Pushing Boarders: Lucy Adams & Ryan Lay Interview

Pushing Boarders 2019, at Bryggerietts Gymnasium in Malmö. Ph. Norma Ibarra

Sexism, mental health, toxic masculinity, skate NGOs, equal pay, skate-friendly cities, allyship and more were just some of the topics discussed at this year’s Pushing Boarders conference in Malmö. Pushing Boarders, for those that don’t know, is an annual conference bringing together academics, activists, city planners, pro skateboarders, skate charity workers and others with the aim of discussing the current issues in skateboarding (many that are often not addressed). This year’s conference was in the middle of August and just after we caught up with Lucy Adams and Ryan Lay (both panelists this year) for their take on the talks, topics and their general impressions on the whole thing. So with the release of the talks online today we thought it was the perfect time to drop this interview.

Interview by Will Harmon

What were your favourite moments or panels from the Pushing Boarders talks last week?
Lucy Adams: I really enjoyed the panel with Esther (Sayers) and Indi (Indigo Willing).

The University of Skate: Support your Local Academic panel…
LA: Yeah. I also liked the panel Rick McCrank chaired (Skate & Educate: From Classrooms to Community). Those two, for me, everyone in them spoke really well and I was really interested in the points they brought up.

Do you remember anything in particular they talked about that moved you?
LA: I’ve met Esther lots of times and we’ve talked, and I’ve always found her really interesting and I know she’s a lecturer, but we’ve never spoken about it, we’ve just spoken about skating. But during her talk I was just mesmerised about what she was talking about in terms of teaching and learning. And I just thought, ‘wow, she sounds like she knows what she’s doing’.

Ryan Lay: ‘The Revolution will not be Patronised’ was far and away the best panel. It was really dynamic, really conversational and it kind of touched on a lot of important issues in women’s skateboarding… It was basically everything I would have hoped for, which is like a lot of interesting conversations around the competition between women and then also only viewing women’s skateboarding through the lens of competition – which I’ve long found to be problematic. There’s kind of this bind, Candy (Jacobs) spoke to this a little bit, it’s like: they can only make it by skating contests, but then by only skating contests they get pushed out of the mainstream of street skating and they’re viewed as contest skaters. I’ve heard Breana (Geering) and Lil Tubsy (Una Farrar) also echo those same sentiments. It’s just super frustrating, it’s like, ‘we don’t want to skate contests but it’s the only way to make money.’ And you know we can applaud equity in terms of pay with contests, like Mimi (Knoop) talked about, but then also maybe we shouldn’t focus our energy into contests. Competitions are inherently toxic you know…

Yeah I remember there was talk of the women boycotting some of these contests because the prize purse wasn’t equal, but at the same time, for some of the younger girls these comps were a good opportunity so they didn’t know whether to take away this opportunity, or what, etc.
LA: Yeah I think I brought that up and it was around a comp we have in the UK called NASS. They treated us really, really badly for years now and a couple of times I mentioned to certain people ‘we shouldn’t bother going; we shouldn’t go. It’s really not good. We either have our comp at 9am or we’ve had it once at midnight before…’

LA: Yeah and it’s just silly and no one knows what’s going on until we’re actually there as there’s never any information about it published beforehand… Anyways, this year I was really thinking, like Helena (Long), if I spoke to her, she would be in on it with me, she wouldn’t bother going. And then I could probably talk to someone else and ‘ah yeah we won’t go either…’, but then you’ve got little Lola and little Roxy and all these girls that are getting invited and going, ‘I’ve been invited to NASS! I could win £800!’ and it’s like ‘aww’; that’s their highlight. They’re only nine, ten, 11… I don’t know.

I don’t know what the solution is then…
LA: Well Amber (Edmondson) brought up something that I literally haven’t even contemplated and thought to myself like, ‘wow, you must be mad’, but Amber said: it’s not just the women that shouldn’t show up, there could be an ally in the men’s comp like, ‘you know what, we don’t need to show up either if you’re not going to treat them very well.’ Because I’ve heard Ben Powell, CJ (Chris Johnson) and (Marc) Churchill on the mic go: ‘it’s fucking outrageous what we (men) do to you lot here; I really hate it,’ but they still do it.

