Ironically when it gets to the point where you start to get chucked out a lot and people don’t like it, that’s probably when the projects been successful in some ways because there’d be a lot of people skating in the country.
– Charlie Davis (SkatePal founder)
20 August 2019 / article: Matt Beare
When I first heard about the non-profit organisation (NGO) SkatePal I instantly got hyped on what they were doing, but it wasn’t until I had a video call with Charlie, the founder of SkatePal, who explained what they are really doing, that I thought “oh shit! This is really something incredible”. From first glance it seems like SkatePal is just building skateparks in Palestine – not that this alone wouldn’t already be something amazing – but the real purpose of SkatePal runs much deeper.
When Charlie first visited Palestine 11 years ago skateboarding didn’t exist. He took his board with him and when he went out skating in the streets the local kids were amazed by it, and all wanted to try it. In Palestine, conflict is part of the daily life for the people, including these kids, and after Charlie saw their response to skating he had the vision that it could in someway change their situation and give them a breather from the negativity they’re forced to live in. It was this realisation that gave birth to SkatePal and ever since, Charlie has been working hard to make skateboarding exist in Palestine and to make it last, by building an entire self-sustainable skate community from scratch. Pushing the growth of skateboarding might make a lot of Western Grandmothers feel a little uneasy, but over there it’s perceived quite differently.
photo: Dana Alwazani
building a scene.
I’ve never really experienced the construction of a skate scene from scratch. I’ve experienced the death of one, which happened back when I was in school and being a chav (a British badboy) became much cooler than skating. SkatePal on the other hand have created a scene from the ground up. But what does that even mean? What does it take to build an entire scene?
Well, I’m glad I had nothing to do with the process because after speaking to Charlie I quickly realised I'd completely underestimated what it takes. You might think you just need to build some skateparks, inject some boards into the country and boom! Scene built. But in a land where skateboarding means as much as Santa Claus does to a pigeon, and a skateshop doesn’t even exist, a lot more is needed, which Charlie went on to tell me:
The actual building of skateparks is a minor part of the main objective. If you just built a park and left it there there’d be no one skating anymore because the boards would have broken, there’d be no one there to buy skateboards from, and people would be like who are these guys that came in and built a park and just left, and now there’s nothing there, which kind of defeats the point of doing the whole project in the first place.
What we’ve been doing is forging strong friendships with a lot of the kids in the country, and then using social media to show them that Palestine is a destination in general, showing them what’s happening, and trying to connect them all so they know that there’s a scene and there are people skating in other areas of the country. Making sure you go back and you see the same people every year and you stay in the village, like in Asira I think this will be our 5th year there, so people get to know us, they have faith in us and they can trust us, and that’s quite important to keep the scene going. So even if we just went back and were doing classes all year in a square that’s at least building a community which is going to last after you leave, whereas just building a skatepark in itself is great if there’s already a scene that can come and take it over, but if there’s not yet a scene that’s strong enough to take it over by itself, you need to have a plan of sticking around for a long time, building relationships, choosing people to help you out who can then work there and do a good job after you leave.
photo: Christian Nilsen
So it’s the classic teach a man to fish situation instead of just tossing him a salmon, which makes perfect sense. It’s exciting to think that skateboarding is still being reborn in different parts of the world. To a large extent the skate community is a pretty welcoming and an open-minded one, but we still have our weird rules like no mall grabs, no pushing mongo unless it’s switch, along with other tricks you should and shouldn’t do. In places like Palestine where these “rules” don’t exist and aren’t determining the path someone takes when they learn to skate, it allows people to be more creative which could blur the lines of what’s acceptable worldwide, and ultimately strengthen the global skate community. Who knows, maybe we’ll all be mall grabbing in 10 years.
The main thing that we’re trying to do is make everything self-sustainable so we don’t have to exist there in like 3-5 years’ time. That’s obviously important for a lot of NGO work; to spend a lot of time focusing on getting a lot of local skaters involved so they can take over the work. Hopefully in 3 years or so we won’t have a job to do there any more technically, just offer assistance.
