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In Jo’burg, Skateboard is the New Soccer

June 16th, 2016 will mark the 40th anniversary of a day in South African history that changed the nation: a day of remembrance of the Soweto Uprising against the apartheid government’s Bantu education, whereby black schools would be required to instruct in Afrikaans, the language of the white ruling minority. On that day in 1976, peaceful demonstrations by young students were met with police aggression, resulting in violent attacks, numerous injuries and death, most notably that of a 13-year old boy named Hector Pieterson. The subsequent civil unrest in the years to come, fueled by increasing anti-apartheid sentiment in South Africa and around the world, would lay the path towards the end of apartheid. To commemorate the courage and importance of this day, June 16th is celebrated as Youth Day every year.

On Youth Day this year, there will be another reason to celebrate.

In the hip and artsy streets of Maboneng, Johannesburg, I meet a young man working at a local coffee shop. Polite and helpful, clutching a skateboard in one hand, Phemelo and I get to talking as he’s getting ready for his break. He comes from a small town two hours outside of Jo’burg and came here for school. He studies accounting and will soon receive his degree. Unlike many graduates eager to kick off their career at fancy international corporations, Phemelo has other aspirations.

He flips his skateboard over and shows me a sticker that reads, “Skateistan.” We look up its Facebook page as he explains to me Skateistan’s mission to build community for disadvantaged youth ages 5-17 through skate boarding. “Kids these days don’t want to play soccer, skate boarding is the new thing.” Phemelo draws my attention to Skateistan’s logo, where a skater is shown skating over and snapping a rifle, symbolic for much of the work that Skateistan does around the world: overcome conflict through education and community building. He and a few other staff members are especially busy these days running the South African chapter of Skateistan as they are getting ready to launch a brand new skate school and skate park in the next few weeks. In his eagerness, Phemelo offers to show me around the new site. I agree and pack up my things.

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Site of Skateistan South Africa’s new Skate School and Park due to launch June 24th

As we’re walking through the streets of Johannesburg, we talk a bit of politics. Born in 1990, Phemelo is around the age of young South Africans today belonging to the “born-free generation,” indicating that they were born in the post-apartheid era. Perhaps because of this, South African youth today feel less indebted to the African National Congress (ANC) – the party largely responsible for transitioning South Africa from apartheid to a democratic state and the party that Nelson Mandela belonged to – as generations past. Where many young people believe that there should have been greater material demands negotiated for black people during this transition, Phemelo disagrees. He reminds me that one of the most important things Mandela successfully fought for in crafting the new South African constitution was equal access to education. Phemelo trusts that the opportunities in education supersede all else, though perhaps the party’s success in executing said equal access is fodder for a separate discussion.

He explains to me that racial divides inevitably exist, and that there are some jobs that only white people are qualified for. He tells me, “even if a certain job can only be done by white people, so long as it’s being done that’s a good thing, because at the end of the day that’s what matters, that things are getting done for South Africa. It’s like Mandela said, we cannot hate, we all have to work together.” As we approach Skateistan’s current office, I pause to take a photo of the very fitting mural of a young boxing Nelson Mandela on the side of the building.

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A young, boxing Nelson Mandela

Phemelo takes me to the roof where we have a perfect view of the soon-to-be new facility. He excitedly walks me through the vision for each floor where classrooms, teachers’ quarters, and conference rooms will be arranged. Behind the office building lies a partially dug through plot of land destined to look as sharp and sleek as the poster rendering of the future skate park. “We’re bringing in Canadian engineers to help build the park. All this should launch in a few weeks.” He hopes the program will grow to serve up to 250 students.

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The red structure below will be the new Skate School, with the Skate Park just behind it

In addition to teaching skate boarding, Skateistan also serves as an after school program in science and math subjects. Because most if not all of the students Skateistan serves come from disadvantaged backgrounds, from various townships in Jo’burg, the immeasurable impact of community and solidarity born out of this program are equally powerful. “This program isn’t meant to replace their schooling, but it will help them apply the things they learn and guide them to make good decisions.”

Phemelo recalls when he himself received a similar opportunity at the coffee shop he currently works. “I don’t really need the money but I stay and help with the business and accounting because they are good people. They hired me when I was homeless, gave me a job and taught me important and helpful things in life. I learned to make good decisions.”

At the end of his break we walk him back to the coffee shop. “Lots of my friends don’t understand the idea of working with international people, they say to focus locally, with South Africans. I think so long as the focus is for the kids, that’s what matters.”

The new skate school will be up and running on June 24th and officially launch on August 13th. You can learn more about Skateistan and how you can support the new facility.

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Our Time is Now: The Case for and Imperative of Afro-Asian Solidarity

Amidst an uprising of Americans against police brutality – namely white cops disproportionately terrorizing black women and men and walking free of consequences – a cop actually getting indicted and charged for the killing of an unarmed black man should have been cause for celebration for a deserved – no, necessary – victory for justice. Having been a vocal advocate against the excessive police violence towards black and brown people, it was therefore difficult to trust my initial tentative reaction: the swiftness of this latest verdict was made more unsettling considering that the cop charged is Asian American.

