Oliver Percovich has spent the last 5 years in Kabul, Afghanistan. What started as an adventure in a war torn country known for conflict, religious extremism, poverty, and the 2001 U.S. invasion to expel the Taliban; turned into a radical approach to the way aid is delivered to youth, especially young girls.
Skateistan “Afghanistan’s First Skateboard School,” not only gives kids a positive experience through physical activity on the skateboard, it provides an avenue to education for a population that is not being served by traditional NGOs. Many articles have been written about the amazing work Skateistan has accomplished so far. I have been an avid follower of the organization since reading a NY Times article in 2009.
I sat down with Oliver “Ollie” Percovich at the IASC Summit earlier this month to talk about his history with skateboarding, his motivations, and the work Skateistan is doing on the ground in Kabul.
How did you start skateboarding?
I got my first skateboard from my cousin in 1980, he was skateboarder in the 70s. It was a fiberglass Lightning Bolt board, SGI trucks Slick Stocker wheels. I was 5 or 6 years old at the time and remember rolling on it and falling over and i thought i was going to master this thing because i didn’t like falling over. i was shocked, and remember very clearly that feeling that I was going to do, anyways it just went from there. Im 38 now, so I guess I’ve been skating for 32 years.
So you identified as a skateboarder early on then?
Absolutely, we moved when i was six years old to Papua New Guinea and i brought the skateboard with me. I brought it to every school that i went to. Two of the schools I got skateboarding banned because I brought a skateboard and then the next day everyone would bring out their boards. They all had those plastic banana boards that are coming back these days. When I went back to Australia I was in a competition at a shopping center and I won a Variflex deck, by just tick-tacking around some cones. It was 1985 and it all went to from there I guess.
Were you into music or anything like that?
Very much so, the influences from skateboarding came through the magazines. So I was very much into getting Transworld and Thrasher. It had a whole lot of culture in there. And I studied and adapted it. I was very much into the Dead Kennedys. Skateboarding really opening me up to seeing what was really out there and I picked up to what was out there. Definitely hardcore music in the late 80s.
Do you think that got you interested in activism and is what Skateistan is doing what you would consider activism?
Sure, defiantly if you take a a band like Dead Kennedys, Jello Biafra has a lot of things to say about lots of different subjects and I subscribe to those sort of views. It’s also about thinking for yourself. It wasn’t necessarily about getting behind a cause. It was more the ability to think about something for myself and try to figure things out. Skateistan didn’t come about because I wanted to give skateboarding to Afghan kids or any other kids in the world, it started because I simply travelled to Afghanistan and to 42 countries before that and I always brought my skateboard where ever I went. I didn’t have the idea of starting a skatepark in Afghanistan. I didn’t think of myself as a skateboard activist in any way. I think it came out of the kids being so interested in skateboarding and I simply gave them the avenue. I guess my activism was against (foreign) aid which I saw as really harmful in a lot of ways. 200 billion dollars has been spent in Afghanistan by the United States since 2001 and it was basically making life harder for most Afghans, not actually improving it. I had a big problem with aid, I was criticizing it a lot so i thought instead of criticizing it, why don’t I do something about it instead. Do something better and take action, that’s sort of where Skateistan came about. It was marrying the idea of the problems with the way things were being done. Nobody was engaging with youth, everybody was missing the point. You cant just through money at a problem, you’ve gotta have people behind it, you’ve gotta have trust in society, you’ve gotta have all of these elements that create a solution. And I saw that I was building trust with the kids who were skateboarding, I was engaging with youth. 50% of the Afghan population is under 16.
Had you worked with youth before?
I had no background in development, I had no background in aid. My degree is in chemistry so it had nothing to do with this. It was simply putting some ideas together, it was me simply thinking for myself. I looked around me. I saw the problems. I saw the fact that the only way you’re going to solve these problems is working consistently for a long period of time. So that means you’re going to have to work with younger people, rather then older people. So trust was the essential element, that was the building block for other outcomes in other areas. Outcomes in health, outcomes in education, outcomes in security. All these things require trust and I was creating that simply by having a skateboard there and kids coming together and simply doing it. I just took what I saw as the main problem. I guess it is interesting to look at it as activism or simply me feeling I had the ability to change something. I had the ability to have a positive effect. And when I have the ability I shouldn’t let that opportunity to be wasted. I’m sure you can see that from your perspective, you’ve got certain things you see are important and you start to take action. Some people complain about things and some people do something about it.
You mentioned traveling extensively. Had you ever been to a war zone like Kabul before?
No it was a completely new thing. I was actually pretty scared going into Afghanistan and that all sort of went away just by walking the streets and skating the streets and catching local cabs and talking to people. Going to Afghanistan, I’ve never met so many friendly people in my whole life. I walk down the street and everyone is inviting you in for a cup of tea. Everybody was so so friendly. That wasn’t something I could have read about, thats something I had to put myself out there and experience it and from those experiences, putting ideas together to make some sort of change on the ground. I felt that change was something that was definitely needed. People where very scarred by war, many people who were educated had left the country. Education was something that was really key. And uh, I had the magic skateboard. That was what then led towards creating programs in education through skateboarding.
What do you think about skateboarding has drawn the kids and parents in the most? Is it because it’s such a foreign thing or i don’t know is it the excitement? When we were younger picking it up, it was this cool thing that came with a culture.
Yeah theres no culture that comes with it, we don’t bring any fashion, we don’t bring any music, we don’t bring any magazines, any videos. None of that is part of it because it would be culturally impositioning. Thats not what it’s about, what it’s about is a board with four wheels. It’s really fun. I think thats what the kids latch onto. Kids all over the world skateboard and there are so many cultures within skateboarding as well, but the central thing is skateboarding is fun. Kids think that it’s fun, the kids have smiles on their faces and thats what brings in the parents. We’ve got the ability to do things with girls because other activities are seen as things for males. Kite flying, volleyball, and bodybuilding, all of these things are popular sports in Afghanistan and are seen as the male domain. They’re not seen as things that girls can do. With skateboarding we’ve got a loop hole. It’s not seen as a thing or a sport for males because no one really knows about it. We simply do it.
