Interview with Sophie Friedel, Author of The Art of Living Sideways: Skateboarding, Peace and Elicitive Conflict Transformation
Today Sophie Friedel is the founder of Rollbrett Workshops, a skateboard and longboard school in Freiburg, Germany. She was also the first international volunteer for Skateistan, and is one of the original researchers working in Action Sports for Development and Peace studies. In 2015, Sophie published the book The Art of Living Sideways: Skateboarding, Peace and Elicitive Conflict Transformation based on her MA in Peace, Security, Development and International Conflict Transformation from the UNESCO Chair at the University of Innsbruck. In this book, Sophie uses the case of Skateistan to examine skateboarding as a way to escape cycles of despair in war-torn environments and regions affected by poverty. In so doing, she critically reflects on her involvements of teaching skateboarding in Afghanistan within the context of youth empowerment and peace work.
1. Let's start with telling us a bit about how you first came to work at Skateistan?
In 2007, I was living in Falmouth, UK and I saw a newspaper article, where Skateistan was collecting donations to build an indoor skate park in Kabul. The article included a picture of some Afghani girls skateboarding in the Mekroyan fountain and the text was talking about “skateboarding for peace”. At the time, this was a new concept and it made so much sense to me! I was totally stoked once I saw the beautiful girls having fun on their battered skateboards, laughing in a surrounding that I thought no one could ever laugh in again. At the time I had no money but I knew skateboarding gave me a sense of inner peace and I contacted Oliver Percovich to offer my help as a volunteer. Amazingly my wish came true and two years later, once the indoor park was finished I flew to Kabul for my first, of three volunteering placements there- just after the re-election of Hamid Karzai and shortly before Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.
2. How did this lead to the writing of your wonderful book 'The Art of Living Sideways: Skateboarding, Peace and Elicitive Conflict Transformation'? What were some of the key influences on the writing of this book (which was the first of its kind in our field)?
Thank you for the flowers :). The first six month with Skateistan where so inspirational and wonderful, that I was looking for a way to return. I could see, that some of the idealistic ideas I had of development and peace before living in Kabul where absolute and I felt a hunger to find ways in which we, as global citizen can create more effective systems of living respectfully with each other. On that search I started the MA in: Peace, Security, Development and International Conflict Transformation from the UNESCO Chair at the University of Innsbruck. This MA, and especially the academic writings of Dr. Wolfgang Dietrich, Dr. Norbert Koppensteiner and also the hands-on work of Oliver Percovich and all the Skateistanis inspired and influenced me to write this book. Also your (Holly Thorpe’s) work, especially your critical questions towards Sport for Development and Peace and your seminal paper: “Wandering and Wondering”: Theory and Representation in Feminist Physical Cultural Studies, with Karen Barbour and Toni Bruce (2011) influenced me. It inspired me to write in this self-reflective way and truly dig into what feels right.
3. What was the purpose of writing this book? What were some of the key messages you were trying to get out, and to whom?
The purpose of writing the Art of Living Sideways was to explore the potentiality of skateboarding and document it in academic manner so that other researchers can build up-on this work and together we can create, understand and harness the power of skateboarding.
I wanted to portray skateboarding’s potential and limitations when it comes to harnessing the power within individuals, especially in its transformational capacities. You know, people talk about how skateboarding saved their lives and how it is a kind of therapy for them. What interests me is, what is this power skateboarding has? What exactly is it that transforms the mood, energy, and situation? How does skateboarding empower, or does it? And what capacity has skateboarding to improve mental and physical health? The book was one way of answering those questions and I am finding deeper answers through my on-going practical work with people.
4. Since writing this book, what have been some of the biggest changes you've seen in skateboarding development work? and perhaps action sports for development work more broadly?
It literally blew up. Look at Skateistan, - they have made massive impact and now celebrate their 10 years anniversary. Since their early start, they have inspired many other projects that use skateboarding as a hook for social change, all over the world. The focus of Skateistan moved away from “skateboarding for peace” – to “skateboarding for education” and they seem to be very successful with their mission.