So the way to construct a skate scene really goes beyond just skating, it’s actually built on trust and solid relationships between the people, and once these are in place it can start to survive on its own. Build the scene and leave it in the hands of the newly bred skaters, pretty clever really, and ingeniously sneaky. The main person that will have the role of keeping skateboarding alive in Palestine is a skater called Aram.
photo: Emil Agerskov
So getting Aram set up is basically the key to the next step of making it more or less sustainable. He’s one of the first skaters in Palestine and now he’s going to be taking over the local scene, like local manager of SkatePal. He’ll be working with volunteer coordination and dealing with things on the ground; making sure the kids have access to skateboards, and trying to set up a little skate shop. We’re basically trying to teach him everything we’ve learnt so he can do it on his own.
There’s another minor, arguably unimportant problem with setting up a scene in Palestine, and that’s getting boards. By the sound of it we might have to set up a little operation smuggling boards into Palestine...
Almost all the skate equipment is brought over by the volunteers in their bags when they come on the plane. We have had a few larger donations of stuff come over from America but it’s just really hard to get them sent into the West Bank, there’s a lot of paper work and a lot of staying around in customs. So that’s one of the main objectives - try to establish a more sustainable method of bringing over skateboards. Apart from that we do have boards and pads that the kids can use for free at the skatepark or at the club in Ramallah, and we also sell boards, both new ones and second hand; £20 for a second hand one, and £30 for a new one, and all the money we get from that goes into buying more equipment. And that’s not that much money for the people there so it’s an affordable thing, and also if the kids save up and buy their own boards it means a lot more to them, whereas if you just give them out for free you know with the culture of hand outs it just doesn’t really work. At the beginning we were giving them out for free, but then the kids would just take loads and sell them out in other places so we were just like right that doesn’t really work. I usually tell volunteers to not hand out shoes and clothes and stuff like that because they don’t really need it and we don’t want them thinking that they need specific skate clothes and shoes to be able to skate, because you don’t really, and it’s not there in abundance. You just want to say all you need is a board and then everything else is fine.
photo: Sam Ashley
photo: Sam Ashley
I would imagine the idea that skateboarding could in somehow benefit a community would probably sound like crazy talk to your average citizen in the West. Everywhere I’ve lived there’s always been a feeling of rejection towards skateboarding, especially as I was growing up in the UK and people shouting “cut ya hair dickhead” or “do a kickflip” would echo behind me down the street (in all fairness my hair was pretty horrendous back then so maybe it had nothing to do with skating and it was just my head alone that was offending people). We get kicked out of spots, arrested, beaten by cops, shouted at by the public, and just looked down upon by society in general, is it just because we make a bit of noise and make a few ledges black? If it is all based on solid reasoning and not just cultural conditioning then surely the Palestinians should respond in the same way.
Overall people were a lot more interested and a lot less sceptical than they are in the UK. The parents would have a shot, the kids all have a shot, you find people in the malls like security guards let you skate the malls after people are done shopping, people in the schools open the school and let you skate the school. If the mayor of the village comes up, he’ll give it a go, and it’s like alright but you’re like 65 maybe that’s not the best idea but alright. He got a few boards for his kids and he had a wee roll around and got a picture. But ironically when it gets to the point where you start to get chucked out a lot and people don’t like it that’s probably when the projects been successful in some ways because there’d be a lot of people skating in the country. Obviously there are some people that get annoyed, like old people say its loud or the kids get hurt, but less than in the UK because it doesn’t have so much of that baggage.
