Have skateboard, will travel
2 August 2017
Skateboarder and University of Waikato PhD student Neftalie Williams is in Cambodia this week at the invitation of the United States Embassy. As a US sports envoy, he will be leading a US Department of State Target of Opportunity Sports Diplomacy program, tasked with helping to increase mutual understanding between the people of Cambodia and the USA.
And as skateboarding has been included as an Olympic sport in 2020 Neftalie has been asked to help raise awareness of skateboarding in Cambodia, on multiple levels. His trip includes meetings with the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports, working with students in universities and high schools, leading public clinics and workshops for skateboarders, and also working with non-government agencies and groups who work with disadvantaged youth.
Neftalie has travelled the world using sport to bring people together, including in the Netherlands to integrate Syrian refugees into life in Europe, and worked with organisations in Cuba, South Africa and Brazil.
By bringing children across race, creed and class together through skateboarding, he anticipates that the next generation will be more culturally aware than their predecessors have been.
Last year Neftalie received the USC Black Alumni Award for his pioneering work using skateboarding as a tool for cultural diplomacy. His Waikato PhD is focussing on how African-American and US ethnic minorities have experienced and influenced skateboarding culture.
Alongside skateboarding, photography and studying for his doctorate, Neftalie lectures at the University of Southern California where skateboarding is used as a cultural lens to look at issues across race, class, gender, politics and the like.
“Not everyone is going to be a professional skater, but when they see me, also an academic and working across sectors, they get to see other possibilities and maybe discover how they too can effect social change or work within the industry."
With so much of the world at his fingertips, Waikato doesn’t seem the obvious choice for Neftalie to study. “I first heard about the university through Holly [Associate Professor Holly Thorpe] and PhD candidate Nida [Ahmed] while working on my exhibition for a skateboarding event at the Kennedy Center in Washngton DC. Holly did a fantastic job recruiting me and helping me envision a future at Waikato University. The work they’re doing at Waikato in action sports has a high profile around the world and so I decided to come down and study here.”
Neftalie hopes to complete his doctorate before the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, as he plans to be in Japan when skateboarding is introduced onto the Olympic programme for the first time. “It’s going to be interesting because historically skateboarding is so non-conformist, no single sponsor, no uniform and not particularly competitive between individuals. It’s not just sport for excellence, it’s about self-expression. This is a new mindset to bring to the Olympics, but one that creates a more inclusive space for everyone. Skateboarding and other action sports will keep the games alive for future generations which is what the IOC wants.”