Oliver Percovich On How Skateboarding Can Be Used To Positively Impact Communities | HundrED Innovation Summit


Oliver Percovich is the Executive Director of Skateistan, which empowers children and youth through skateboarding and education worldwide. Using the hook of skateboarding, Skateistan provides education to over 2,000 vulnerable children and youth (over 50% girls) across Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. With safe places to learn and play, Skateistan unites and empowers children from various ethnicities, nationalities and socio-economic backgrounds, enabling them to create a brighter future for themselves and their community. Oliver discusses the impact that Skateistan has made in inspiring children's education and shares ideas on how educators can apply similar principles in their educational settings.


When did you realise that skateboarding can inspire children? 

When I was in Afghanistan in 2007, I arrived there as a skateboarder and brought my skateboard with me. When I went out into the street and began interacting with children, I just realized that children wanted to try the skateboard out. I couldn't communicate with them because I didn't know Dari (an official language in Afghanistan.) We were different age groups and we had almost nothing in common at all, yet through the skateboard, there was a bond that could be created very very quickly.

I would come across a seven-year-old kid on the street who I couldn't talk to, but all of a sudden, we can both skateboard because we both fall off in the same way. I realized very fast that this was a powerful tool, even more powerful because it didn't have any cultural baggage and because girls were able to skateboard along with boys. It was not seen as an activity which was just for boys, such as soccer or cricket or flying a kite - all of these are seen as activities just for boys. Because skateboarding was brand new, there was a loophole, and it allowed it to basically flourish as a sport for girls. A sport can be a stepping stone. It is not the answer and it's not going to solve all of the problems but if it is a stepping stone towards education, then it is a great way to open up doors and open up opportunities. I saw that as a particularly powerful thing in a country like Afghanistan.

Growing up as a skateboarder, a lot of my heroes came from different backgrounds. There were Hispanic ones, there were Asian ones, black and white, it didn't really matter where you came from and what your background was, or social situation. You were simply a skateboarder. I thought that identity and that subculture was powerful for children in areas where they don't have connections to people in other countries, because the lack of connections also meant they don't have opportunities. I saw that, especially with Afghan children who were working in the street. I felt very powerless. I thought, 'why didn't I study medicine or something useful? Why am I not an engineer, and use those skills to help people in Afghanistan?' I then realized that if anything is going to change, it is going to change through children and I have a way of connecting with them through the skateboard and it can also perhaps open up a global community for them and they can then help themselves once they have that network and access to those connections. 


What impact is Skateistan having on girls in the communities? 

I think a big part of our impact is all about inclusion. First and foremost, it is the inclusion of girls in our program, especially in places where girls do not get to do everything that boys do. 51% of our students are girls and we put a lot of resources into making that happen. For instance, we provide transport for the girls but not necessarily for the boys. Another aspect of inclusion is that 20% of our students live with a disability, so we have large programs with deaf students both in Afghanistan and in Cambodia. I think it is so special that there is even a new sign for skateboarding in both of those languages, and that it has been added to Khmer sign language and Afghan sign language. Children are excited about it. In countries like Afghanistan, it is all about breaking the cycle of not going to school, so a lot of the students that are coming to us, both of their parents didn't actually access any formal education. If a girl even comes for just 3 months or 6 months, we have broken that cycle.  If she has kids, and in a lot of cases she will, and she has had some fun, there is a much higher chance of her children accessing education.

We are a very easy stepping stone off of breaking that generational cycle for people who come from a certain societal level, for them to access education. I am very proud of that. In Northern Afghanistan, the Jogi Community has a lot of problems in Afghanistan because they are not Muslims. There is a lot of prejudice and there is less than 1% literacy rate for that whole ethnicity and the ones that would be literate from that 1% are male. We've got the first girls back into the school system. Our strength is definitely in reaching the hardest-to-reach kids and basically almost doing the impossible in terms of making education accessible to those who are most vulnerable in society.


What could other educators learn from the Skateistan approach?

I think the most important part of the Skateistan approach is to listen to children because that is essentially how it came about. I didn't go to Afghanistan with the idea of starting a skateboard school. That would have been too ridiculous a notion for me. Children asked for skateboards, then they asked for the ability to go to school. Whatever they have asked for, we have tried as much as possible to listen to them, provide it, and to be a champion for children. If you follow that approach you will have a lot of success. Those children are going to be in it for the long run and that's what's going to create systems change over time. 

Learn more about Skateistan on their innovation page