How Skate Veteran Tony Hawke is Uniting Communities

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A fondness for four wheels and big dreams for a more united community spirit shaped the path for one famous...


…skateboarder’s foundation.

“Skateboarding has a magical attraction to it. Kids all over the world—when they see it, they want to try it,” Miki Vuckovich, Executive Director, Tony Hawke Foundation. “Tony knew this instinctively, growing up, and through his travels to some of the most remote parts of the world, he’s had children swarm around him, wanting to try his board. Many had no idea who he was, they just saw him boarding and they had to try it,” he adds.

The Tony Hawke Foundation has been inspiring and enriching communities through the gift of skateboarding since 2002. Focusing on low-income communities in the US and abroad, THF seeks to foster lasting change and the on-going empowerment of youth through a series of grants, and the provision of guidance and support for the design and development of skateparks.

“The crests and troughs of skateboarding’s popularity in the past have had more to do with kids’ access to it than to something inherent in skateboarding itself. In the 60s, sidewalk surfing was the rage; the chalky wheels proving responsible for a rash of injuries for beginners, and of public spaces banning it,” explains Miki. “Kids had nowhere to legally skate, and society at large was discouraging it. When the urethane wheel made it safer in the early 70s, it came back, but the skate media focused on the privately-owned skateparks.”

This had dire consequences for the sport: people were injuring themselves in poorly built arenas, and insurance companies would no longer provide coverage. By the 80’s and 90’s, skateboarding, as we know it today, began emerging; the built environment now covered in a smooth veneer of pavement and providing a premium stomping ground for skate fanatics. “Skateboards are much better in the modern era, and safer, and the relative lack of injuries at skateparks have shown that the public-skatepark model is successful; offering a safe, sanctioned place to skate,” finishes Miki. “Tony wanted to promote this new development in public recreation, and to stimulate the creation of quality public skateparks in the areas that need them most—low-income communities where kids have little access to healthy recreation.”

THF sees the potential in skating; an essentially free activity that kids can do everyday, unassisted by the coaches or teachers necessary for soccer, football or dance class. “Not every family can afford the league fees for ball sports. [Skating] is the kind of solution we need to get kids outside and active,” offers Miki. “Skateboarding brings joy to kids because it balances the challenge of balancing with the thrill of moving.”

Providing insight into how local government, community leaders and law enforcement function, THF encourages entire communities to work collaboratively, so that guidelines are met, but fun can still be had. “The process of creating a public skatepark—the advocacy, the campaigning, fundraising, and collaborative design workshops—unites communities. The kids who participate in the process that THF promotes come out the other end of it completely transformed,” describes Miki.

“The Public Skatepark Development Guide is a free 128-page manual for skatepark advocacy, written by THF Programs Director Peter Whitley,” Miki explains. “Anyone interested in starting a project in his or her town can order a copy for the cost of shipping,” he adds. Highlighting that skateparks are inherently less expensive to maintain than other leisure facilities, THF staff assist with any community or community group seeking to build a free skatepark. “We want to see every skatepark effort result in a great park that everyone can use. Skateparks should be flawless, attractive spaces that bring people together – in most cases, the difference between a great skatepark and a terrible one is rarely the cost; it’s the decisions made leading up to the construction,” he remarks. It’s this role of guide – ensuring the critical questions are asked, timelines are stuck too and money is well spent – that THF plays.

For low-income communities, THF also offers a Grant Program. Providing construction grants up to US$25,000, they are designed to help leverage other local funds and encourage other foundations and State agencies to get on-board with a project. “We’ve seen our grants help projects sometimes qualify for ten times the amount from other sources. Over the past fifteen years, the… $6-million THF has awarded has helped leverage more than $100-million in skatepark construction in all 50 states,” says Miki.

THF estimates that in addition to the 3,500 community skateparks currently open around the US, 9,000 more are required to meet demands.

Not without challenges, Miki refers to the main opposition as “NIMBYs” (not in my backyard); people who make negative assumptions about skaters and the facilities required – too expensive, too ugly, too criminal. Miki sees the THF mission as helping local enthusiasts and advocates change these ideas. “Once you can isolate the NIMBYs, the politicians typically rally around the idea of a skatepark, and the funding is usually the stage that takes the longest amount of time. THF’s grants help, but this is where we help advocates and their local leaders get creative in finding additional funding sources,” he explains.

In addition to the work at home in the US, THF has been a proud supporter of Skateistan for some time. Having already provided some $100,000 to support the program in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, THF hope to find more international partners focusing on the power of skateboarding to build and rebuild communities.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to skate, and to skate somewhere safe where they can connect with other like-minded individuals. This personal challenge and confidence boost and the social interaction that skateboarding inspires are really important steps in motivating kids to be healthy and be connected to their communities. We’ve only just begun to see the longer-term implications of this work.”

Skating isn’t the only thing uniting communities. See how the cultural phenomenon ‘Slam Poetry’ is giving marginalised communities a voice. 

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