Finish reading on Huffington Post

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Audre Lorde Quotes: Part 2 Self-Reflection

Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider is packed with strong words and tough challenges for any of us committing to become better people. Through the process of self-examination and exploration, we uncover the biases we’ve acquired, the systems that exist to ingrain them in us, and effectively learn precisely the biases we need to unlearn. For the certified social worker or those simply intending on doing social good, let her words move you. Read through the quotes with an open heart and ears to not only listen for the intended meaning, but also listen for your interpretation of today’s application. Perhaps the two aren’t too distant.

These are my favorite Audre Lorde quotes on self-reflection from Sister Outsider.

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Audre Lorde Quotes: Part 1 Gender & Race

Words dance effortlessly in her poetry, where experiences are distilled, wounds inform knowledge, and healing seemingly winds through space and time. Audre Lorde was so many things all at once, and the revelations of her multichotomy laid important roots for our movements today. At every turn, Audre made no time for the bliss of ignorance, instead probing always for a deeper exploration of who we are as a human, community, society, and system. In honor of her people passion, and #BlkAugust, here are my favorite quotes of hers on gender and race, all of which stand no less relevant today than the day they were written. It is our challenge to imprint her words in our minds, and impact our actions for change.

All quotes from Sister Outsider, 1984.

 

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“New York is Baltimore”

In the span of 3 hours, I witnessed 9 arrests by NYPD, made some new friends in solidarity, nearly lost my voice, and oscillated between deep elation over a people united, and inexplicable anger at the irony of continued police injustice during the very march to abolish it. This was the Million March NYC in response to the Baltimore uprising and the death of Freddie Gray.


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The beginning of Million March NYC on April 29th.

Within five minutes of our march, we were stopped by police blocking the road ordering us to return. Peaceful protestors initially turned around to march back until some inevitably began to push and shove while dodging aggressive police. Forced on the sidewalks, we watched on. One policeman hoisted a loud speaker projecting robotic messages to disperse the crowds and “maintain order.” This degree of militarized policing was rare even for seasoned protesters. For a moment, it felt as though we were transplanted to an unfamiliar warring state.

In the next ten minutes, the police exerted power and control by making at least 6 unnecessary arrests of peaceful protesters who may have been unlucky to stand and chant near the cops. We chanted even louder, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” Watch the video here.

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Fragmented, protesters gathered in smaller groups and marched on with our message: New York is Baltimore, and Baltimore is New York. A marching band joined with musical accompaniment that made the heavy chants and solemn mood a bit lighter. We chanted on, “This is what community looks like! This is what love looks like!” Intermittent celebrations of our collective solidarity served as a good reminder to take a look around and appreciate the power of organizing.

In spite of police intimidation, we spilled into the streets as a form of disruption. Civil disruption and its intended inconvenience mean that we are capturing attention, even if momentarily. It is a short sliver of time for the otherwise voiceless individuals to claim a few moments to be heard: “Black lives matter!” Stopped cars waited patiently while protesters encouraged drivers to get out and join. For every annoyed, head-shaking driver idling on the road, just as many smiled in delight, enthusiastically honked their horn, and chanted along in support. We took over Broadway from Union Square to City Hall, and back to Times Square.

Photo credit: Saif Alnuweiri

A protester stood with his hands up as police charged forward.

In their most subdued state, police guarded behind us or next to us to keep watch. On several occasions, the police not only stood assembled, blocking the way, but charged towards us to get us out of the streets and onto the sidewalks. If you were the unlucky few who got caught on the street chanting, you may have been arrested. During one of the altercations, the leading “Black Lives Matter” banner was torn off its posts while an excess of nearly 9 policemen charged to arrest one man. I couldn’t take my eyes off the giant mound of cops excessively piled over a single protester faced down. Others plead with black policemen and women, urging for understanding and solidarity in place of aggression and authority. In response, most turned away with no words, exposing their conflicted positions. The more the police tried to control, the more we marched on. The now bare banner posts marched on, too.

Photo credit: Saif Alnuweiri

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In The Mood to Pause

“The mindful transitional pause can take many forms. For some, it can be a period of reflection that helps them understand how their life has unfolded. For others, it can be a period of adjustment, where new values based on recent changes are integrated into daily life. Just because you’re not headed swiftly to a final destination doesn’t mean you should assume that you have lost your drive. The stage between journeys can become a wonderful period of relaxation that prepares you for the path that will soon be revealed to you.”

I’m in a transitioning state right now, and these can be uncomfortable. I liken my discomfort to those long months waiting anxiously for college admission letters, or the fresh wound of a loss or separation. (Mine is quite accurately a little bit of both.) Though it’s intuitive the discomfort is not permanent, the current state of uncertainty remains palpable. In this state, it is too easy to snow ball into a spiral of negativity.

Fear. Anxiety. Insecurity. Guilt. Sadness.
Spiraling swiftly into self-doubt.

Here is a perfect opportunity for a sound reminder to pause. Pause to re-engage in my abilities and my values. Pause to re-establish the reasons positioning the current situation. Pause to reaffirm decisions already made. Pause to recall warm memories and reignite the excitement to embark on new adventures. Pause to thank the most important people in past chapters, and enjoy the energy of new relationships.

Be in the mood to pause.