photo: Sam Dearden
The idea that skating could have a positive impact on a community won’t come as a surprise to anyone that’s skated for long enough to experience the community vibe that comes naturally along with it. There's really something special about skating that people that give it a chance tap into, no matter where they're from. You can see this in the many skate-related projects across the world that have had huge positive impacts on the different communities they're in, and SkatePal is another solid example. On top of the fact that it's giving the kids of Palestine a positive outlet and a sense of belonging, it's doing a lot more good too:
In terms of having self-belief or having confidence in yourself, it’s nice to see so many girls skating with the boys, which isn’t something you see in other aspects of life in the villages there; it’s quite separated. Also the level of English amongst the kids is always improving because they’re speaking English everyday with the internationals; the head teacher of the girl’s school said she noticed an improvement in the English level of the people that were skating. There are a lot of indirect benefits as well, I think just having a larger network of friends in the country and around the world is a benefit, so the kids can have role models, like men and women from all over the world who skate. That’s quite useful for opening up the ideas of what can be done and what you can do, you know like “oh actually I’m a girl from Palestine but maybe I can continue to skate and do this and set up my own business” or whatever, so I think it leads to a lot of entrepreneurial and creative outlets.
photo: Tom Bird
Thankfully we’ve got a lot more ladies starting to skate these days, however, there’s definitely still some lingering prejudice against girl skaters, which probably limits a lot more from starting. Even in a country where the culture is against girls and boys mixing, Palestine might become an inspiration for more girls to start skating in the rest of the world as Charlie’s been putting in extra effort to counsel the council, to make sure girls get involved and start skating as well.
I mean there are probably quite a few girls who don’t want to come down to the park, or the parents are against it because it’s mixed, but there are a lot more than we expected coming along and skating. We’ve got girls sessions as well so they can get involved but we kind of wanted to try to mix people as much as we could. At the beginning the council were kinda sceptical and going like “ah we don’t know if it’s going to work, it’s probably best to just have boys skating”, but we said we need to have both at the park. We didn’t want to press it a lot because we didn’t want to be like oh you have to change the way you live and we didn’t want to be insensitive to the culture in the village, but you want to be like girls can skate as well, and they should, and there should be equal numbers ideally. That means you won’t have the imbalance like you do in the UK.
photo: Sebastian Cobo
photo: Emil Agerskov
As we’ve already learnt, building a skate scene is a complex procedure that takes a lot of consistent work from many different angles. It almost stresses me out just thinking about how difficult it must be to keep track of everything going on; I feel like it would be easier trying to control a room full of agitated meerkats with a whistle and a little flag. On top of getting the Palestinian local Aram set up, SkatePal have many more projects going on that will keep the growth of the scene going strong. Obviously in a place where skating didn’t recently exist, or if you’re just starting out, having classes can be massively useful, but as skating is so much more than just learning tricks in a certain order, but also about just having fun, chilling with your mates, progressing randomly, and well whatever you want it to be, eventually you’ve just gotta go skate.
So we’ve just started skate classes again in Palestine. We’re going to be doing classes in Asira and then new classes in Ramallah, so like a year of skate classes in a youth centre before the park gets built. In Asira it’s not so much doing classes as opposed to just skating with the kids at the park, because there are enough kids that can skate already it’s not so formalised; it’s just like an open skatepark. The teachers are there for like 3-4 hours a day in the afternoon after school so the kids can just come and learn from them and do more informal classes, and they’ll do one girls only session as well which will be a bit more structured, but it’s mainly just open and basically hanging out with them, which is the main thing. I think in Ramallah it will be a bit more structured because it’s happening in a youth centre. The kids will sign up and they’ll have 3 or 4 classes a day and they’ll maybe come for like a month, and then new people will come in. It will be that sort of thing where at the beginning you learn how to push, tic tac, shuvit, Ollie, and then just have open sessions in the evening.
We’ve got a skate festival weekend planned in July in Asira where we try and get all the skaters to come for the weekend, to do some English teaching, recycling of old skateboards and arts and stuff. And then in April we started some classes in London with a group called Akwaaba, which is like an open space for migrants and refugees in London. They meet once a week on a Sunday in a school and we’ve started doing skate classes with them in order to try and get the kids to come and skate in the open in public squares to use skateboarding as an integration, and yeh apart from that it will be prepping for the next skatepark build in about a year’s time; getting all the team together and designing the park and doing all the prep for that.
photo: Sam Ashley
photo: Wade Trevean
the future of SkatePal.