In a broader sense, action sports for development work seems to have moved to more serious endeavours, with the movement really happening on a political as much as on a grassroots level. As for the spread of skateboarding around the world, just look at Wonder Concrete, Make Life Skate Life, or the 2020 Olympics.
5. Since writing this book, what have been some of the biggest changes in research about skateboarding (and action sports) for development?
Maybe the biggest sign that research on skateboarding has come of age is the upcoming 1st academic conference “Pushing Boarders” in London this June. In general, I would say, skateboarding research has become a lot more pluralistic than it used to be 10 years ago. When I was researching for the book, there was, apart from Iain Boarden’s skateboarding bible: “Skateboarding, Space and the City”, no academic literature on skateboarding. Now there have been several high-quality books published, including your (Holly Thorpe’s) inspirational work on Transnational Mobilities in Action Sports Cultures and Paul O’Connor’s published works on skateboard philanthropy. Skateboarding research has moved away from skateboarding as a “subculture” to an open community that can talk about gender, class, sexuality, race, family, and philanthropy – and not just in the skateboarding media, but in a wider forum of public interest. Articles on skateboarding have even been published in the “Health & Wellbeing” section of The Guardian! 10 years ago I would not have imaged that ever happening!
6. For most researchers, our work is not static and we can often revise our topics/arguments as we learn/see/hear more. It's been a few years since this book was written, do you feel differently now about anything you wrote then?
Yes for sure! There was a time when I was so embarrassed about what I wrote, I felt like I did a soul-striptease and I wanted my book to disappear. In some chapters of the book I was also very critical and thought I had to be because this is what postmodern academia is all about. Now I know this is nonsense and I am grateful for your questions because I realized once again that skateboarding has the power to transform communities’ and individuals’ lives and I am much more at ease with the ideas I can share with you today.
7. What are you doing these days?
Today I am working part time in an institute for personal transformation; we work a lot with the “Enneagram of Personalities” and body-work. I also started a skateboard school in Germany and I use skateboarding as a tool to spark growth and transformation in people, young and old.
For many people, skateboarding is not just a hobby or sport. Many people, of all ages, are so immersed in this activity and thrive off the personal validation it gives them, that when asked “What are you?”, their first response is “I’m a skateboarder” before any other comment about a profession, family-membership status, religious affiliation, or nationality. There is something so strong, I won’t say obsessive, but so strong about skateboarding to an individual’s sense of being that this attribute often overrides other descriptions of themselves.
To tap into that power, that transformational power, to help people who may be at risk or simply to expand their horizons, is what I attempt to do with my work today.
8. You founded a school that teaches skateboarding and you are developing skateboard therapy to improve the lives of people. Based on your lived experiences, observations, and your research, what do you think is unique to skateboarding that makes it such a good vehicle for this purpose?
Those aspects I will mention are not necessarily unique to skateboarding: other “tools” probably have similar effects. However, I work best with the board and four wheels and find the skateboarding culture unique in the way people cooperate with each other across age, gender, social status, and nationality, just for the sake of the shared interest of skateboarding.
Skateboarding together opens a door that helps skateboarding bodies to relate to each other. It is a pathway to trust, respect and relationship. This is not only in the therapeutic settings I work but also on any regular skate spot. Those aspects are key elements when it comes to learning and transformation.
Besides the fun and joy of movement, skateboarding can aid to reduce stress, promotes cooperation and physical as well as mental endurance. Skateboarding teaches precision, falling down and getting up again. It is the skater, inside their mind, with the challenge to “conquer”, in a way, a specific physical object to the built environment, with a certain trick, movement, or slide. Coordination, balance, and awareness are trained through simple play and this is amazing! Self-confidence and self-regulation are some of the fantastic gifts of skateboarding.
9. Along the same lines, do you feel there any limits of using skateboarding for these purposes?
With professional coaching and corresponding safety gear, skateboarding is relative "side-effect” free. Other than it might become a lifelong undertaking, skateboarding supports the goals of other children and youth-work programs. Combined with psycho-education and psychological counseling, skateboarding is limitless. I find the limits lay not in skateboarding itself, but in the imagination of people working with it.
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