Do you think that Skateistan has averted the perception of outsider influence that other aid groups get caught in, like the idea of Americans trying to control the future of Afghans?
Definitely, we’re really really careful to make sure that there wasn’t any aspect of that. And we get respect for it. In our classes we have 5 minutes of Koran study. Some of the kids, some of the street working kids, the really poor ones, they don’t get any religious education anywhere else. Since that’s a big part of their identity they name that as a big reason for coming to Skateistan. The kids latch onto different parts of what we do. But whats important is that what we do isn’t seen as a foreign project. It’s simply skateboarding is used as a tool. A shovel is used in China or Afghanistan or in the United States the same. It’s not seen as cultural imposition. We have to look at it like, a shovel is good for work and a skateboard is good for play.
And you’re also incorporating some of the youth as instructors?
Yeah sure because what we are doing is extremely unique. It would be really hard to simply hire someone from the general population and explain to them what the job was. So our students become the instructors and become the best teachers because they go through it and understand you have to respect our space, you’ve got to respect one another. It’s very simple, respect the environment , respect yourself and respect each other. If those things happen then it’s pretty straight forward.
Have you seen some of the other skateboard related groups like Push Tunisia, Impact, or Sour Crew? They are using skateboard in the the Middle East to bridge cultural gaps among diverse populations and I feel like they are doing a similar thing as Skateistan.
Yeah we would love to do it in as many countries as possible and of course every country is a different case. Obviously in Afghanistan it’s extremely difficult and we feel that if we can do it there we can do it in other places. It’s totally rad these things are happening. The skateboard is an amazing way of bringing people together. I was at the Vans “Combi-Pool” just before and you know it’s a competition, but the real competition is between the skateboarder and the bowl. It’s a fight with yourself and thats a great way to actually bring people together. There are a whole lot of people that are over coming their own personal challenges together with other people rather then adversarially skating against one another, even when it’s a competition. So it’s an amazing tool to bring people together, and should used more widely for doing that. It was something I definitely understood from traveling around with a skateboard, that anywhere I went with a skateboard either the skateboarders in other countries would immediately give you a place to sleep, feed you, take you to the local skate spots, take you out and show you the raddest things. I entered a skateboard competition in Slovenia in 1993 and I ended up living there for four months. Skateboarding can end up bringing you into these amazing situations, even where there are no skateboarders. I skateboarded in Morocco and it brought people around who were interested and there was an interaction. I think it’s a shame that most people in the world are looking at how different people are, but yet there is another way of looking at things, and that is all the similarities. If two people are skateboarders, thats it you’ve got something there that is common ground. When I skateboarded in Germany in the early 90s; the town I was in skateboarders came from all different backgrounds. I’m Australian, there was a Polish guy, and Italian guy a Turkish guy, and the rest of the town was so divided between Germans and Turks. Where as the skaters had a really mixed crew and they stuck together, like a microcosm. It was just so funny, at the time the trend was to have a shaved head and the Turks would come around and accuse us of being Nazis and the Turkish skaters would say, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not a Nazi and I’m a Turk.” It’s definitely something that can be a very good way to bring people together. What happens then after that, you can build a culture, you can build a music scene, you can work on education, you can work on what ever you want. Skateistan has pretty large goals, we’re sort of looking at society and saying in Afghanistan, “What do we need to actually mend society right here, because everyone else is kind of failing.” We’ve got this ability to actually develop this institution where institutions don’t exist. We do all these things that other people cant do. I guess there is a limit too, but skateboarding does bring people together.
When you get emails from people asking to come to Kabul and help, how do you respond?
It’s very difficult, we’ve had six-month volunteers to Kabul over the last couple of years. The situation on the ground is becoming more and more dangerous so it’s not something we want to do. And the volunteer model is something thats problematic for us. They come on for six months and become very useful at about the four-month stage and then then they’re gone. So we’re moving more to a paid system, to where people are an intern for the first six months, but are looking at it at more like a career job. We’re a lot more picky about who we are engaging with and it’s geared towards people who are interested in working for Skateistan long-term.
Do you get a lot of people interested in moving to Afghanistan?
No. And a lot of people are very interested in doing things with us in Afghanistan or elsewhere. I guess we are sensitive to it. Something we really don’t like is “voluntourism” where people want to be a volunteer but look at it as an opportunity to go to Afghanistan and take a lot of pictures or shoot some video, or hang out with a cool project and then go back to their lives. We kind of don’t want to be used in that way and it’s something thats really not fair to the kids. Theres a lot of other organizations especially in Southeast Asia that actively encourage these types of volunteers to come in. It’s not just about going there and getting your photos taken with the kids. It’s about being something solid in their lives and having an ability to change their lives. Aid is something very difficult to do well and we’re continuously learning how to do it better.
Do you have any advise for people that want to use skateboarding to connect with people?
I think it can work absolutely everywhere. I encourage people, if they have an idea, if they have a dream, follow it. Because it’s not easy to get something going, to get something off the ground it takes a lot of work. I was extremely passionate about it, and it shows that if you are extremely passionate about something and you apply yourself to it really well, then you can achieve just about anything. You gotta stick it out. It’s a learning curve, You have to learn as you go along, and you adapt. If it’s something you really believe, and you believe skateboarding can really do something in your area or it has a certain goal then go for it. But definitely be prepared to learn on your feet and adapt as you go along, and don’t ever give up.