Published on July 1st, 2015 | by Bryce Smith2
Making Tacoma a skateable city
Tacoma Public Schools, Alchemy Skateboarding and Education, and the Grit City Grindhouse have completed the initial year of their innovative education partnership. This partnerhsip is the first in the nation to offer an accredited, public, comprehensive skateboarding curriculum to high school students.
As it says on their website, “Finally, skateboarding taught, accepted, and for high school credit!”
Taylor Woodruff (co-owner and CCO of the board shop Grit City Grindhouse and Alchemy’s Programming Coordinator) and Alchemy’s Executive Director Ben Warner pioneered this groundbreaking venture with a focus on developing and engaging the marginalized skate community, specifically students ages 10-17 and 18-24.
Skateboarding has traditionally been frowned upon—“skater” is still practically a pejorative term—but Alchemy and its partners are flipping that view on its hindquarters and dispelling outmoded preconceptions.
Their vision brings skateboarding the recognition it deserves as one of the fastest growing sports in the country and highlights how skating can bring positive and empowering change.
The alchemy of Alchemy
Back in early December, I had a chance to meet with Ben to learn more about him, Alchemy, and a skate-based classroom.
After completing his Master’s Degree at the University of Washington, Ben’s first focus was to legalize skateboarding “while throwing a large skate event in Downtown Tacoma’s Tollefson Plaza”—referring to the now annual summer event Go Skate Tacoma that recently celebrated it’s third year on June 20, 2015.
“Together my friends helped change a small part of the city for the better. Through the event we compiled information to further understand conflict within the subculture. The evidence showed that 56% of the Tacoma area skateboarders ages 18 to 24 are high school dropouts. For such a large community [estimated 8,000+ local skateboarders], there is little support for education or mentorship in the greater Tacoma area.”
When asked where Alchemy came from, Ben stressed that “Alchemy is NOT my idea,” He explained:
“It is a collection of ideas from those citizens of the greater Tacoma area who wish to invest in a community that gets little to no recognition or positive inclusion. Alchemy brings together ideas from kids, educators, skate camp directors, coaches, mentors, mothers, fathers, and even police officers who want to reach out by speaking to their passion; and from those ideas, we create space to teach youth how to apply skills to other areas in life – school, work, and community service. For now I have simply written down the thoughts and now stand on the shoulders of those giants before me.”
Learning by doing
With eagerness, I accepted Ben’s invitation to sit in on some classes attended by local high school students from the School of the Arts (SOTA) and the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). I couldn’t wait to experience this skate class myself, cursing under my breath as I did so; I wish this opportunity had been around when I was in high school.
The following Monday I stepped off the bus and skated down to Grit City Grindhouse just in time to catch Ben on his way in. As we entered the skate shop I could already hear skateboards popping, rattling, and rolling behind the shop’s wooden, skateboard-adorned partition.
In the back space of Grit City students conduct fieldwork: boxes, rails, ramps—all movable and of a beginner/intermediate level—were built by the students and now they create whatever combination of boxes, rails, and ramps their hearts desire. The “classroom” also features a separate flatland space to practice stationary tricks complete with straight-from-the-basement couches lining the wall. Space was tighter than usual due to the construction of the classroom’s newest element: a four foot mini-ramp with a two foot extension.
Class began promptly at 1:30 pm and the students split into two groups—one beginning in the front-of-house shop area and the other in the back-of-house skate area—and consisted of two 45-minute sessions. My expectations were wide off the mark when I realized these students weren’t all slim-fit tapered pants and t-shirts; they’re were an eclectic bunch sporting styles that range from ties and Timberlands to boots and pea coats—all enthusiastic about skateboarding.
Helmets and stretching were the first orders of business, followed by check-in. “What was your favorite part of Thanksgiving break?” Taylor, the instructor, asked.
“Stuffing with hella gravy,” a student answered to which Taylor responded, “Stuffing with hella gravy. Rad.”
We then went around sharing what facet of our game we’d work on and started skating straight away. Some of the students worked on their grinds and flatland tricks, others on their stationary ollies. Everyone was aware of each other’s runs and abilities, minimizing the chance of collision (none occurred). Taylor spent the latter portion of the session teaching some moves from a classic repertoire of tricks.
Before long it was 2:15, the time for the two groups to switch, and I followed mine to the front of the shop. Whereas the back of house is reserved for skating (practice), the front of house is a more conventional classroom atmosphere. The students worked on articulating their short and long-term skill-building goals. After their assignment, we went around describing our most recent skate session outside of class. One student couldn’t say enough about his friend who’d ollied the five and six progression stair sets adjacent to the “Jungle Gap” off South 11th and Broadway. “That guy’s got drive!” he said, saying that this friend was his inspiration for skating.
