The Professor of Skateboarding. Really.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because most of us have been through a sk8er boi phase.
By J.Y. Lee
The dreamiest dream job is the one that you design for yourself, and by that standard, Neftalie Williams is winning at life. He has made an academic career out of skateboarding. Specialty? Skateboarding diplomacy.
Last year, he taught the first skateboarding class at a major American university — the University of Southern California, where he is also a research director. He has served as the State Department’s skateboarding envoy to the Netherlands, and he chairs a nonprofit, Cuba Skate, that aims to empower young Cuban skateboarders. Williams spoke to us about his own love of skateboarding, his argument that the sport transcends race and class and its prospects for inclusion in the 2020 Olympics, in Tokyo. (The International Olympic Committee will issue its decision tomorrow.) What follows has been edited for clarity.
OZY: When did you hop on your first skateboard?
Neftalie Williams: I got started in small and tight skating scenes of western Massachusetts when I was around 15. Because BMX was expensive, skateboarding was easier to get into. There was diversity and multiculturalism happening with the explosion of urban skating during my teens in the 1990s. The focus of skateboarding shifted from ramps to street skating, as we returned to the roots of 1950s Dogtown days, skating everything in our paths.
OZY: Who were your skating heroes growing up and now?
N.W.: They’re still the same. My heroes include Rodney Mullen, the “godfather of street skateboarding,” who visited my class, and the fantastic Ray Barbee, one of the first Black skaters I saw. It’s been really good coming to California, as my heroes have become my friends.
OZY: How did you become a professor at USC?
N.W.: I did my undergrad and master’s in public diplomacy at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. My focus has always been on skateboarding as a tool for cultural diplomacy, and especially on how kids worldwide are part of a transnational community. When I finished my master’s, USC told me I could teach a class. Initially, they thought it was going to be a bunch of skaters talking about skateboarding, but the makeup of the 25-student class was one of the most diverse in Annenberg, with some students who had never skated before.
OZY: How do you feel about the evolution of skateboarding from fringe to mainstream?
N.W.: Skateboarding has not necessarily changed, but the perception of it has. The three main narrative points of skateboarding that remain the same are that it allows you to create community, travel and explore while building community and reimagine yourself in the space around you. It took a few generations to understand that young people are just skateboarding. Now some of us have grown up, and it’s not so much counterculture anymore, but just really interesting culture.
OZY: The International Olympic Committee will soon decide whether to include skateboarding in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. What are your thoughts?
N.W.: Is skateboarding going to lose its street toughness? No, but we’re going to be on television. The Olympics is a platform, and skateboarding and its culture will always survive. Having a larger platform is great. However, some skaters are worried that we will see a rise of nationalism with the Olympics, as nationalism is really alien to skateboarding.
OZY: Tell me about being the skateboarding envoy to the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands.
N.W.: That was amazing. They had me partner with soccer envoys, so I visited the city of Eindhoven with Zola Solamente of the U.S. women’s national team. For about a week, we worked with the kids of Syrian refugees who were granted asylum in the Netherlands, and we also lectured at an international school. One of the highlights of the trip was a teenage girl skating for the first time, and also getting her sister and mom started on skateboarding.
OZY: What are the differences among the skateboarding communities around the world?
N.W.: There isn’t much difference, as skateboarding includes all races, genders and classes. The narratives of building community, traveling and reimagining yourself are also the same. The Brazilian kids from favelas invited me to their homes, and if I weren’t part of the skateboarding community, I wouldn’t have had that access. Skateboarding is a global passport, as skating culture gives that constant identity.
OZY: What’s next for you?
N.W.: What I’m most excited about is creating a larger curriculum to talk about the way skateboarding can affect social change. I will teach the class again this fall, and I want to partner with more universities.
- J.Y. Lee, OZY AuthorContact J.Y. Lee