Wild Things #3 Will Ascott - Free Movement Skateboarding
In the third of our Wild Things series we chat to Will Ascott of Free Movement Skateboarding on building a mobile skatepark to bring the benefits of skateboarding to refugee communities in Greece and his own experiences of Wild Time growing up.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you came to do it?
So I am one of the founders of Free Movement Skateboarding, alongside Ruby. Together we run a portable skatepark in Athens, Greece for refugees and locals to learn and develop skateboarding and their social circles. Having met Ruby whilst volunteering with SkatePAL - a charity promoting skateboarding in Palestine - in October 2016, we saw the power of skateboarding for disadvantaged communities and knew this could work in other places. I went directly from there to Athens to volunteer in a refugee community kitchen at Khora Community Centre, one of our current partners, and met the amazing women from Help Refugees. I pitched the idea for the project on the spot, smoothed out the edges in an official meeting, and four months later was back out here, making it a reality.
Was setting up the project an easy process or did you come up against any barriers?
We encountered some problems, but then also met very little resistance overall. We worked with big NGOs and so hit some slow bureaucracy, and then we worked with smaller grass roots projects and could get started almost immediately. As a loose rule, official ways of doing almost anything in Greece are slow, since it really doesn't pay to be a bureaucrat. So if you can wiggle your way into partnering up with those who hold a DIY ethic, it’s a lot quicker and easier. Ultimately, as I say, Help Refugees are our backing NGO and they did so much to make this happen, from wonderful in-country staff to connections with other organisations. They’ve been very supportive and we couldn’t be more grateful for their faith in us.
How have people responded?
We’re often mobbed as we drive into the camps! The kids love what we’re doing. As time has gone on, we are seeing numbers increase. It's great to see the most devoted kids are at that glorious point on the learning curve where they can just work out anything, whereas unfortunately my plateau began about 10 years ago!
As for the local community, we are well received and have Greek parents supporting their children coming to our classes. We are also feeling our presence grow in Greece and further afield as more people hear about what we’re doing. The positive response has been incredible and very humbling.
What impact has being active outside and learning to skate had on the children/young people involved?
The most notable effect is on their mental health. These young people have been through trauma and loss at a young age and need a focussed mindful release, if only for an hour a week in our sessions. A session worker at one of the camps told me that kids who can normally only focus for five minutes before lashing out at others can skate for an hour and keep on task – it’s an honour to be involved with that.
We love the fact that your skatepark is mobile - how does this help with accessibility and was it difficult to get built and up and running?
Naturally the mobile skatepark means we can set up wherever we want, helping us reach the most marginalised camps. Their transport to the city has recently become unaffordable and people are more stuck than ever in remote, insular places. So you can see how much they value people coming to them.
Building the ramps was an amazing process where we learnt so much. Master carpenter Benji Sowter had the skills whilst I passed him tools and cups of tea. We built them all in our living room, but it was one of those “ship in a bottle” moments when we realised we'd have to lower two three-ft quarter pipes off our balcony. That was a real highlight.
What kind of spaces do you set up in?
We like to go for public basketball courts out in the city mainly. In the camps we work in there are often community space tents with big wooden floors – ideal for learning.
Skateboarding seems to get kids of all ages passionate and engaged - why do you think this is?
I think it’s the fact that it’s about pure, non-competitive fun. Just learning for yourself whilst supporting each other in individual progression. It's not a team sport, but you're never alone with a skateboard. We are trying to promote that same skatepark culture of going bananas when someone lands something new, the kind we experienced as kids growing up in our local scene. Beyond this, its travel, exploration and the instantaneous friendships you make whilst skating that kept me into it, and if I can pass on even one ounce of my passion for this, I’ve done my job right.
Great to see it’s a gender neutral programme - research suggests that teenage girls are the group that spend the least time outside - have you found this to be the case in areas where you've worked? Why do you think this might be?
We are doing all we can to promote gender equality in our work. We present skateboarding as a non-gendered activity with our mixed team. For cultures where there is little preconception of Western male-domination in skateboarding, we have an opportunity to promote female participation from the beginning. However, unfortunately there are difficulties in engaging teenage girls compared to the younger ones, so we target them more directly. We have found that you often get a whole crew of teenage girls engaged or very few at all - it needs to feel socially acceptable to all of them or they don't tend to go for it. A lot of the girls we work with are from socially conservative families who discourage them getting involved in physical exercise, especially in mixed groups, so getting a big old girl-gang down can change attitudes and empower these young women beyond just the reach of our sessions.
What are your memories of ‘risky’ play and being outdoors growing up. Did you have much ‘wild time’?
I had plenty and unsurprisingly it was all while on a skateboard! I have the fondest memories of skateboarding as a teenager, many of them with Osh, our communications and PR fella who I’ve known for over 10 years. We had a little skate team way back then, and if I remember correctly he was doing our branding then too! We’d travel to skate all over the country, find street spots where we shouldn’t, get in trouble with security, build stuff at people’s houses, find new skateparks and just hang out with the loveliest dudes from a variety of backgrounds. So many of those guys are still close pals. And it's amazing to be able to collaborate with them all this time later. I had ‘wild time’ in escaping the middle-class commuter town bubble of St Albans, where Osh and I grew up, and skating abandoned warehouses. Beyond skating, I used to love hanging out in the forest with my school pals whilst building dens and fires, a time of my life now immortalised on my ribs in the form of a tattoo! Nothing's changed.
You’re working with children and young people in specific communities and situations - do you have any tips or learnings you could pass on to people looking to do something similar in UK communities?
This is a tricky one as each situation is as unique as the last. I feel I’ve really got to grips with the appropriate level of ‘formal teaching’ required for a session; learning to let the kids just get on and skate independently and loosen the structure was more important than you'd think, but then to know when its descending into chaos and getting it back on track with an exercise is equally important. Without one you can't have the other. This relates pretty clearly to age; older kids just want to be trusted to learn by themselves, whereas smaller ones will quickly regress to “bum-boarding” without a clear direction. As a general rule, it’s the kids’ session, let them dictate how to run it. Young refugees have so little agency in their lives, so we give them the responsibility to choose how a session runs and they thrive on this.
What’s your top tip for someone getting on a skateboard for the first time?
Pad up, get your head in a positive space and don’t let the falls demoralise you. I fall everyday. You’ll get it.
What help do you need to keep the programme running?
We need funding and exposure to keep this going, it's really as simple as that. Our big news is that we plan on having our own skatepark and youth centre in Athens soon, and we know this will take a huge amount of fundraising. Offering that safe space, a place for any of our students, or local greeks, who want to skate more than we already offer is absolutely crucial. It's a dream of ours, actually. Financial and media support both go such a long way, so if you can spare anything, please help however you can, because this is so much more than just messing around on a plank of wood with wheels for these kids.
Free Movement Skateboarding are currently fundraising to build a permanent skatepark in Athens for refugees and locals you can get involved here: