Every skater remembers their first drop-in: the first time they stood at the top of a skate ramp, looked down a steep slope that promised broken teeth and busted knees, and stepped forward anyway. Ask them about it, and you’ll hear the words terror, adrenaline, almost shit myself—all said with a grin.
Skating is already scary. The atmosphere at skate parks shouldn’t add another layer of fear and discomfort, too.
For some, it’s the pressure of standing out from the young white male crowd that skating often draws. Snow is a novice skateboarder who likes to wear glitter and is, as she says, very non-dude-presenting. She remembers the appraising look that the young dudes at one skate park gave her. “They’re looking at me thinking, is this a ‘hot skater girl? Or is she good?’” she says. “The second I walk in, every eye’s on me.”
For others, it’s the memory of outright hostility. Charlotte, 21, is a transgender skateboarder from Toms River. “The amount of times I have been called unsavory things by other skateboarders made me kind of realize, I wish there was a gender-inclusive or LGBT skate that existed,” she says.
Happily, that skate does exist. The New Jersey Skate Collective works to make skating more accessible and inclusive across the state. One of its projects is a gender-inclusive skate designed to protect trans, nonbinary and other nontraditional skaters from the experiences that Charlotte has had.
The Collective began in 2020, after the shutdown closed indoor roller rinks. Em, a small business owner and former competitive roller derby player, was one of the Collective’s first members. With their roller derby days behind them, they started going to skate parks and meeting other nontraditional skaters there. “We were like, let’s… just get everyone together, we’ll skate together and see where it goes,” they say.
Em and the other members of the group began posting meetups on social media. Nothing too formal, at first, just announcements of where they’d be.
“The goal was always to create and hold a safe space for beginners and queer people and anybody who was marginalized, like skaters who are not white, who felt uncomfortable at regular skate park sessions where it’s predominantly, you know, boys on their skateboards who are really aggressive,” they say. “So we just really wanted to be like, ‘Hey, you’re gonna come skate with us, you’ll know that you’re going to be safe and we’ll have your back.’”
And people responded. The Collective’s weekly gatherings attracted at least 20 skaters each, a sizable group for most skate parks. With interest high and free time suddenly available thanks to COVID, the Collective began organizing more ambitious projects: a day dedicated to dance skating lessons, an art project that brought a mural to the West Orange Skate Park, and discussion groups that emphasized its mission of inclusivity.
“One of the first events that we ever did was a Black Lives Matter roll out kind of thing,” says Marci Cole, another former roller derby player and an early member of the Collective. “And we had Black skaters talk to a group of us, just talking about why it sucks sometimes, you know? And we all just shut the fuck up and listened.”
Winter of 2020 brought a brief pause to the skating meetups. The Collective took its work online to launch fundraisers, distribution of donated skate equipment, and mutual aid initiatives. In spring 2021, when warmer weather and vaccines brought people outside again, the collective’s first meeting of the new year brought out at least 45 people.
It was a lot for an all-volunteer organization to handle. “We were like, ‘OK, we’re trying to do too much,’” Em says. “Let’s just scale it back and really hone in on what’s important to us. And for us, it’s always been making skating accessible and safe.”
The Collective began forming subgroups that met on different days in different parts of NJ, some in the Oranges, some in Woodbridge, and the occasional meetup in Monmouth County. Finding a place to skate in winter still presented a challenge, though. In the winter of 2021, they found their solution by partnering with Freedom Skate Park, an all-volunteer, 100% free indoor skate park in Trenton.
Jake McNichol, executive director of Freedom Skate Park, says that Freedom is on a mission to improve skating’s inclusivity and accessibility, too. The park has worked with Black Girls Skate and local nonprofit organizations to create an actively welcoming environment for all skaters. Partnering with the NJ Skate Collective just made sense. Thanks to people like Krista, both a Skate Collective member and a member of the board for Freedom, the partnership became official.
Freedom and the Skate Collective are now in the second year of their partnership, joining forces to host a gender-inclusive skate from 10 a.m. to noon on the second Saturday of every winter month.
At the January gender-inclusive skate, the cavernous space of Freedom Skate Park echoed with the sounds of quad skates, skateboards and encouraging bellows from opposite sides of the building. Women, non-binary people and trans folk had the entire space to themselves.
The skaters came with different experience levels. Some quad skaters worked together to figure out how to balance on a rail. As Em mentioned, many people coming to the Skate Collective’s meetups have never laced up skates before coming. Then there were skaters like Charlotte, whose tricks and confidence on the board come from her 14 years of experience. Everyone did their own thing, but there was no sense of isolation. Separately or together, the skaters made room for each other as they practiced their individual techniques.
That’s the secret to putting so many different wheels through the skate park without any collisions: a culture of attentive awareness and implicit trust in a potentially risky sport. “I think we have some unspoken understanding that like, hey, we’re all in this place,” explains Emma, a skate dancer. “And one of us might even go to the hospital later.”
“There’s so much body language and subtle eye contact moments,” Cole adds. “It’s just this unspoken etiquette thing that exists with the community… you just kind of awkwardly figure it out, by like, pissing people off, or being too hesitant. And then eventually observing the patterns.”
