Check-in: Alex Walker

When I initially asked Alex Walker to write me an article for Skaters Who Shaped Us, he came back to me and said he could do me one better. He provided an article for SWSU, and then he provided me with not one, but two Top 5’s. Now he’s back again with a reflective piece in part related to his Thesis on the relationships between those in the skateboarding community, and how our scenes are a great example of how people learn from each other. I didn’t know how else to frame this, so I thought I would siphon this off into it’s own section within Skateboard Guff, called “Check-In” – it’s a chance for someone other than me to write at length about skateboarding without the constraints of the other categories on this blog. – Ade

It has been a while since I managed to write up something for Ade. I started a new job and moved to my favorite city in the UK, Bristol. I have not managed to skate yet as my ankle is still ruined from stacking it last year when it was dislocated, fractured, torn and ruptured. It has been one of my hardest years with the ‘rona and not being able to skate. I also started a new job and have finally pulled my finger out to finish my MA which I am doing on an analysis between skateboarding and youth work, and how they are user led. This next piece might not be everybody’s can of San Peli’ but both skateboarding and youth work are something very close to my heart. 

As somebody that has been a skateboarder for two thirds of their life and been a youth and community worker for a third, it felt right to attempt a comparative analysis of two of my biggest passions as I have seen so many similarities between the two. Furthermore, I understand the difficulties and implications that may arise as one is the practice of informal education within a named space, and one is considered by man to be a sport, or least a physical activity involving a small vehicle, has no occupational standards and until recently has been perceived as a counter-culture activity. Through being entrenched in both for a number of years, however, I have reflected upon my experiences of both of these communities of practice and found that the similarities between the two go deeper than my initial suggestion.

As a youth work practitioner, I was told during my early days that the wants and needs of young people should be put at the forefront of the work that we do, and as I developed it became a mantra that I followed as well as I could. In modern England, with austerity cuts and limited youth work provision, however, I found it difficult at times to maintain this philosophy. Youth work provision can often by driven by targeted work cascaded down from local authority and policy makers which takes away from putting young people at the center of their own journey, and instead may force you into doing youth work which is outcomes focused and young people are referred in.

Although this may be difficult for youth work purists, if you use a youth work approach young people will still engage with you, you will be able to develop a rapport and work around the targets and outcomes to support the young people on the journey they want to follow. For example, a large body of my professional career has been working with young people with mental health issues. I would argue that many of them, had they not been referred into my youth groups which support positive emotional wellbeing they would not access youth services. Moreover, open access youth centres or detached youth services are deemed ‘proper’ youth work by many practitioners, so I pose the notion that this is discriminatory to many young people as they may not feel comfortable going to a youth club but would if it suited their needs in a more constructive way. 

Within youth work, furthermore, we talk about the concept of participation and for a youth work setting to be at its pinnacle it would be fully ran or owned by young people, and they would either plan or contribute to the planning of all activities which are provided by the aforementioned prevision. This is another concept that I have trouble with as it is not something that I have ever seen in its purest form. I have worked with young leaders who have helped set up centres, raise funds or provide support for their peers, and countless young people have worked with me to help shape their provision but under no circumstance have they ever had full ownership of it.

We live in a world of bureaucracy which comes with safeguarding compliance, for a very important reason; health and safety requirements, legal obligations to data protection and other issues which would stop young people from ever having full control over their provision. I would argue that skateboarders are fortunate enough to transcend these boundaries placed through policies and other barriers. Once a space has been secured for skateboarders, a skatepark, for example, it is there to use as they see fit for their discipline.

In an outdoor space there are no gate keepers to hold the keys to the facility, nor are there people telling them to use certain things within the space in a specific manner, but the opportunity to intergenerational and intercultural learning is the same, or potentially even amplified through a non-linear pedagogical approach to the use of the space and the interactions with their peers within the facility. The time taken to engage in the activity of skateboarding, which during the time of a trick or ‘run’ through a park can last anywhere between mere seconds or several minutes, is similar to when young people may be concentrating on doing an activity within a youth club. Both skating and the activities are, furthermore, conduits for conversation.

During moments when skateboarders are not rolling on their boards they are having conversations, either about tricks or exploring each other’s journeys, whether they be new or old relationships at varying levels of age; here we are presented with the opportunity for intergenerational learning. Young skateboarders will often ask older skaters what they do for work, or sometimes seek advice or guidance for issues they may be having in their life. The relationship becomes is reciprocated as the skaters learn about one-another.

This rapport may never leave the skatepark but it sits within the same dynamic as a youth worker and a young person as they begin to understand each other, as well as learning from each other in the capacity of developing their own repertoire of tricks, or even challenging each other to healthy competition within the facility they are skating. Moreover, when skateboarders are taking a break from exerting themselves through the physical activity of skating, they will group together around the skatepark or skate ‘spots’ and talk about their lives, music, fashion, and other things which develop their cultural capital. Whilst some of the groups may fall specifically into certain age categories, many of the groups will be close to one-another and will blend wider pools of age demographics together, strengthening the opportunity for intergenerational learning within a paradigm of safety where anybody is welcomed.

Although, just as with other cultures, some skateboarders are picky about who uses their space, we are predominantly welcoming of all ages, abilities and races within our space. The range of ages and abilities using the park itself to perform manoeuvres is what typifies the facility being a more user lead arena than any youth work focused space. Skateboard tricks have developed since the 60s and NBDs (never been done) are being created every year as people adapt to what they have at their disposal to be creative and artistic in their pursuit for fun and enjoyment through skateboarding. As a youth worker I would find it difficult to allow young people to have carte blanch to do what they wanted to specific bits of equipment in a youth club, but as a skateboarder I adore seeing my community explore how they and their boards can perform the most spectacular feats on concrete or within the streets of towns and cities. 

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