TWO Kiwi women are helping empower girls through skateboarding and education, in countries where kids need safe spaces to play and learn, Merryn Anderson writes.
From her home in Berlin, Kiwi Claire Dugan recalls a story from a hospital in Kabul which still touches her heart.
A teacher from Skateistan – a non-profit organisation teaching girls in Afghanistan to skateboard while giving them an education – was at the local hospital to get blood tests.
Suddenly, the teacher heard a nurse say “Fatima? Teacher Fatima, it’s you!”
The nurse had been a student at Skateistan, attending a back-to-school programme five days a week, which covered three grades of education in under a year. It helped the young woman to catch up so she could go to a public school, graduate and then study to become a nurse.
“I love that story,” says Dugan, who’s helped run the Skateistan programme for almost a decade. “It really encapsulates exactly what Skateistan is trying to achieve – trying to get students back into school, or succeed if they are in school, and go on to realise their ambition.”
Today Dugan, 36, is the deputy executive director of Skateistan, which now has skate schools in four countries, teaching kids from low-income families – especially girls – how to ride a skateboard.
Skateistan is much more than learning to do an ollie or a kick-flip, though. Along with providing safe spaces for children, the programme also provides education and learning resources and builds kids’ confidence.
During Covid they got creative keeping in touch with their students by distributing food parcels to support their families. And most recently, Skateistan helped 40 staff – and over 150 family members – to safely leave Afghanistan as the Taliban took control of the country.
So how did a Kiwi with an accounting degree from the University of Otago end up running this life-changing programme?
Born and raised in Wellington, Dugan first visited Berlin at 12, travelling with her father who was an academic spending his sabbatical there. Spending six months at a German school, and then returning at 15 for three months, the immersive experience initially gave Dugan culture shock.
On returning to New Zealand and receiving her degree, she worked as a chartered accountant in Auckland, but it was something she didn’t want to do long-term. “I knew I wanted to do something else with that skill and I really wasn’t quite sure what,” says Dugan.
So she returned to Berlin and in 2012, came across an organisation based in Kabul looking for someone fitting Dugan’s profile.
Her fluency in German and English, as well as her accounting background, impressed Skateistan founder, Oliver Percovich, who set up their interview from Kabul over Skype.
Australian Percovich created Skateistan after visiting Afghanistan in 2007 and noticed when he skateboarded down the streets, the joy it brought the community. For a lot of kids living in the war-ravaged city of Kabul, it was the first time they had seen a skateboard. It sparked an idea.
Percovich described skateboarding as the carrot that drew kids in, but he developed Skateistan to be much more than a sporting venture. Then he had Dugan’s help to take it beyond Afghanistan – they now run skate schools in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia.
The first employee based in Berlin, Dugan set up the head office and now oversees all internal operations, working with a team of around 20.
Her work growing the organisation saw her named a finalist in New Zealand’s Women of Influence Awards in 2015. Part of the global category, Dugan’s influence on women across the world through the Skateistan programme is incredibly visible.
A key focus of Skateistan from their inception has been bringing the programme to girls and young women, who face a lot of obstacles trying to find safe access to education.
Under Taliban rule, girls are banned from physical exercise like riding a bike, or going out without male supervision. So safety of their students is always a major concern for Skateistan.
“Afghanistan is one of the hardest places in the world to be a girl, and unfortunately that hasn’t got any easier,” says Dugan.
And the task isn’t as simple as just getting girls to the classes in Afghanistan. Skateistan has to provide safe transport for both the girls and female staff they hire to teach, as is culturally appropriate.
“We take all these steps that are obviously resource-intensive, but totally necessary if you want to actually get girls participating,” says Dugan.
It’s a double-edged sword though – the empowerment of women through the programme and other sports can bring unwanted consequences, says University of Waikato professor Holly Thorpe.
“There’s still thousands of women in Afghanistan who’ve bought into this dream of sport as empowering their lives, and being a wonderful thing in their lives,” she says. “They’ve fallen in love with sport and through this have come to hope for different futures for themselves. But tragically, under a new political regime, that passion is putting their lives and their families’ lives at risk.”
Thorpe’s work spans continents, after a Marsden Grant in 2017 supported her research into informal sports in sites of conflict and disaster. Working as a researcher with Skateistan since 2011, Thorpe is now on the organisation’s international advisory board.
Initially Thorpe was planning to travel to Afghanistan for her research, but decided not to go when she learned of the risk – not to herself, but to the students.
“As a feminist researcher, that didn’t sit well with me,” she explains. “If I’m going to a location for research purposes, but putting local kids and local staff at risk because I’m there, that didn’t feel right.”
Having international staff in Kabul can also put their programmes at risk, so local ownership and employing local staff is another key value for Skateistan.
Not only does it reduce risk, it ensures every programme is personalised to suit the area and its young people, something Percovich insisted on from the beginning.
“He didn’t want to come in and implant some Western ideas of what is a good life for these young people in Afghanistan,” says Thorpe. “He very much saw this needs to come from these communities and ultimately be led by and for these communities.”
The concept of local ownership is very close to Dugan’s heart, especially in Afghanistan where local women are being employed to teach young girls.
“These are the voices that need to be leading the organisation at the end of the day, because they represent the communities we’re serving,” she says.
Dugan gives an example from the skate school in Atlantis, South Africa, where Skateistan worked with a community leader who knew how to skateboard and brought hundreds of kids into the new programme. “You would never get that if you transplanted an American skateboarder to South Africa to start something; it just wouldn’t work.”
For now, the skate school in Kabul is on pause. The Taliban have suspended any education for girls and women over the age of 10, and in some areas have forced women to stop working altogether.
Skateistan is planning to rebuild, helping girls up to the age of 10, and it’s also supporting those students who have fled the country.
“Some of them will be based in refugee camps for the foreseeable months,” explains Dugan. “They’re contacting us and saying: ‘Hey I want some skateboards, there’s a whole bunch of Afghan kids here who want some programmes’.”
They have an ambitious plan to expand to 20 locations over the next year, and reaching 4500 students a week.
Dugan is excited to see what they can develop, and to discover what the next chapter in the Skateistan story looks like.