The Beginning

Copenhagen

Half past two in the morning on 7 August 2017, I stepped out of my friend’s apartment on Øster Søgade and went for a walk around Sortedams Sø lake. I sat down on a bench in front of Fiskeøen island next to a stranger and, together in silence, admired the moonlit silhouettes of sleeping swans. As the late summer breeze caressed my cheeks and whispered through the rustling leaves, I took slow, deep, thankful breaths. This is only the beginning.

I lay awake in bed that first night in Denmark thinking about July 4th, the day I arrived in Maputo, Mozambique to commence a 395-day journey around the world to learn about and participate in women’s skateboarding movements across the globe. 5 August 2017 marked the beginning of my Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, during which I will spend 363 days travelling through Sweden, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, and Cambodia to learn about how women are personally, politically, and economically empowered through skateboarding. During that time period, I was not allowed to return to the United States, Dominican Republic, Brazil, or any other country I’d spent more than four weeks in. Though I was abuzz with excitement for the journey ahead, I was anxious to spend an entire year alone in a dauntingly expansive and unfamiliar world.

My original Watson project proposed building a collaborative online platform through which femme skaters could map out local skate spots, arrange meetups, and connect with and learn about the lives and passions of other femme skaters around the globe. Recent experiences in (and failed attempts at) community organizing taught me some difficult but valuable lessons in communication, organization, and individual and collective trauma and healing. These lessons have inspired me to expand my project’s focus to include art, street culture and youth-driven social movements.

During my Watson Year, I seek to use skateboarding as an instrument of expansion. WIth my skateboard, I shall explore the possibilities of “community” as an action verb.

What, where, when, why is community? What, where, when, why is skateboarding? How does my understanding of “community” change when I shift my focus from producing “things” to building connections between people, places, perspectives? How and why can skateboarding be used as a community-building tool? When, where, how, and why do women around the world skateboard as a means of expressing community?

After greeting the dawn, I set the following intentions:

  1. Observe. Ask. Listen.
  2. Treat yourself as you would a friend.
  3. Allow yourself to be open to magic.

My first full day of my Watson Year was full of (reverse?) culture shock so intense that it took me hours to step into my new life and face the steady stream of blonde hair and bicycles right outside my door on Øster Søgade, one of the busiest thoroughfares in Copenhagen. Once I did, I couldn’t stop smiling. The streets of Copenhagen were clean and wide, the flow of traffic guided by stoplights with impeccable timing. Everything in Copenhagen – public transportation, food, clothing – was exponentially more expensive than it was in Maputo, but the quality of air, food, and life was noticeably better. When I went for nighttime skates, walks, and bike rides, I felt comforted rather than endangered by my own ‘female’ body. I reacquainted myself with myself by embracing my solitude as a source of regeneration, strength, and insight.

There was something about the relief I felt during my first few days in Copenhagen that deeply disturbed me. Though I felt replenished by the increase in personal space, drinkable tap water, and options in everything from dining to education to employment to entertainment, I felt uncomfortable with how comfortable it felt to be “back” in the “West”. In Mozambique, almost half of the population is illiterate and few people speak English; food, water, and housing insecurity are common. Despite growing up low-income with most of my family living on a dirt road on the periphery of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Mozambique really challenged my perception of poverty and taught me a lot about the relationship(s) between value, ideology, and humanity. In Denmark, I didn’t feel challenged to adapt to a new culture because it already felt familiar, as though I’d been working toward this ideal my whole life without realizing it. Here, consistent access to water, electricity, and safety didn’t seem like a luxury, but rather a given. As I meandered through the flat, smooth roads of Copenhagen with my cruiser, my heart ached with saudades for the uneven, sand-ridden and chaotic streets of Maputo. At what cost does such freedom of access and choice come?

I spent most of my first few days in Europe resting and processing the paradigm shift represented by my move from the Minneapolis to New York City to Maputo and now to Copenhagen. Major life changes, such as college graduation, visiting family for the first time in years, starting Mozambique’s first girls skateboarding collective, and now a yearlong Watson Fellowship left me feeling dizzy and spread thin. Now that I was no longer a role model for my girls in Maputo (and felt there was no one watching me, or perhaps that I had no one besides myself, my mom, and the Watson Foundation to be accountable to), it was easier for me to regress back into a self-deprecating version of myself that disparaged my inability to conduct this research and ask the “right” questions. What does a year of this kind of “research” even look like? Where do I start? Do I deserve this opportunity?

