Talia Kaufman is a friend of CASE. She’s currently in Cambodia working with Skateistan as their Communications Officer. We chatted with her about her time with the international non-profit charity.
Hi Talia, I understand you’re living in Cambodia, teaching skateboarding with Skateistan. Can you tell us a bit more about what Skateistan is and what you do?
Skateistan is a non profit that gives opportunities to young people ages 5-17 to be active and creative, and develop life skills through skateboarding. So far it has programs in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Pakistan. Our students spend half the time skateboarding and half the time following an arts, dance and music based curriculum. My role here is to help teach skating, engage girls with the skating, develop curriculum with my co-worker Alix, as well as handle anything media-related.
So is it a regular school as well as a skateboard school?
It’s a school in that we have classes, teachers, a facility, and a curriculum that we follow. Students come for two hours once a week, usually as part of a pre-existing program they are enrolled in.
In Kabul, where the program has been running for several years already, there is program called “Back to School,” which focuses on students who are not in regular school or who have dropped out. The goal of the program is to prepare these students for regular schooling, eventually helping them pass the entrance exams and enroll back into school. In Phnom Penh our programs are focused on physical activity, music and art, and other learning areas the students might miss out on in their regular school programming.
Where does the funding come from?
The Norwegian and Danish Embassies, and the German Federal Foreign Office are the major funders for Skateistan as a whole.
There are also several Skateistan fundraising entities around the world, which do a ton of work to support us. We are also working on becoming more sustainable through other fundraising methods such as our newly released book, a full-length documentary, and a number of co-branded skateboarding products as well.
Cambodia is the second country that Skateistan has set up in; from what you know about the Afghanistan operation, how do you think what you’re doing is different?
The program in Cambodia is still very new, we acquired a space to build the park and hold classes just a few months ago, so we’re at a different phase of the project than in Afghanistan, which is over four years old. There are so many places a program like this could apply, but it would always look a little different to fit the unique needs of each community.
Are there any dangers? A recent story about a suicide bombing which killed four Skateistan students in Afghanistan made international news. Any dangers like that in Cambodia (land mines, etc)?
Landmines are a huge issue in Cambodia, in rural areas and some towns, in parts of the country, but I don’t feel the two things can be compared at all. Youth in Cambodia do face dangers in their day to day lives, in terms of their health and other dangers that come with living in poverty, such as working in the streets. Girls in particular might have to deal with violence or the risk or reality of being trafficked into the sex trade.
One of your friends and another Calgary skateboarder, Rhianon Bader is working with Skateistan also. Do you compare notes as you have a similar position to hers?
I’m so stoked to get to work with Rhianon. She went on vacation shortly after I started but I’m really looking forward to it.
Is it even possible to skate in Cambodia? The first thing that comes to mind for some people when they think about that country is “jungles”.
The streets are really busy, just full of motorcycles, food vendors, lots of traffic, and there aren’t really sidewalks in most areas. People are really using the space efficiently. You see that in the way the kids skate the park too. Their sense of personal space is a lot smaller than in Calgary, they cut each other off or bump into each other often, but they don’t really seem to mind, it doesn’t throw them off. I haven’t braved many streets on my board yet, but I’m excited to.
Is it strange for Cambodians seeing people skateboarding? What are some of the reactions from the locals?
We get a lot of smiles. Most people have never seen a board before, but a lot want to try it out. People are really curious about it.
What kind of park obstacles do the Skateistan locals like? Are they more into ledges/technical skating or transition?
The kids here love transition…they learn to drop in on the six foot quarter, and have their rock to fakies sorted out well before they’re ollieing.
It’s no secret that Skateistan has had a huge impact with females. Since skateboarding is a male-dominated activity, why have these females in other parts of the world been drawn to skateboarding?
Maybe one reason is that Skateistan has the chance to introduce girls to skateboarding at any age, in a really inviting way. A lot of the kids we reach are really young, and whether they’re boys or girls, at that age they’re pretty fearless and they get excited about everything. But Skateistan does make a huge point of including girls, and other people who are marginalized too.
On that note, you yourself were drawn to skateboarding. What got you into skateboarding?
It was actually Rhianon that got me started and taught me how to ollie and stuff. After that we just made tons of friends who skated. It was fun, a good way to explore the city when you’re just gaining those adolescent freedoms. Looking back I think it made me feel like I belonged places, like the city belonged to us as much as anyone.
Any specific fond memories of skateboarding in Calgary?
Before Millenium opened, and a bit after too, we used to go skate street downtown at James Short, the CBE, Olympic Plaza, Eau Claire, etc. every day after school. We’d go any time of year, as long as it was dry. I have pretty fond memories of those days.
Would you say that skateboarding has helped you?
Oh yeah, in so many ways. It’s really challenging and I’ve had my share of injuries, but I feel like whatever I’ve put into skateboarding, I’ve gotten back ten-fold.
How long do you plan on staying in Cambodia?
My contract here is for six months, so after that I’ll do a little traveling in the area then head back home to my pals in Calgary.
As you know, Calgary is lagging way behind other Canadian cities and towns when it comes to skateparks. As someone who has experienced many other countries, what would you say to us Calgary skaters who complain about our lack of places to skate?
It could be better for sure, but limitations and constraints can force you to find new places to skate. Go do a little D.I.Y project, build a ramp, drive to a part of the city you never go to and see what’s there – Calgary’s huge! Also, Calgary is very dry, that’s a bonus I’ve taken for granted.