Meet the USC Professor Who Wants to Solve the World's Problems with Skateboarding

Neftalie Williams sees skating as a tool for cultural diplomacy—something he has experienced firsthand while working with kids in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Spain, and Afghanistan.

by Michael Brice-Saddler
Jul 27 2016, 1:20pm

Courtesy Neftalie Williams

Dimitri Melendez was the president of the University of Southern California skateboarding club, but even he was able to learn something new from a class called "Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business, Media, and Culture" during the fall semester of his senior year. The course is the first of its kind in the country in how it explores concepts like gender, race, economics, and business through the lens of skateboarding.

"No one really thinks about that type of stuff with skateboarding because it's so free and not really structured," he said. "People usually think of your typical Santa Monica white boy when it comes to skating, but nowadays—especially in Los Angeles—it's very diverse."

Neftalie Williams, a lecturer at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, has taught "Skateboarding and Action Sports" for two semesters.

"Everything that's going on in the skateboarding culture can be extrapolated to solve other problems that are going on in the world," he said. "I'm teaching students that they matter in ways that they weren't thinking about, and then on top of that, letting them be engaged in academia through a [channel] they're already interested in."

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Melendez had resurrected the university's skating club in hopes of providing a tighter network for students cruising around campus. Inspired by what he learned from Williams, he now wants to connect the club to local elementary schools and provide kids from low-income backgrounds with college-aged role models, using skating as a vessel.

He personifies what Williams sees as an emerging sector of skate culture: young, opportunistic leaders with a desire to influence the world around them, becoming more impactful global citizens in the process.

"Skateboarding has these things that say you should go out and build community, reimagine yourself in the space that's around you, and have fun," said Williams, who has worked in the skating industry for over a decade. He views skateboarding as a larger transnational community where, especially among young people, norms can be formulated without adult instruction or interference.

"When I go to skate in Cuba, it's the same as Brazil, it's the same as if I'm skating with skaters in Japan," he said. "And that's without having a formal set of rules that regulates the body of skateboarding."

A class field trip to Element headquarters with founder Johnny Schillereff. Courtesy Neftalie Williams

The course has proven popular. Although Williams gets dozens of emails from both skaters and non-skaters aching to enroll, he has kept things intimate, allowing a maximum of 25 students to register (though many opt to sit in on the course unofficially).

"It was never like a lecture; it was always very collaborative with discussion and application of specific academic concepts to current events," said Greyson Peltier, a rising senior at USC. "I really feel like Prof. Williams' class gave me license to embrace those unique connects across realms of society that would be ignored or thrown away with elsewhere."

Williams supplements his lessons with a variety of guest speakers from both the business and athletic side of skateboarding, including Element founder Johnny Schillereff; pro skaters likes Joey Brezinski, Amelia Brodka, and Mimi Knoop; and Thomas Barker, executive director of the International Association of Skateboarding Companies.

"Truly, it's not a sport, it's not an art, and it's not a culture," Barker said. "It's kind of a bond of all of those things, and being able to express them in an academic point of view is very important for the future of skateboarding."

Brodka, a USC alumna and founder of Exposure, a nonprofit that promotes opportunities for female skateboarders, spoke to students each semester about being a woman in the skating industry, both as an athlete and as a businessperson.

Students watched the film Underexposed, which Brodka created to illustrate the lack of publicity female skateboarders receive compared to men. The class then discussed how changes in advertising and promotion could help women become a larger part of skateboarding, and action sports in general. Their midterm required them to critique the sport's current system and then design a comprehensive plan to increase female representation in skating.

"I like to look at is as we're problem-solving in our class ... we're looking at any entire ecosystem and figuring out, 'where are the missing pieces?'" Williams said. "That's what my favorite thing about the class is, they're actually problem-solving real world applications through something that they love."

The class with Amelia Brodka. Courtesy Neftalie Williams

Williams also examines skating as a tool for cultural diplomacy worldwide—something he has experienced firsthand while working with kids in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Spain, and Afghanistan.

"They get to see how important this piece of wood with four wheels can be," Williams said.

More recently, Williams joined forces with the U.S. State Department as the first skateboarding and academic sports envoy in U.S. history. With the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands, he worked with Syrian refugee youth who had been granted asylum in the country. He also probed 9th- and 12th-grade students at the Dutch International Schools for their thoughts and feelings about Syrian refugees by asking questions about how the migration has affected them.

"For a little bit you could hear a pin drop because the kids were like, 'Can we really say this? Is it okay?'" Williams said.

After spending time with the students in the Netherlands and Syrian refugees separately, Williams brought them together, once again through skateboarding. The lack of skating experience on both sides helped to create a level playing field, he said, where the kids could bond over skating (and falling) together, and leave their differences behind.

"Even if you're not coming from the best community, now you can be part of this [skating] community," Williams said. "You still have this community here that's waiting for you."

Williams said that the inspiration behind these projects is to give back to a sport that has given him so much, and also to ensure that the next generation of leaders is smarter and more culturally aware than the current one.

With an eye toward the future, Williams envisions an even larger curriculum, bringing together students from academic institutions across the globe through skateboarding.

"How do you solve the world's problems? You figure out what the kids already do well, and then you just enhance that," he said. "Let the kids skate, and let them learn together."

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University of Southern California
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amelia brodka
neftalie williams