Skateworks: Interview with Jon Burns

aug 2018 skate, youth, australia

Jon Burns is founder and executive director of Skateworks, an ASDP organisation that uses skateboarding programmes for youth in Ethiopia and Australia. From 2012, Skateworks has returned 2631 Ethiopian youth back to their homes through vocational training (welding) combined with skateboarding. More recently, Jon has taken a different direction and is working to create change closer to home--among aboriginal and Torres Strait communities in Australia. In this interview we hear about his efforts to work in collaboration with the Elders to produce programs of significance and meaning to the local communities and youth themselves.

1) Please tell us about your latest project in Australia, and where this idea came from?

Skateworks Australia’s latest project is called “The Balance Stick,” which is a School holiday program specifically designed to achieve the Elders and Community representative’s desires for their Youth. At Skateworks, the outcome is everything. Skateboarding and First Nations world have alignments that are too compelling to ignore. For example, what land means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared to the way skateboarders see and redefine the world around them. The land on its own terms is tangible and has a parental link. Aboriginal peoples see the land as their parents, which can help them redefine their life if they are on the wrong path. Skateboarders see the land as a source for redefining themselves. We see skateboarding and land as intertwined.

2) What is this idea of the 'balance stick'? Where did this idea come from and how is it central to your programmes?

The idea arose from Skateworks’ measurable and significant success in Ethiopia, which was due to listening to the people and not imposing an idea or what we felt was right for the population. In Ethiopia we skated across the country, some 517 km on longboards to ask Ethiopia at a human pace and one to one about their goals and obstacles. Very few businesses look at the human element which is what I learned from my thirty years of experience advertising in global markets. I learned it is important to ask the people the decision will affect. The figures, published journals and white papers from the World Bank never match the goals, hopes, and dreams of the family. So, we listened to where the Ethiopian rural community wanted to be in twelve months and moving forward, where they wanted to be in two years which gave Skateworks the vital community buy-in (support) to facilitate its success. Ethiopia has gone into a stage of political unrest and primarily in the rural sector that we were working in. As the founder, I felt I wanted to withdraw and take our findings and move into a research phase with one of Skateworks aspirations which were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth. 

So, I asked myself is the motivational and balance aspects of skateboarding acting as a drawcard and a conduit for benchmark orientated attitudinal change were enough to plant the flag and declare it an outcome? I was not convinced that it was, and I felt that there was more to it. Regarding Ethiopia, religion played an important role and there is no relationship with the land other than monarchy based on sovereignty, and history of colonisation and communism. So, the unexplored aspect of skateboarding as a driver for change and its relationship with the land arose. To create a greater level of change-based outcome we needed to meet with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders who have a relationship with the Earth and the similes, to understand skateboarder’s relationship with land and architecture. Early April 2018, I flew to Darwin then drove 10 hours out to Numbulwar in South East Arnhem Land to spend five days with Elders, traditional owners, parents and families of the Numbulwar Community on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. By spending time with the Numbulwar Aboriginal Community, speaking to them about reconnecting the youth to the land. One evening sitting around a campfire near the Rose River we were enjoying dinner with the kids and elders talking about our days and “The Balance Stick” name emerged. 

3) It's fascinating to hear about your decision to prioritize the opinions and perspectives of the elders before deciding the focus on your programmes in the Northern Territories. What did the elders believe were the key issues facing their young people?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders have identified three prime objectives for Community in Australia are in the following order:

  1. Health including mental health
  2. Education
  3. Youth’s diminishing connection with Country

Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander TO’s and Elders expanded opinion is that many of the stereotypical outcomes & dysfunctionality of youth coexisting with one foot on country & one foot in the city is due to a disconnection with culture, community & country. Skateworks goal is to reconnect Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Youth with the land through skateboarding and using generationally appropriate language & inherent ability to be the “Choko” of the action sports world. The Choko or Chayote takes the flavour of any ingredient and skateboarding is like the Choko because of its ability to align & interconnect with the target which in this case is The Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander tie with Country, Law, and Kinship. 

4) Can you tell the ASDP community about this process of getting the elders on board, and then how you've worked to ensure they play an integral part of the programme?

We traveled to Numbulwar Aboriginal Community in South East Arnhem Land to have conversations. Our approach to Aboriginal peoples is always a personal one. There are no boardroom tables, stiff meetings full of agenda which has no connection. Instead, we walk, gather long bum shellfish, spear crabs (well they did, I’m crap at it, lol) & catch fish. We walked, we worked, and we talked. Trust, truth, listening & being a real fella is best which allowed us to have conversations with the Numbulwar Aboriginal Community about land and how a skateboarding program can be developed to reconnect youth to the land and from these conversations called “The Balance Stick” was created.

