by Elizabeth Bornstein
As Northern Territory communities continue to grapple with the highly publicised problem of substance misuse, such as petrol sniffing, an imaginative initiative is engaging and empowering Indigenous youth.
Based on the work of the successful Kabul-based Skateistan program, founded by Australian skateboarder Oliver Percovich in 2007 as a non-government organisation, it aims to use skateboarding as a tool for empowerment. Skateistan engages marginalised young people in Afghanistan through skateboarding, providing them with new opportunities in cross-cultural interaction, education, and personal empowerment.
The Northern Territory programs are coordinated by the Central Australian Youth Link Up Service (CAYLUS), a service that supports community initiatives that improve quality of life, and addresses substance misuse issues affecting young people.
“When I first heard about the Skateistan program, and how successful it had been overseas, I knew we could share the same success with the program in Indigenous communities in Australia,” says Amanda Ghorra, a Sydney high school teacher and skateboard instructor.
Having spent time working with Indigenous youth in Lake Burrendong and Darwin in the Northern Territory, Amanda has seen firsthand the troubles facing these isolated communities.
“The Indigenous kids I had worked with previously were struggling with their identity. It was so hard seeing them go through this sort of pain and confusion,” she says.
When she heard whispers of the program making its way to Australia, Amanda knew she had to be involved in some capacity.
“I have a real passion for doing work that helps others, and skateboarding is such a big part of my life. I was approached to lead a team in the first workshop and I put my hand up,” she says. “Teaching skateboarding whilst helping people who need it most was the ideal type of project for me.”
In July 2011, Amanda was appointed Youth Development Support Officer for the first Australian workshop at Alpurrurulam, 300 kilometres south-east of Tennant Creek.
Dr Anna Flouris is a community development worker at CAYLUS, and is responsible for organising the skateboarding programs in each community.
When she heard about the success of the Skateistan program in Afghanistan, Dr Flouris was hopeful the program had the potential to achieve similar goals in Central Australia.
After a successful application for funding, the pilot program was on its way. “We had such a huge response to it and so much participation that we continued it and broadened the project,” Dr Flouris says.
One of the societal issues CAYLUS is trying to address with the skateboarding initiative is substance misuse, specifically petrol sniffing.
“The goal of these programs is to engage an age group that is typically very difficult to engage, and that is the teenagers. We tend to find that when there is a youth program in a community, there is usually no sniffing, or much less sniffing,” Dr Flouris says.
While the focus of the workshops is on using skateboarding as a tool for empowerment, the program organisers also want to engage participants in broader initiatives, including arts, film and new technology.
“In order to reach the most kids, the programs need to be versatile, to have arts and some sort of sport,” Dr Flouris says.
Elise Fredericksen, 25, a freelance film producer from Sydney, has been involved in five of the workshops managing the creative component.
“The kids are really interested in new technology, and many of them have never really been exposed to creative thinking and different ways of using their minds to create something to be proud of. I’ve tried to use film and art classes to inspire confidence and creativity in the kids,” she says.
The success of the initial workshop at Alpurrurulam has allowed the program to grow to nine other communities in the Northern Territory. And it has been well received in every one of them.
“Families love it, all the other service providers really like it. We get nothing but positive feedback about it,” Dr Flouris says.
And it is not just the young people in the communities who are benefiting from the program.
“It has been so rewarding to see how the kids have responded to the program,” Amanda says. “It’s the most self-enriching work anyone can do.”
While the program has a focus on young Indigenous Australians, it is designed to involve the whole community.
“Community involvement doesn’t just come by us facilitating the programs, but from families in the community who help plan and run activities,” Elise says. “Skateboarding becomes so attractive to the communities we visit that everyone turns up. There are grandmas, uncles, cousins, toddlers, even newborns – if not to skate then watch till the sun goes down.”
So far, the model has been successful in both Afghanistan and Australia. Regardless of their skills, experience or cultural background, marginalised young people in both countries have responded well to skateboarding.
The Kabul Skateistan has now spread to Cambodia and Pakistan. “We are also planning to open a second Afghan facility in Mazar-e-Sharif at the end of 2012,” says Rhianon Bader, the Development and Communications Director at Skateistan. The newest facility will be three times the size of the Kabul facility and able to accommodate up to 1000 students, Rhianon explains.
The program in rural Australia continues to grow, with plans to extend it in 2013. “Wherever we can put a skate program as part of a general program, that’s what we will do. If we can afford skateboards, it becomes a skate program. We are trying to grow it so it is something you can leave behind in a community – leave the skills and the equipment behind,” says Dr Flouris.