Even though SkatePal might not stick around in Palestine too long into the future it doesn’t mean that’s it for Charlie and he’s off to Barbados to retire. There’s already a decent amount of volunteers who worked out in Palestine with SkatePal that have gone on to do their own skate NGOs: Concrete Jungle Foundation in Peru, The Free Skateboard Movement in Athens, and Women Skate The World. Helping other skate NGOs get set up seems to be one of the paths Charlie sees SkatePal going down. Patience young ones, soon the world will be ours.
It’s been really great to see these people go on and do their own projects, and I think that’s something we want to try and foster a bit more. I think what we’ll end up doing is continuing to encourage people to go and visit Palestine, and also try to work with emerging NGOs and help them in whatever way we can, to make all these new projects sustainable. I think that will probably be a more useful thing for us to do than to just go to a new place and start from scratch.
Right now we know how to do it, we know what works and what doesn’t work, we’ve had 5 years of making mistakes and learning from mistakes so now we can pass that on because you know, the whole skate NGO world is really new, it’s only been going for like 10 years, and there are new groups emerging all the time. What new groups need is people to work with them, and to be able to be like "can you come and help us get set up" so we can go over to wherever it is and work with the locals, build things up, help them get exposure, people to come and volunteer, get access to equipment, etc. So I think that’s something I’m interested in, just kind of advising other people so they don’t have to make all the same mistakes that the older NGOs have made.
photo: Emil Agerskov
One thing we didn’t speak about a lot is Pushing Borders, which is taking up a lot of our time. In August we’re doing the second Pushing Borders conference in Malmo, and that will be at the same time as Skate Malmo in August. The idea behind that was bringing together all the big skate NGOs and having a conference, but it kind of grew into a larger conference. So that’s quite exciting, I think that’s going to be potentially the avenue for helping other NGOs like I was mentioning, and we might end up doing it from more of a “Pushing Borders angle” of like bring people together. A lot of extra work for no extra money or extra time so it’s quite exhausting, but it’s super fun and interesting getting everyone together. So that’s the other big thing on the horizon.
photo: Emil Agerskov
photo: Emil Agerskov
how to help.
Supporting the people and organisations that are doing things in line with your beliefs and the world you want to live in (and boycotting the ones that aren’t) is massively important, so if you’re hyped on what SkatePal is doing then show them some support. Just spreading the word about their mission, or giving them a follow on their socials is something, or if you've got the cash you can make a donation through their website or buy some of their merch - they’ve got some pretty sick designs up on their site and all profits go straight back into SkatePal.
At the moment we’re full for volunteers for the year, we’re just looking for a few more female volunteers, although people do drop out so it’s always worth sending in an application form. To get in touch you can just give us an email at email@example.com and you can see what we do on Instagram at skate_pal or Facebook at skatepalestine. Other ways people can help out is by holding fundraisers in their home town, which is always useful because we’re always needing money to keep the projects going over there; we have a fundraising resource pack that we can send to people too. But yeh, anyone that’s interested I would say just get in touch and if you have any ideas about how you want to get involved or how you want to do your own project – like after this chat I’m Skyping with a guy who wants to open a park in Bosul in Iraq – anything at all, get in touch with us.
photo: Emil Agerskov
So there you go. In my opinion Charlie deserves some kind of medal for everything he’s done with SkatePal, like the Altruistic SOTY award or something. He saw that skating brought positivity into his life and he channelled all his energy into giving that same experience to others. I want to end this by saying a big thanks to him, everyone else at SkatePal, and all the volunteers that have helped out to make this project happen. Helping people for the sake of helping is a beautiful thing to do and these people are masters of it. Spread the word about SkatePal and help keep their movement growing!