Flying high: Lessons from a professor of skateboarding

Neftalie Williams sees a skateboard not just as a method of exercise and expression, but also as a tool to help transcend barriers of language or nationality.

The United States’ first professor of skateboarding decided early in life that his passion for the sport needed to be shared.

“Right when I got to be about 20 years old, that’s when I decided that not only was skateboarding important, but it’s something that I should really, really be involved in,” Williams told Voice of America. “Skateboarding meant more to more people, and it was a way to sort of connect communities everywhere. I started thinking about skating in a broader context.”

Williams studied skateboarding in college before earning a master’s degree in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California, where he now teaches a course called Skateboarding and Action Sports in Business, Media and Culture.

In addition to being the first professor of skateboarding and action sports in the United States, Williams also recently joined forces with the State Department as the first skateboarding and academic sports envoy.

Person skateboarding as others watch (© Neftalie Williams)
A young skateboarder performs a backside flip maneuver in Cuba. (© Neftalie Williams)

He has partnered with the U.S. Embassy in The Hague to establish a skateboarding program that welcomes Dutch youth as well as young Syrian refugees granted asylum in the Netherlands. Kids from both groups have gotten to know one another, he said.

“For some of these kids, it was the first time they ever got to see skateboarding up close,” he said. “And they all became immediate parts of the skateboarding community.”

The State Department is asking Williams to create skateboarding programs in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Cambodia and Ethiopia too.

In addition to his State Department work, Williams is chairman of Cuba Skate, a nonprofit based in Washington and Los Angeles that fosters exchanges between Cuba and the United States.

Williams points with pride to a growing number of female skateboarders in Cuba. The sport has always attracted male athletes, but “there is no disparity between the men and the women [skateboarders] on the island,” he said.

According to Williams, skateboarding teaches self-expression and perseverance. When you want to learn new skating tricks, he said, “you learn how to do it on your own.”

Skateboarding offers an exhilarating freedom, he added, but the sport also builds strong communities, and “that’s the most important thing.”