5) Skateworks is well known for its work in Ethiopia, particularly programmes using welding training to provide youth with a trade. How is Skateworks Australia similar and/or different from your work in Ethiopia?

Skateworks Ethiopia’s light bulb moment was “the little wooden bridge from the street to the classroom.” It is undeniable that skateboarding is a draw card and an endorphin stimulator which makes a rich connection to education or change. By attaching skateboarding and the educational activities that may have previously suffered resistance, we gained traction with the youth. We also secured the knowledge that skateboarding turns failure on its head and in a country like Ethiopia where unemployment and health have been constantly challenging forces for people to overcome. So, we set a goal and in skateboard term, a certain trick or elevation of that trick and to perform that trick or achieve that goal you repetitively attempt the movement. The Ethiopian viewpoint is “we learn through failure” for some the odds are insurmountable which leads to failure. So, we help change the mindset that failure is not a failure, but “failure being the pathway to success” and “the little wooden bridge” is to secure change.

Skateworks Australia needed a connective juncture with the present day and the past so its more of “a wooden bridge from the past to the present.”  Remote Community Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth leave Community to be schooled in the City or large towns many hundreds of Kilometers away from the community, family, law ceremony, and language. This goes for months and sometimes years on end and this disconnection can result in feelings of displacement, lack of belonging, lack of feeling relevant. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a parental relationship with the country and embody the law, family, ceremony, land, and language. Every aspect of Aboriginal life revolves around and comes and back to the land or what is known as country. Within skateboarding, there is a relationship with the land, on how a skateboarder examines obstacles and creates and redefine their environment. To see our own reflection in the concrete, in the line we choose to express how we feel, who we are and who we want to be. To literally redefine the landscape, its obstacles and opportunities. There is a strong correlation between these relationships witthe h country. There is a conscious bridge that skateboarding provides. The flow from Corroboree which is ancient storytelling through dance as told by traditional Aboriginal owners. The storytellers and Elders give a direct and rightful role of journeyman and are the custodian of history because of their relationship, place and law to the peoples of the earth and Country to implant these stories in this way. The visual and physical correlation between skateboarding and Corroboree is too close to ignore and allows both Elders and skateboarders to assist youth to reinterpret their environment, their context is in physical or emotional and more so make it portable. 


By teaching Skateboarding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Youth within Community side by side with Elders. We can meld skateboarding body positions with Corroboree arm and postures to physically create that interconnected flowing intermeshing of movements and the relationship with land and country, a story with the interpretation of landscape, line and flow. By communicating through a story, the land underneath the city is the land they had for 60’000 years is their parental relationship. So, when they skate on the community, they tell their stories and express their family relationship with the country. They redefine their environment and circumstance. When they skate, they tell stories of brolga, kangaroo, crocodile, their tricks have a different shape and line that flows with the red earth and are giving back to the country. When they are skating on the city in an environment that they would normally felt displaced but in their minds, they are telling their story, performing Corroboree and connecting country with the city, Ancient Australia with new and black with white through flow and stoke. 


6) What levels of support have you received for Skateworks Australia? Anyone you would like to thank here?

Massive community support across Australia culminated in over 380 complete skateboards and safety gear being shipped to Katherine Northern Territory. This equipment was raised through support groups across social media for Skateworks along with a partnership of 280 brand new sets of trucks from THEEVE Trucks Co Australia as well as commemorative branded trucks and 50 sets of bearings donated from DSCO Bearings. 

7) Are there any particular challenges of working in this space? What do you see as the biggest opportunities/most rewarding aspects of doing this work in your home country of Australia?

By far the biggest challenges and therefore the largest opportunities are in dealing with Elders, Traditional owners and the inter-political relationships within those groups and keeping momentum has been difficult. The Traditional owners, mentors, and Elders seem very enthusiastic and will commit to the programs, timings, and delivery dates and then (Crickets!) and you must constantly reconnect the dots. This means that one person has to completely concentrate on this area and work closely with Elders and Traditional to co-deliver the traditional cultural side and to make sure continuation and continuity are there owners leaving others to skate coach. This is my role amongst 726 million other things. Regarding, delivering this within Australia, it has been easier as Australians relate to the project as delivering in their community and as we all know that has greater traction than overseas comparisons.

8) Looking forward, what are the biggest aims and ambitions of Skateworks Australia?

As far as we are aware Skateworks is the only organization that is not only concentrating on delivering the desired reconnection with the country that traditional Elders desire, we are the only organization co-delivering this project hand in hand and side by side with traditional Elders. The main ambition of Skateworks is to secure the outcomes requested by Traditional Elders on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community of reconnecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth with the country. 








A: responses



Really interesting project. 

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