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Empowering Through Skateboarding - Women Skate The World

We’ve all noticed that the queer and female skateboarding scene is booming; accordingly a lot of initiatives are popping up to encourage and empower women and queers to get on board! We’ve talked with Nanja van Rijsse the co-founder of Women Skate the World (WSTW) about what they're doing, the importance of creating safe spaces, and how skateboarding resembles a mini-society.

Hi Nanja! I’m excited to hear about your experience – can you start by talking a bit about Women Skate the World?

Hey! Yeah for sure! After I was skating for about half a year, this advertisement from Skate Pal popped up, as they were looking for female coaches. I had nothing else to do, so I went. During my time there I met Amber who is from the UK, and we realized that we had the same vision: we need(ed) more women volunteers and more girls to get skating. As we decided to do something more for women and skateboarding, we created WSTW without actually knowing what it would become!

What sort of program do you run?

Since we chose to focus on how we could make the skate programs attract more girls to skateboarding, as well as on the whole of what skateboarding stands for. For kids we call it ‘skate and create’, it’s basically a combination of skateboarding, creative workshops, and educational lessons. For the older kids, right now it’s more like ‘hey, we’ll come skate and offer creative workshops’. If they want help, we help; otherwise we’re just always there as a person to whom they can talk.

Do you only do sessions with girls?

We used to do it only with girls, but during the first lockdown when we taught in Amsterdam South-East, we realized that by doing girls-only sessions we actually neglected all these boys that were also inside the lockdown. Those boys that stress and aren’t always in a safe or nice home environment. We decided to open up the programs to anyone, while still offering the possibility to have girls-only days. Also if you talk about empowerment or equity or how to change the world, it’s something that anyone can relate to regardless of gender. By having mostly women volunteers, we also provide different role models than the people you usually see in the skatepark!

Talking about empowerment and equity, how do you think the skate industry and culture perceive the gender dichotomy?

We’ve had different discussions about it. I think right now in the Netherlands we are one of the first organizations continuously calling on changes based on gender and queer activism. And because we are one of the first organizations doing this, we get a lot of backlash. What always comes up is that we exclude certain groups, so we actually are the people discriminating or that kind of stuff. Yes, we do exclusion to reach inclusion. That sounds a bit contrasting, but you got to see it as a middle step that’s needed up until the moment that the world would be inclusive and safe for anyone. You wanna prioritize the people who don’t feel safe, or who don’t feel included or accepted. These days there’s more space in media, and more skate crews who are queers and women who get more attention. It’s not like we’re there yet, but it’s changing for the good!

Do you think that all the attention women and queers are getting on media reflect a wider societal movement that promotes openness and equity?

I always see skateboarding as a mini-society, with the same features of a society, only that everyone has skateboards, so yes I think so! There’s certainly calls for more diverse environments, and a queer safe space needed, also in Amsterdam where the violence is growing. We’re in the part where we want to build and create a more equal and safer place for everyone, while understanding how inequalities are fueled. I think this is something we also do in society but here we just use skateboarding!

I never thought about it that way, to think of the skate community as a mini-society, it makes so much sense!

This is how it feels! You can do a girl empowerment group, and you can do the same girl empowerment thing with skateboards. It is the same thing!

Would you then qualify the skateboarding community as being activist?

Yes and no, as I say the mini-society – there are people who will be and some who won’t. The skate community that I like is that of DIYs, doing your own things, and changing your environment. Literally changing your environment to be able to skate on it; and figuratively, you also change things around you in order to skate, to hang out, and be with your community. That’s the part of skateboarding that I’ve always liked. Then there’s the part of skateboarding that’s neither progressive nor activist. It will always be there I guess. But by creating safe environments where you and your community can freely be who they want, you’re already changing the world around you. So in that way, yeah!

That’s super interesting! And how can we contribute to the development of WSTW and help you grow?

That’s a good one! We did a crowdfunding of 20 000€ in December to build a skatepark in Amsterdam South-East. But 20k to develop a whole skatepark, and to pay commercial brands is not that much. So any type of financial contribution is always welcome! A skatepark like this would also help us to have a stable base, from where we can grow. We always need trucks, for any Dutch readers and riders – not boards but trucks! And protective gears, just reach out and we can see together. We also sell cool merchandise!

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to create a project like that?

They can always contact us, that’s the first thing. Generally, I would say start with what you can. Don’t overdo it, find people, get together, see what other people want to do, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you’re about to start a big project be prepared for the amount of work and stress it can take – but it’s also with big rewards!

Thank you for the great talk Nanja, cheers!