Gals 'n' Pals: Empowerment Through Skateboarding

Gals and pals and skateboarding… it’s a solid foundation for a fulfilling and meaningful existence. A solid foundation for a skate crew, too.

A month or so ago, on one of this summer’s balmier evenings, we headed over to East London to meet up with a bunch of skaters collectively known as Melanin Skate Gals & Pals. It was plenty fun.

An offshoot of the original Skate Gals & Pals, the crew aims to encourage self-expression and empowerment through skateboarding, specifically among people of colour and other marginalised groups. After several highly enjoyable hours spent around Drapers Field and the Olympic Park, we spoke to founder Maz Mayassi. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Read on to find out more, then follow them at @skategalsnpals and @melaningalsnpals.

Surfdome: Who are Gals & Pals, what do they do, and why?

Maz Mayassi: The basic idea behind Skate Gals & Pals is to empower and uplift the voices of marginalised communities within the skateboarding world – a scene that is predominantly white, cisgender-led, and lacking a lot of representation. To try and fill the gap of representation, we hold weekly meet-ups, we are designing programmes that will educate people, introduce more people to skateboarding, and help people express themselves through skateboarding.

How long have you been skating for, and how did you start?

I have been skating since the beginning of 2017. When moving house, at the beginning of my third year [of university], we didn’t have any wi-fi in the house, and I really wanted to pick up more hobbies. I saw a skateboard in my house, I decided to pick it up, and it was just so so so fun… to the point that I just never wanted to stop, and I haven’t stopped since.

What were your initial experiences in skateboarding like, positive and negative?

I basically created Skate Gals & Pals because I just wanted to have fun when skateboarding. I did not want to be part of an intimidating clique at the skatepark. As a black woman I didn’t feel like I could or wanted to assimilate with these people, because I didn’t want to take myself as seriously [as they did], and I didn’t want to become intimidating. That is why I decided to find other people in my area who wanted to skate with some pals or just be introduced to skateboarding, and I was right – a lot of people wanted to pick up skateboarding but they were intimidated by the skateboarding community. So I decided to create a safe space where people could come and just be themselves and skate, without any pressure.

How did Gals & Pals actually get off the ground? Any advice for anyone else thinking of starting a skate crew?

It was at the beginning of all the non-male skate crews emerging, no other skate group really existed when we started. And that is why I believe we got so much attention at the beginning, and I really hope it inspired other people to start their own skateboarding collective and their own safe spaces. I also believe it got off the ground because, like I said, a lot of people didn’t feel they could get into skateboarding because they couldn’t find enough people looking like them. And because you can’t be what you can’t see, it restricted a lot of people to actually get involved in the sport. That is why I really encourage anyone who wants to start skateboarding to actually try and find a collective where they feel like they fit, but also to not hesitate to start their own initiative if they don’t feel like any of the collectives are catering for their feelings.

“I didn’t want to take myself so seriously, and I didn’t want to become intimidating”

At the beginning of 2021 I decided to create a crew dedicated to people of colour, as an answer to the emergence of awareness of racism from a lot of people, and also the need for having a safe space where I could just come with my people, talk about my experience of racism, my experience of marginalisation, of discrimination in the world, and not have to always try and justify myself, but have people who could always understand me straight away. I found that a lot of other people of colour needed this kind of space as well.

Tell us about the core events and activities you organise?

We organise weekly meet-ups in East London, apart from that we usually skate together in the week in a less formal way, so we just message each other, “let’s go and skate…” We organise cultural trips, so we go to the museum, theatre, or any cultural event that will be relating to our community and who we are as people. We organise skateboarding trips, we try and make skateboarding accessible, so offer trips that would not usually be offered to people of colour or marginalised communities.

We also want to do exchange trips to go and meet other collectives that are working for people of colour around the world. We have other events such as night events, we go out, we party… yeah, we are just a really big family and I feel that what any collective should feel like, when you are part of them they should make you feel like you are a part of a family, and not that you’re a token or disposable member of a community.

Where’s Gals & Pals at now? How has it grown since its beginnings?

We’re at the point where we’re looking to become a registered charity, we are looking to spread the word about what we’re doing to a wider audience, we want to reach out to different cities in the UK, and most importantly we want to bring skateboarding and skate-related activities to all the marginalised communities and people who are living in disadvantaged areas and might not have access to skateboarding.

Has there been any negative reaction, or annoying questions (other than these ones!) you get asked repeatedly? 

[Laughs] I think a lot of people… I don’t know, we had a lot of bad reaction from trolls on the internet, we’ve had people saying that we’re not good enough, or they think it’s really racist to try and make a safe space for people of colour. Then at the skateparks we’ve just had the standard white dudes making us feel uncomfortable, people who are saying that we should try and integrate a little bit more with the existing skateboarding community instead of trying create a new initiative of our own, like we are the ones who are making ourselves uncomfortable or unwelcome.

“A collective should make you feel like you are a part of a family”

And, it’s just very funny, because I think mostly white people just have no idea what it’s like to not feel welcome, they have no idea what it’s like to be the minority in most places that you go to, they have no idea how intimidating it is and how daunting it is that you’re always going to be seen as, “oh yeah, the black person”, or the person of colour, and they also don’t realise that a lot of times their sympathy is going to be… I don’t want anyone’s sympathy, I just want to be around people who want to have me around on a human being level and not on a… “oh my god she’s a girl in skateboarding”, or “oh my god she’s a black person in skateboarding, oh my god let’s get her in our crew”, you know?

What in your opinion makes a good skate crew?

In my opinion, inclusivity – making everyone feel included. And I think people always think of inclusivity as, “oh my god, yes you’re welcome to come in my crew”. Inclusivity is making sure that everyone’s voice is uplifted, inclusivity is making sure that every single person is seen as who they are and the whole spectrum of who they are, not only as a token, not only as a member of a crew but making sure that every single person in this crew knows that they are an important part of the collective, they are a piece of the puzzle, and not only just someone who’s, like, passing by.

And I think it’s very important to avoid having a hierarchy within the collective. We want to make it as collaborative as we can, and make sure that everyone has a voice on what is happening, and everyone feels like they can have a voice if they want to, or they can be an active part of the collective if they want to, or they can have one of their projects created through the collective, and they can come and ask for funds for whatever skate-related projects they want to do. I think that’s what makes a good crew – people who just want their lifestyle to be uplifted in general. 

Lastly, who can get involved in Gals & Pals and how?

Skate Gals & Pals welcomes everyone from a marginalised community – marginalised genders, so anyone who isn’t identifying as a cisgender man, and Melanin Skate Gals & Pals welcomes anyone with melanin in their skin, so every person who identifies as a person of colour. There are no hard ways to join the crew. Everyone can be part of the crew simply by joining one of our meet-ups, taking a lesson with us, applying to our programme, just coming and saying hi at one of our events, and yeah, I feel like once you meet us in real life, usually people are always coming back. And people can volunteer with us, they can donate to us, and they can just take part in our events. We’re looking forward to next year, we have so many events in our pocket!

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