That reliance on body language matters—especially when different skating subcultures mix. As the clock struck noon, a few people from the gender-inclusive skate started packing up. A line had formed at the front table for the general admission open skate, consisting mostly of cisgender dudes.
By 12:30, the general volume in the building had risen to a banging, clanging roar as skateboards landed from higher heights and more daring tricks. Making your way across the floor to the bathroom felt like a video game: watch for incoming objects from all directions, get the timing just right.
The atmosphere is a total switch from the morning’s gentler gender-inclusive skate. The different crowd brings another energy to the table. “It can very easily be construed as aggression, especially if you’re shy or uncomfortable around guys,” says Maven, a highly accomplished roller derby player.
“It’s not hostility,” Cole adds. “[Male skaters] are more willing to really take their own space. And when you’re a non male-presenting person, you might not feel as comfortable doing that and asserting yourself to say, ‘Hey, my turn.’”
Why should it feel different? Some of the morning’s skaters pointed to the generally more ambitious and aggressive style of many male skaters. This “boy energy” can be hard to relate to and led to several skaters seeking out their own space at a different skate park after the inclusive skate ended.
On the other hand, some of the morning skaters read the energy shift as a language barrier. That unspoken understanding Emma mentioned? Skateboarders use it, too—only it’s much more visible when you have a board to pop up. Quad skaters need to use a subtler body language, one that’s easily missed if you’re not looking for it.
“They don’t know our language,” Cole says. “They don’t have as much opportunity to learn ours.”
The mingled skater crowds may provide that opportunity. If skating is going to become truly inclusive, it means making room for these differences. They were on full display at Freedom as the remaining people from the gender-inclusive skate hung out with the people, mostly men, who came in the afternoon: different wheels, body types, ages, gender identities, races, financial situations, ability levels, experience levels, all sharing the same space.
And it worked. People mixed freely, laughed loudly and skated in the way they preferred—serious, playful, cautious, daredevil. Every skate style had a place.
A skater wouldn’t be surprised. The spirit of mutual celebration and support lies at the heart of skate culture, McNichol says.
“Whether you’re the best person on the session at the skate park, or someone who’s just starting out trying to learn a basic trick, the culture of skateboarding is to celebrate all of that,” he says. “It’s about celebrating a person overcoming their own barriers, their own nerves, their own fears, and achieving a goal that they’ve set for themselves. And being in a community that’s like that inherently opens the door to inclusivity and support regardless of where someone’s from, what they look like, what their background is.”
Cole agrees. “There’s just a different sense of freedom that you can get in a community like this,” she says. “Because there’s literally no gender attached to this. There’s not even a certain set of wheels that’s attached to this. It’s just, what do you need? What do you want to do and how can we help you get there? That’s beautiful.”
The Collective will have one more Second Saturday gender-inclusive skate this season on Feb. 11. Not as many skaters have been coming to the meetups recently. With pandemic measures scaled back and the world opened up again, some Collective members have left the parks to return to their roller derby teams. In other places, skaters now get together at their local parks with friends they’d originally met at the Collective’s meetups.
The Collective’s members are proud to see the diversity they’ve encouraged dispersed across the state. In general, the more local gatherings out there providing a safe place for marginalized and nontraditional skaters, the better.
At the same time, as the Collective’s original members move on to graduate school, businesses or raising families, there’s hope that a new generation of volunteers can continue its work.
“I don’t feel like we’re done,” Cole says. “It’s like a pay-it-forward kind of moment, in the sense of just making sure that this continues to make skating accessible for more people. Because there’s still folks out there for whom it’s not accessible yet, people who haven’t discovered what we do yet.”
Tatiana Lopez, a storyteller and visual anthropologist, sees that mission as important not only to the sport of skating, but to the wider goal of decolonization. Since last summer, she’s been working on a collaborative art project about the skate community that will include portraits and photo embroidery. Her work investigates the decolonization of gender and the importance of accessibility for skating spaces while also acknowledging those spaces as indigenous land.
“Providing opportunity and access to ALL types of skaters regardless of gender, body types and/or ethnicity is a way of decolonization,” Lopez wrote in an email. “It’s all about community and education.”
Seeing so much importance in skating instead of a more popular sport like football or basketball might seem odd. But skating offers something unique that other sports can’t. Skaters have a few names for it: the “skater’s high,” or simply an adrenaline rush. In one of the Collective’s early events, skaters were asked about what skating did for their mental health—and everyone had something to say. The skating and neurodivergent communities have a massive overlap, with skating offering a way to quiet the mind or bring a creative boost.
“This conversation happens with skateboarding also,” explains Em, “where people say it’s not really a sport, it’s more of a feeling. It is really athletic at times, but it is absolutely about a feeling. There’s nothing like doing a trick and acing it so well… the feeling of it is incredible.”
It reminds me of the way musicians talk about music: something wordless and connective, an understanding between people who know to stop playing at the same time even though they can’t say why. In spaces created to be inclusive, there can be an unspoken harmony between skaters who might be the dudest-presenting dudes, or women in glitter, or nonbinary or trans people in cheetah-print jackets, quad skaters and in-line skaters and skateboarders, moving to an indescribable pattern that still connects us all.
Follow @NJSkateCollective on Instagram for information about volunteering and events.