It’s environmental action month at Raising Rippers! Last week I talked with surf activist Kyle Thiermann about no-brainer ways to lessen your impact on the planet. Now I’m wowed by 17-year old Victor Davila’s plan to use skateboarding to promote environmental justice and reduce inner-city obesity in his home turf, the South Bronx.
[photo courtesy Brower Youth Awards]
When Victor received an annual Brower Youth Award last week, he joined the ranks of gung-ho youth activists like Thiermann, a couple of Girl Scouts who got destructive palm oil banned from Thin Mints, and a handful of other of his generation’s brightest bulbs. But Victor’s the only honoree in BYA’s Class of 2011—and maybe ever—who can outrace a New York City bus on his skateboard. Sweet.
Victor grew up in Hunts Point, a peninsula at the southern tip of the Bronx, one of the most overburdened communities in the country. Forty percent of New York City garbage is dumped here, dozens of miles of highway crisscross the borough while public transportation is scant (and few residents own cars), 1 in 4 local kids suffers from asthma, and more than half of Hunts Point children live below the poverty level. The South Bronx also has some of the city’s highest obesity and hunger rates.
“When I was younger, I thought these were just things we had to live with,” says Victor, who was home schooled by his mom until he finished high school last spring. “But when joined the Point, I realized we could make changes.” He’s talking about The Point community center, a nexus of neighborhood revitalization, where as a kid, he took free after-school programs in art, piano and, starting when he was 13, activism. “That’s when I learned how to be a social leader.” He also learned how to skate, cruising the city streets as a way to get around. “A skateboard is a free means of transportation,” he says. “It runs on fat and sweat.” Pretty soon, he’d lost 40 pounds. He was hooked.
Last year, a rep from Usher’s youth advocacy group, Powered by Service, came to the Point, offering $500 seed grants to young leaders with smart ideas. Inspired, Victor and a couple friends hatched a plan to start a summer youth camp combining skateboarding with activism. They won the grant and Eco Ryders was born.For about ten hours a week during the summer, Eco Ryder kids work at the Hunts Point community garden and learn about land use issues at environmentally troubled sites around the South Bronx. Skating is the icing on the cake: After their advocacy and education work is done, they learn to build, paint, and ride their own boards. Says Victor, “We use skating to draw them in. Our goal is to inspire a sense of duty. Not just tell them to do something, but actually teach root causes and build advocacy and leadership in Hunts Point.” So far it’s working: Many Eco Ryder grads have left and joined other advocacy groups on their own; a couple have even come back to work with Eco Ryders.
Victor plans on going to college next fall, but not before he tries to create the first eco-friendly skate park in the country, with ramps built from recycled wood, green walls and other permeable surfaces to reduce run-off, a comprehensive water-capture system, and obstacles made out of wrecked cars, junked appliances, and other repurposed materials. “Skate parks in the South Bronx are few and far between,” he says. “But we have a location and a working design” for Hunt’s Point first permanent neighborhood skate park. Now all they need is the money.
For more on Eco Ryder’s skate park initiative, check out this slideshow from a recent exhibit called “Mapping Skate Parks.”
And top 5 tips from Victor to motivate your own rad young activist:
1. “Always understand that there is nothing but hard work holding you back from achieving a goal.”
2. Don’t go it alone. Get help and support.
3. Build campaigns based on similar efforts. “There are bound to be people already doing what you want to do.” Research what others have learned and use that knowledge when starting your own campaigns.
4. Spend time with other activists. “It’s contagious.”
5. “If you feel like you want to do something, just do it.”