Full moon on Øster Søgade
Low-hanging full moon on Øster Søgade

After three days of solitude and recalibration, I set out to Circus Circus skate shop, where I conducted an informal interview with the owner and fellow skateboarder, Mischa Gundmann. I introduced myself as a skateboarder from the South Bronx, explained the Watson Fellowship, and invited him to share with me some of his own experiences with and perspectives on skateboarding. Gundmann, who started skateboarding in 1987, expressed gratitude for the sense of camaraderie present in skateboarding communities around the world, but he also shared with me some of his frustrations over the commercialization of skateboarding, which these days seems more like an aesthetic or sport than a culture or community. He related the shift in skateboarding from counterculture to the mainstream as directly related to an increasing shift away from the act of skateboarding itself (tricks, public space, feeling good, hanging with friends) to the performance and commercialization of skateboarding. I shared with him my experiences living in Brazil during the 2016 Olympics and, together, processed the privatization of public space and the implications of skateboarding’s introduction into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

For some, the uses of skateboarding as a marketing tool or Olympic sport can be considered positive in that they legitimize an activity often criticized or penalized by police and pedestrians alike. However, it is hard to ignore the shadow of capitalist consumer culture and its tendency to infiltrate and attempt to integrate all activities – including countercultures like skateboarding – into its profit-based logic relationships. In my opinion, the inclusion of skateboarding in the Olympics reflects its growing popularity, but in many ways also de-legitimizes skateboarding – a radical (counter)culture – by attempting to rebrand it as a competitive, lucrative, scorable sport. These days, it’s not unusual to see banks, supermarkets, and clothing brands use skateboarders in their ads to try to sell products and services that are completely unrelated to skateboarding (or sports in general). Though I cannot deny the doors this open for skaters around the world, skateboarding for me is not and will never be about scoring, bureaucracy, regulations, coaches, uniforms, transactional relationships, money, or anything else that comes with the induction of a sport into the Olympics. At the end of the day, skateboarding for me is and will always be about creativity, resilience, and joy.

My conversation with Gundmann was useful and thought-provoking. His thoughts inspired me to expand my approach to identity in skateboarding to include not only race and gender but also space and place. I thought about how both the police and the public have driven skateboarders away from public spaces and attempted to compensate for that loss by building pristine, remote skateparks designed to take skaters out of the street, out of sight and out of mind. Skaters are criminalized for using space in unintended and visionary ways while big name-brands are able to spend millions on skateparks and social influence; this discrepancy shows that skateboarding isn’t respected or valued for its own sake, but rather for its commodifiable cultural production. The added layers of advertising and marketing, which propagate and impose particular values, are indicators of a cult of consumption that distances skaters and non-skaters alike from what is truly important: human connection, authenticity, dedication, a sense of purpose, and joie de vivre. Yet, as Gundmann argued, skaters arguably create and sustain public space by mediating between counterculture and mainstream, between public and private. With my skateboard, I can transform the city – a traditionally static, regulated, and limited place – into a playground of possibility. I can interact with capitalism but do not produce anything of value to a system that cannot separate time from money. Though the relationship between skateboarding, architecture, capitalism and the law wasn’t a prominent part of my conversation with Gundmann, I share these thoughts because they are indicative of my burgeoning interest in architecture, geography, and urban development, and that is something I am really excited about!

Malmö

On 11 August, I crossed the Øresund Bridge for the first time and arrived at my home base for the next six weeks: Malmö, Sweden. Malmö’s reputation as one of Sweden’s most diverse cities, Skate Malmö festival, Malmöfestivalen, Bryggeriet, and Malmö’s proximity to Copenhagen as well as other key Swedish cities were a few of the reasons why Malmö caught my eye.

The first friend I made in Malmö was Marie Dabbadie. Born in France and based in Malmö, Marie (they/them) is the creator of Xem Skaters, a genderqueer skate zine that seeks to provide visibility to non-binary, queer, and trans skaters. I met Marie after approaching them and their group of friends at Skate Street: Malmö, a three-day street skateboarding festival that takes place in key sites throughout Malmö. Within an hour of knowing Marie and scoping out Malmö’s street spots with a squad of femme skaters from Sweden, Denmark, and the U.K., Marie and their friend Emma offered to piece together a skateboard for me to replace my outdated cruiser. Skateboard in tow, I biked to Nobeltorget Park the following day and spent hours watching skaters compete, swapping stories with skaters from all over the world, and practising my shuvits. The Skate Malmö: Street organizers had filled Nobeltorget Park with abstract sculptures, which transformed the plaza into an outdoor skate park replete with people trying to land creative tricks off of unusual surfaces. Epic!

My first impressions of Swedish culture was that people, though nice, tend to be more private and reserved, especially with strangers. Though my American upbringing has prepared me for the handshakes and lack of eye contact, I was taken aback by the atmosphere of conformity I saw with social interactions, fashion, food, and even architecture. Malmö’s high population of immigrants and refugees from the Arab world both confirmed and complicated my perceptions of Sweden as an open, welcoming country, for I noticed that despite the diversity, there was still a lot of segregation between Swedes and immigrant populations. As a non-European of “third-world” background born and raised in racially charged academic and socio-political discourses of the United States, I idealized Europe as a monolith of intellectualism, cultural production, democracy, and equality. Being here and experiencing Sweden as a brown-skinned American-passport-wielding foreigner has made me more conscious about how people’s visible identities impact their mobility, sense of belonging, and access to cultural, social and financial capital.

