Rory Burke (IAFS ’03) is the Projects and Operations Director of the award-winning international non-profit organization, Skateistan. Through their innovative skateboarding and education programs, Skateistan empowers around 3000 youth aged 5-17 in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and South Africa. Their focus is on groups who are often excluded from sports and educational opportunities, providing them with safe spaces to have fun, build confidence, access education resources, and break down social barriers.
Tell us about how you got started with Skateistan.
At CU Boulder, I didn’t have a major in mind and the International Affairs Program wasn’t on my radar. I was on the CU Lacrosse team and one of my teammates suggested I take the introductory course. I became very interested in the major since it included many different subject areas. As a senior, I wrote a paper on the break-up of Yugoslavia through the lens of their national basketball team, which at the time was a powerhouse in international basketball. This paper taught me to look at complex issues in different ways, and how sports can be a microcosm for challenges in the world. After graduating, I worked as a college lacrosse coach and earned a master’s degree in international studies, developing a passion for sport-for-development programs. I found an organization that embodied this, Skateistan, and I joined them in 2012 as a volunteer for a project in Cambodia.
What is your role with Skateistan today?
I am the Projects and Operations Director, working closely with Skateistan general managers in Cambodia and South Africa, and the country manager in Afghanistan. I work on operations to help ensure our programs have the best opportunity for success and provide students with support. Skateistan runs five programs within their Skate Schools for youth: Outreach, Dropping In, Skate and Create, Back to School, and Youth Leadership. There are four Skate Schools established: Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Johannesburg, South Africa. A fifth Skate School is in construction in Bamyan, Afghanistan with plans to open this year.
In 2019, a documentary about Skateistan, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl), won an Academy Award! The film highlighted the impact our team is making in their communities. Quite often as a sport-for-development organization, people see just the sport part and think of the programs as simply skateboarding with kids, which is the opposite of the day-to-day operations. The film wonderfully highlighted the educational aspect our work, especially our Back to School program in Kabul, Afghanistan. In this program, we work closely with the Afghan Ministry of Education and local community leaders to provide basic educational skills and support to students who are out of school or have never been to school.
It has been super challenging for our staff and students to adjust to the different levels of lockdowns in their countries. For the students and their families, things have been difficult, as about 80% of our students globally are from lower-income families with many being greatly impacted economically from the pandemic. Without having the opportunity to engage the students in the classroom or skatepark, we switched to supporting immediate pandemic needs such as food, mental wellness, remote learning activities, homework packets, and more. As of this spring, most of the schools are opening back up to some degree, but we have to be pretty nimble through reopening and closing as countries deal with the pandemic in different ways and in varying stages.
What do you envision for Skateistan’s future?
Our organization has used a lot of the knowledge developed over the years to start The Goodpush Alliance, a global platform to provide free, online support and toolkits to other organizations and social skateboarding projects worldwide. We are also looking at lighter models for program delivery as our skate schools are quite comprehensive, but they can also be expensive to build and operate. By developing lighter models and potentially mobile schools, Skateistan will be able to provide educational and engagement tools to more communities. Longer term, I hope to see Skateistan grow in a variety of ways, providing more educational access to children in different areas, and to see Skateistan alums make an impact in their local communities.