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by Zoya Raza-Sheikh

We talk to Melanin Skate Gals & Pals founder Marie-Ermelinda Mayassi about changing skate culture from the inside out.

Skateboarding is having quite a moment. From its history-making introduction into the 2020 Olympics to its sustained presence across subcultures, the sport has been able to ties together communities and conversations with radical ambition. Once a sport that was seemingly relegated to stereotypes and misrepresentation, it has since become renewed and represented across industries. The combination of acclaimed skate productions (Skate Kitchen, Mid90s, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone) and grassroots persistence has dominantly carried over a new image of what a modern-day skateboarder can look like. The relentless rejection of categorised stereotypes and the embrace of much-needed change has been driven by those grinding through hard work.

Marie-Ermelinda Mayassi is one of those people. The 25-year-old is the founder of Skate Gals & Pals and Melanin Skate Gals & Pals, an East London based collective for marginalised skaters: QTBPOC, BPOC, marginalised genders and folks in deprived areas. An experienced workshop facilitator, a public speaker, and photographer, she (and her fellow collective) are fighting for a representative, accessible, and more inclusive skate scene. We sat down with the skateboarder in their makeshift Hackney Wick headquarters to talk big questions, progressive change, and next steps for Melanin Skate Gals & Pals.

We’re big fans of the Melanin Skate Gals & Pals initiative, so how did it get formed?

I’ve been skating since 2017. I quickly realised that there was something missing in this case soon, especially people who look like me and people that I could relate to. That’s when I started the collective Leeds Skate Gals and Pals, which was a collective for marginalised gender. We tried to create a community that was not centred around male perspectives on skateboarding. But, I realised the group was only attracting white women and that is something that didn’t really resonate with me because it didn’t feel like my experience was being valued.

For so many years, I felt like I was the only Black girl skater in the UK. I felt like I was providing the service to a community rather than being part of that community. So, when I moved to London in January 2021, I wanted to start skating again and to have a community around it. And after everything that happened with the death of George Floyd, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I just wanted to create a space for Black and other people of colour. So, I started doing a video series on skaters of colour around the world – of non-male skaters of colour around the world. That was another factor that inspired me to create a group dedicated to BIPOC skaters and queer skaters, so then started Melanin Skate Gals & Pals in March 2021.

How do you think the skate scene has changed since the rise of representative skate collectives and cultural sporting shifts such as the Olympics?

The skate scene is trying to address problems of gender inequalities and that’s still a huge issue just the experience of skaters of colour, especially now that skateboarding is at the Olympics. We saw that it was super diverse but there were a lot of marginalised participants and a bunch of people of colour as well. So, I do think it’s changing and progressing very slowly. I think it’s not until you take space somewhere that people actually acknowledge your experience and the fact that you exist.

How effective has the skate group been for creating community conversation within the skating environment around you?

I feel like people putting time and dedicating their lives to that is what can really make a change and putting time beyond learning tricks, but really researching how marginalised communities can be empowered, and how conversation can be had. It can be about gender, sexualities, identities, race, but even topics like consent, especially because skateboarding is such a lawless sport. There are so many things that we can put forward that could be life-changing for a lot of marginalised communities. I’ve personally seen it when I went to Palestine or when I went to refugee camps in Greece and how it was making people’s lives so much better.

What inspired the foundation and ethos of Skate Gals and Pals?

When I started the series about non-white skaters of marginalised genders around the world, I realised how these skaters were empowered by skating with BPOC skaters around them. That really made me realise that’s the kind of community I want. I moved to London because there were so many white people in Leeds – it was overpowering. Again, after the death of George Floyd, these white people were in your face about everything racism. I don’t think people just don’t understand how draining it is and you just feel so singled out when you don’t see anyone that looks like you in the skate scene. I was done with it. This feeling inspired me to start something I felt like I had a calling at that time in my life. Martin Luther King said we all have a role to play in the liberation of Black people and that’s something I’ve always wanted to pursue. As I was looking inside my community, I could just see that I could fill some gaps without having to invade someone else’s space and social context.

What’s been the biggest achievement for Melanin Skate Gals & Pals since it was formed?

We establish ourselves because of the nature of our crew and were able to secure partnerships with brands such as Lazy Oaf or Red Bull, which is fucking sick as they’re a huge deal in term of fashion for Lazy Oaf and action sport with Red Bull. Altogether, being established is the biggest achievement like not being seen as disposable, or something that is just gonna last for a certain amount of time is such a big achievement. Through the past year people gave me a hand with different side of the collective but I’ve been doing this on my own so personally, it’s such a big achievement! I just never thought that it would be going this far.

Speaking of big moments, do you have any big goals for the collective?

We’re gonna have to do end goals! Start sponsoring skaters of colour within the collective because a lot of people are really good, yet not sponsored for systemic racism reasons. Secondly, bring skateboarding to more marginalised communities and branch out the collective to more cities in the UK. We have a lot of people asking when we are coming to their area and it’s so hard to get out of London but we will! One of our biggest goals is to start employing and paying people within the collective. In terms of more establishments, we’re starting to work with Hackney Council and starting to bring the project to a wider reach of people so that’s really cool as well.

Follow Melanin Skate Gals & Pals on Instagram here.

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