Oddly enough, I didn’t feel like an outcast in Malmö. Living in Mozambique taught me to embrace the fact that I am somewhat of an anomaly and, with my red lipstick and dreadlocks and skateboard, will always stand out.

Beaming in Malmö
Eating a plum in Malmö in front of an epic street art piece that reads “Behind every great girl there is a girl”

One week after arriving in Malmö, I booked a train to Stockholm to attend the Stockholm Freestyle – World Champion Freestyle skateboarding. I missed my first train to Stockholm – woke up late, took too long eating, took too long to pack, my first cab didn’t show up, got into an argument over my second driver and couldn’t communicate or resolve the issue due to language barriers between us. I broke down in tears at the train station and ended up booking a train ticket for the following day. Is this how I handle conflict? Change? Uncertainty?

I spent that afternoon at Marie’s flat talking about art, music, queerness, skateboarding, and time. We expressed concern over our tendency to chase time and spread ourselves thin. I struggle with fear of missing out (FOMO) and want to be present at every event, every party, every _____. The thought of time is anxiety-inducing for me; that anxiety is exacerbated by a system that treats low-income, brown, and ‘female-bodied’, and queer people as disposable. As a woman, there are certain roles I am expected to perform and needs I must fulfill. Always in service to others, the women in my life were all the primary caretakers for their husbands, brothers, and children. Growing up with that understanding of my gender roles as a woman and how that shapes my relationship to time, I felt overwhelmed by all the freedom I now had to decide what to do, where to live, and how to spend my time. I felt happy and excited, aimless and lost. Missing my train to Stockholm provided me with unexpected but much-needed time for rest and recovery. It also led me to a new skateboard, which made its way from UNITY Skateboards in Oakland, CA to Malmö, SE, from Marie to me.

Stockholm

On my train to Stockholm the following morning, I thought back to that conversation with Marie and thought to myself: There are so many ways to live a life. I have many lives in this one life, the latter of which consists of two moments: my first breath and my last.

“Do you gulp life or do you savour it?”

Upon arrival to Stockholm next day, I met up with Albin and Mario, two Swedish skateboarders I met in Malmö who offered to host me at their flat in Hogdalen. Within view of their apartment is Highvalley Skateworld, a local skate park that is home to rapidly growing girls skate program and a hub for women’s skateboarding in southern Stockholm. Albin, Mario, their friend Viktor, and I spent my first full day in Stockholm filming and exploring the city on our skateboards. After catching a beautiful sunset at Monteliusvägen, I wandered off and found myself at Den Gröne Jägaren, one of the oldest bars in town. There, I chatted with some elderly Swedish locals over craft beers and took a walk around the neighbourhood with an ex-skater in his 60s who showed me some nearby skate spots.

Stockholm pretty buildings feat. Mario
In lieu of a video of Mario skateboarding, here is a photo of him photobombing my shot of some pretty buildings in Stockholm

I spent most of my two weeks in Stockholm in Hogdalen connecting Swedish femme skaters, some of whom were teenagers, others who were professionals in their 30s, and others in their 40s and 50s who’d just started learning how to skate. It felt so good to be surrounded by women and girls who were all interested in using skateboarding as a way to build a relationship with both one another and the city and country they called home. In addition to swapping music and practising tricks, we also discussed topics such as feminism, urban social movements, self-love, and image. I started getting invited to girls skate sessions throughout the city (my favourite indoor spot was Fryshuset) and even got invited to be an extra in a film by some skater women I met who worked with Vice magazine!

Skater gals in Stockholm
Mid-laugh and mid-grip job at Highvalley Skateworld in Stockholm

For every day I spend in love with my project, there are lonely days of aimless meandering in foreign cities that I’m not so proud of. I feel pressure to tell my family and friends that “I’m amazing” all the time when in reality I’ve been having a hard time navigating boundaries and balancing productivity (working on my project) with sustainability (giving myself time to rest and reflect). At times I can barely distinguish between ‘me’ and my project. The imposter syndrome has been a constant companion in Sweden, and my lack of desire to learn extravagant tricks or invest money in buying gear from big skate brands just to better look the part made me feel as though I weren’t ‘passionate’ or ‘dedicated’ enough to deserve the opportunity afforded to me by Watson. As I followed more skateboarding-related websites, Instagram accounts, and Facebook pages, I became more preoccupied with my image and could feel myself drifting away from experiencing my love for skateboarding towards of a performance of my commitment to and passion for it.

