Oliver Percovich went to Kabul in 2007 with three skateboards and no knowledge of the Afghan skate scene. Nearly five years later, 'Ollie," as his friends refer to him, is heading up an international organization that is engaging a hard to reach group of individuals between the ages of 5 and 18. But why is his NGO succeeding where many developmental groups have not?
An interesting question, considering skateboarding is not really the ideal form for youth engagement in most communities. While most community leaders see skateboarders as obnoxious, up-to-no-good teens with nothing better to do but ride around on their boards, the Afghan government has actually sponsored the use of skateboarding as a tool for development by providing the funds to build the first indoor skate facility with Skateistan.
The secret is that skateboarding is just the "hook" that the organization uses to engage youth in the region who would normally be in the streets with little supervision. And while skateboarding may not seem a productive activity in most developed countries, the youth in the Afghan region do not inherently have the important values that come natural in skateboarding: sharing, equality, dedication, perseverance, to name a few. Thus skateboarding becomes much more about teaching the children in the program these values through the sport in the same way that developed countries use organized sports to teach teach the value of teamwork.
For example, a society that is patriarchal by design leads the youth to reflect that value, especially when their is no supervision. And while the judgement of this patriarchal value is in the eye of the beholder, when there is little supervision for children this value is exploited to the point where young girls do not get the opportunity to develop skills that the boys do. Thus in the Skateistan program all boys and girls have to share the equipment and everything else the program equally allowing the girls to experience and learn from skateboarding in the same way that the boys do: a setting that is quite rare in the region. Skateistan is currently composed of 40% young girls.
While the long-term impact remains to be seen, the project has been garnering a tremendous amount of support illustrating the effectiveness of the program to at the very least engage a segment of the population that has been marginalized by the circumstances of the past decade. Where is the organization headed? It's hard to say, but the team has just released a full-length documentary that we highly encourage everyone to check-out. And with operations in Pakistan and Cambodia as well, this growing organization could serve as a framework for engaging youth moving forward into the future.
Check out the documentary trailer below: