that builds confidence, trust and social capital among children. Using the hook of skateboarding to connect kids with education, it provides opportunities for education, leadership and creative thinking that help break the cycles of poverty and exclusion. Starting as a project on the streets of Kabul in 2007, Skateistan is now an award-winning, nongovernmental organization with projects in Afghanistan and Cambodia. Founder and Executive Director Oliver Percovich talks to Daily Development about the programme.
DD: Why specifically skateboarding as a means to promote education in the developing world?
OP: Skateboarding is a huge draw for all of our students. It's an entirely new activity for most Afghans and Cambodians, which means many kids are extremely interested to learn and take part. Skateboarding makes the project accessible to even the most marginalized youth in society. It levels the playing field and provides a great entry point to getting involved in society in some way. You don't need an education, you don't have to have any special skills to play sports.
Skateistan has been particularly successful at engaging girls and disabled youth in Afghanistan and Cambodia. Its novelty means that it can be presented as a sport for everyone, whereas better known sports have often already been socially determined to be exclusively a boy’s activity. Anyone at any age with any background can get involved in sport. Once you have the involvement this can lead to many things if the right opportunities are available. Barriers of intolerance, ignorance, hatred, race, gender, educational levels, socioeconomic status and corruption are surmounted daily in the skate park. This then opens the door for more academic learning, in our arts-based education classes and our back-to-school programme.
We see so many obvious positive changes in attitude, ability and knowledge in all of the youth that we have worked with for the past four years. By skateboarding and joining Skateistan, they’ve joined a community that teaches trust and respect and where they are valued as individuals. They are encouraged to be creative in a culture where rote learning is the norm, and to take responsibility for the problems that they see rather than waiting for someone else to solve them. Our participants have taken on these values and have become happier, more valuable members of society through their community engagement, leadership capabilities and positive attitudes.
DD: Skateboarding isn’t a sport generally associated with the countries that you work in. Does this present any particular challenges or opportunities?
OP: We work really hard to be culturally appropriate and gain widespread positive support in the communities where we work. In practice this means Afghan and international staff work together to create innovative and challenging programming that is culturally sensitive, and our Student Support Officer works with families to provide them with information, address any worries and ensure that they feel comfortable with their children coming to the programme.
DD: The education of girls is an important issue in Afghanistan, but skateboarding has a pretty macho image. How are you reaching out to girls specifically?
OP: Because skateboarding is such a novelty in Afghanistan, we have been happy to find that it is considered much more culturally acceptable for girls to participate than other activities, such as bicycle riding. However, there are many obstacles to teaching females in countries like Afghanistan. This is why Skateistan has always dedicated itself to the communities we work within and holds the support of the parents, local community leaders and government in such high regard.
We put a concerted effort into guaranteeing that our programming is inclusive to girls. Girls are taught on separate days at the Afghan parks by an all-female staff, so we are able provide a safe and secure environment for all of our female participants. It is this dedication to our students’ well-being and the support of their families that has led to Skateistan’s large female attendance. Today, nearly half of Skateistan's students are female, giving Afghanistan and Cambodia what we believe are the highest rate of female participation in skateboarding of any country in the world.
Skateistan's mission since day one has been to use skateboarding as a tool for empowerment. Female participation in sport in Afghanistan is traditionally very low, and the female population is limited in their opportunities to access education. Because of this it has been a priority since Skateistan’s very beginnings to get girls involved in the programme.
DD: How do you see the future of Skateistan?
OP: Skateistan’s vision is to continue to grow internationally, and to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of youth through skateboarding and quality programmes. We want our students to become leaders that change the world.
Oliver Percovich is the founder and Executive Director of Skateistan. An Australian, he started skating while growing up in Papua New Guinea. He's worked at the Center for Risk and Community Safety on emergency management projects for various Australian Government departments. He went to Kabul in February 2007, bringing his skateboards with him. Since early 2008 he has worked full-time in Afghanistan to establish and build Skateistan and several related entities/projects worldwide.