Living in such close proximity to people I’d known for such a short time at the onset of this bout of depression made me realize just how important it was for me to have my own personal space where I could retreat and recharge. I am deeply grateful for Albin and Mario’s kindness and still feel guilty for the misunderstandings that arose between us as a result of different communication styles, expectations, and personal needs not being considered or respected. I forgive myself for acting in ways that confused and disappointed me and others and am proud of myself for respecting my needs and successfully figuring out a different, healthier housing option. After sharing my concerns with Love, a Stockholm-based friend I’d met during study abroad in Brazil, I was able to stay alone in his flat for a few days. (Thank you so much for that Love!) There, I journaled for hours on end, got myself organized, and caught up on sleep. I vowed to listen to myself more and respect my need for rest, solitude and health. The truth is that this world is full of kind-hearted people with good intentions, but sometimes growth is about blooming where you are planted and also recognizing that not everyone has to grow in your garden.

Why am I really here? What is it that I want to see, learn, feel? In what ways do I want to grow? How do I want to eat, feel, love, live? How do I define friendship? Am I my own friend?

On my last day in Stockholm, I interviewed Viktor Telégin, CEO at Cheapo and co-founder of Stockholm Skate Nation. Cheapo is a Stockholm-based watch and accessories brand with roots in skate and street culture. Stockholm Skate Nation is a 1.5-year-old organization Telégin founded that works with refugees who arrived alone as children in Sweden and uses skateboarding as a means of helping them integrate into Swedish society. The logic behind this organization’s namesake is that Stockholm Skate Nation is a nation without borders, where everyone is welcome to skate. Over the course of our hour-long interview, we swapped stories about using skateboarding as an instrument for youth empowerment and he emphasized the importance of balancing the personal and the political, especially when it comes to the question of how his personal commitment to equality and human rights show up in his business. For example, the first ad that Telégin’s Cheapo brand ever ran was featured in Jacker Mag and read: “If you hate homosexuals, people of different color or women, please do this one favor for us. Don’t buy our gear.” We spoke at length about combining our passions for skateboarding with development and youth work. I walked away from our conversation feeling energized by his devotion to both his passions and his values.

Sunset in Stockhjolm
View from Monteliusvägen, my favourite place to watch the sunset spot in Stockholm I frequented

I returned to Malmö the following afternoon after a harrowing but rewarding two weeks in Stockholm. I also left Stockholm with a renewed sense of purpose, a stronger sense of direction, and a bus ticket to the next destination of my Watson journey: Germany.

“Welcome home Kava – we missed you!”

Coming home to Marie, to Amanda, to Zana, to Malmö reminded me that home isn’t a place; it’s a feeling. Relief. Release. The way someone’s eyes light up when they see you; the way you glow in response. Swimming in the Baltic Sea, sunbathing on the hills of Hyllie, home-cooked meals in Varham, train rides between Copenhagen and Malmö across the Øresund bridge, biking without the need for a map.

“It’s good to be back.”

After a week of live music, shared meals, and serendipitous encounters, it was time for me to bid my life in Scandinavia farewell. I awoke early on September 11th – my first abroad. I observed a moment of silence and hugged myself through the pangs of homesickness for both New York and Malmö. I folded my clothes, packed my bags, made breakfast, hugged my friends Marie and Sarah see-you-later, and began an 11-hour bus-boat-train journey across Sweden, Denmark, and Germany to my new home in Berlin, Germany.

Baltic Sea
Sunset over the Baltic Sea between Denmark and Germany. 11 September 2017.

Sweden has been challenging and lonely at times, but I am grateful to it for introducing me to such kind, fun, thoughtful, and open-minded people. My time in Sweden forced me to confront some of the unsavoury parts of me and taught me that self-acceptance meant loving myself not in spite of but because of my ugly. Here, I conquered my fear of dropping into a quarter-pipe, landed my first pop shuvit, and met skaters of all genders who I consider friends and role models. Sweden gave me much-needed time to process the past five years of my life, which included getting expelled from boarding school, losing my grandmother, moving to Minnesota for college, reconnecting with family in the Dominican Republic for the first time in nine years, travelling abroad alone for the first time, living in Brazil for eight months, graduating from Macalester College, creating Meninanda in Mozambique, and now studying women’s skateboarding movements around the world for a year.

Of the many gifts Sweden has given me – friendship, love, homes – perhaps the one that resonates most in this moment is this mantra:

bloom where you are planted.

2 Replies to “The Beginning”

  1. I’m grateful to have met you. Your love and passion for life and skate is inspiring.
    ‘To live life passionately ‘ is one mantra that I go by and I love that you are doing this and enjoying, embracing and growing . Much love . Akhela 🙂

    Like

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