“We want to get the kids out to Point Defiance and some of the local parks,” Taylor shared with me after class was dismissed, “but we have to charter a bus at least two weeks in advance and we can’t really depend on the weather.” Nevertheless, Taylor had two field trips in mind before the end of the term: one to a local print shop to see how stickers and t-shirts are made culminating in making their own t-shirts and the second to Dashboard’s Skimboards Company where they’ll see first-hand the skateboard construction process.
Learning through discourse
Two days later I sat in on Alchemy’s accompanying Semiotics & Symbolism class; an academic look at the signs and symbols that define skateboarding and its culture. Ben explained the guiding concept for the class:
“When students understand that all people carry connotations around all images, and all people have a different understanding of what those images mean or represent, we can then have healthy conversations concerning conflict between dominant cultures and subcultures in urban areas. We talk about how media and marketing projects images of skaters as slackers, dropouts, violent, and destructive. This can change how the greater community treats this youth population. At the end of the semester we bring in Officer Bryce Clother to have an open dialogue within the framework of semiotics to start the conversation in an educational setting instead of a confrontational one.”
The class consisted of a history lesson on the 80s with worksheets focused on reading comprehension. The atmosphere was similar to what I found at Grit City—nicknames still used, puns never going unsaid—but with a formal tinge. Taylor and Ben taught the class together with a working balance of laughs and instruction. What I stood out to me were Ben’s attempts to guide his students past their jokes and help them comprehend their unique insights. Throughout the class, Ben helped these students to dig deeper, recognize their own intelligence, take themselves seriously, and commandeer their own potential.
A vision for a skateable city
Alchemy, along with its friends and partners, has already begun reshaping the community’s idea of the sport. With help from Mayor Strickland and city council member Marty Campbell, they managed to reverse the city ordinance that made skateboarding an illegal mode of transportation, and made Tacoma the first city to legally remove skate stoppers.
“Tacoma is truly the City of Destiny. We have all the resources and people who care to make things happen in this city,” Ben concluded, and I agree.
His refreshingly professional take on skateboarding brings the sport into a perspective worth serious consideration. Alchemy has legitimized skateboarding with a fieldwork-integrated classroom in partnership with Tacoma Public Schools, and continues to give public demonstrations of the sport’s value. Tacoma is a city carrying a resonant progressive tone, rich soil where Alchemy can flourish.
Months after my introduction to Alchemy, I snagged a follow-up phone interview with Ben, and just as I saw with his students, he inspired me to put more effort toward my own aspirations.
Progress has been made in every corner of the organization. They’ve received further funding from multiple sources (one award, $15,000, being their largest to date), and have many more in the works.
The skate park inside Grit City was professionally completed by climbing gym specialist/ Historical Diving Society member/ Spaceworks Steering Committee member/ skate advocate, Ryan Spence. Ryan has been a particularly invested and supportive advisor for Alchemy, helping them to connect with Metro Parks Tacoma and to develop a city-wide skatepark master plan. Ben shared his admiration for Ryan most eloquently: “If I saw him walking down the street with a bald eagle on his shoulder, I would think, ‘yeah, that’s not surprising, that’s Ryan Spence.’”
The Grit City skate park will be open to the public on August 1, for which they’ll be holding a party that will be nothing short of righteous.
Ben spoke of Alchemy’s advocacy program whose first project, legally taking down the “No Skateboarding” sign in Tollefson Plaza and “adopting” the spot, was a great success. He eagerly encourages his students not only to take an interest in the legal aspects of skateboarding accessibility, but to take action.“They’re learning how to work within the system… To work with the community to make something good.”
Alchemy’s influence has spread east to the Puyallup School District where they’re working closely with a high school class president on his senior project: legalizing skateboarding as a mode of transportation as part of the Puyallup Watershed Initiative. From this perspective, Alchemy hopes to develop a skateable pathway connecting the two cities that would also include educational and skateable art pieces.
With this school year concluding successfully, SOTA and SAMI have renewed Alchemy for another two classes this coming fall semester, and aspirations don’t stop there. As Alchemy grows, they plan to offer their classes to high schools all around the city, utilizing nearby spaces as skatepark classrooms.
Beneath it all is the undeniable “invitation to play” that Ben Warner and Alchemy truly want to communicate. Skateboarding is unlike most other sports in that its inherent competition doesn’t involve resentment. And no matter the background, the sport incites, as Ben put it, “friendships over boundaries.”
Featured #GoSkateTacoma image from instagram user @samindecapolis