RL: I think it’s more interesting to me too just how much labour you have to put in to thinking about contests, like what a big part it is for your (women’s) careers. I think this came up in one of the questions about like the gender binary with contests, which is really interesting, because a lot of my friends who are queer and/or trans skaters, like they want everything to be decentralised. They don’t believe in hierarchies; so they don’t want to participate in competitions in general. So it’s nice to hear a pushback… It would just be great if you Lucy and Candy could just focus on doing street skateboarding and fleshing out what is possible for you in terms of skateboarding without having to focus contests because I’m afforded the ability to have to never skate in contests, because I suck at them, because I’m able to make money riding for teams. And they don’t really need me to skate contest at all you know? If anything it’s deterred a little bit. But that panel was phenomenal. It was really, really great…

One of the reasons I chose to speak to both of you is that both of you are involved with projects relating to skateboarding outside of your duties as professional skateboarders. What was the catalyst to pursue these other endeavours in addition to your pro skate careers?
LA: I feel like for me it’s always been by default; it’s never really been a choice. I kind of either get thrust into this position or it’s a time and a place thing and or I’ve always felt like, ‘Why does it have to be me?’

Like: ‘Can’t someone else take on these responsibiliities?!’
LA: Yeah it’s a position I just find myself in; I don’t go looking for it. I mean I’ve done a couple of things where like ‘all right, I want to do this,’ which was a couple of events for women and girl’s skateboarding, but I would really like to have the time to just skate and as Ryan said earlier, I’d love to be able to focus on my skateboarding and doing the bits of it that I want to do, but then I end up not always doing that.

Lucy Adams wallrides at TBS in Malmö. Ph. Norma Ibarra

And Ryan why did you start doing Skate After School and getting involved with all these skate charities?
RL: I just wanted an outlet outside of… Being a professional skater is all about marketing, it’s quite self-obsessed or self-absorbed and so I think I wanted to get away from that and also it was a way to rejuvenate some of the stoke that like sometimes get beaten out of you by being in the industry for too long. Just like going through the cycles of a video part, or a new thing, and riding for companies and then the companies go out of business, or they kick you off… And so skateboarding can feel kind of cheap. It has a cheapening effect over time and… You know the other thing is that I felt frustrated with the current political climate and skateboarding was just the best vessel to try and create some sort of community. If I were interested in another sport maybe I would do that, but it was like, ‘well we have all these resources and I built all these relationships with people, so it’s kind of easy to tie skateboarding in.’ And I felt like I met so many people at the conference that had that same kind of feeling, which is like, ‘look skateboarding changed my life and I recognise that my neighbourhood, this country, this continent, whatever, we have these major systemic issues so I’m going to try and use the thing that I know and love to attack those issues or create some sort of change.

Looking around at Pushing Boarders I’d say less than a dozen out of the 300-400 people that attended were professional skateboarders. Do you think more pro skaters should attend Pushing Boarders?
LA: Yeah, it was just so eye opening; there was so much to learn all the time. I think especially the younger pros haven’t been around long enough to know all that history… What’s happened? I don’t think there’s a real effort to learn about that anymore.

I thought it was nice to have all these skateboarders together, but not for some branded event, contest, demo or product release. It was a lot of like-minded people together discussing skateboarding and talking about the issues around it and I think a lot of good can come from that.
LA: Definitely, and for me, I don’t drink or enjoy parties or things like that, but all I want to do is talk about skateboarding. But usually I don’t have the time, as I have to be in bed, to get up early, so I don’t like to talk to drunk people out at night about skateboarding. Also at the skatepark, I want to skate, I’m a real high energy skater and I don’t want people stopping me, so being in that environment (at Pushing Boarders) and being able to talk about skating all the time… It was really good.

RL: I mean it’s like why not add a little depth to your practice? I’m probably just as big a skate nerd as you Will, and I can’t speak to you Lucy, but I like having conversations about the minutia of skate tricks and parts, and whatever, pants and ridiculous shit… There’s a lot of value in examining the depth that’s there also and plus I think in terms of the industry changes, people would be wise to start to address some of these big issues because, as noted from some of the conflicts at the conference, there’s these kind of major shifts that are happening in our culture and skateboarding is not immune to those shifts. And I think the big companies have been smart in that they’ve approached issues of equity and inclusion to try to address them and get ahead of those issues, but I think a lot of people are going to really be blindsided because there are a lot of companies like Unity and a handful of other brands that are building on the desire out there for people who want something that looks a little different or speaks to them in a different language. So why not try to improve yourself or improve the companies you work for? You might as well try to work and make things a little better and a little more equitable.

So on that note, you think more skate industry people should come to PB? What could they learn?
LA: Absolutely. So in any other field, say like my job as a data analyst, I don’t really want that as a career, but if I did, I would be learning about it and going on training courses and I’d go to conferences to learn more about the profession to get better at it, to know everything and be an expert. So absolutely, it’s a no-brainer: of course they should go.

RL: We’ve run Skate After School for like nine years and I’ve just seen the trajectory of like SkatePal and other aid organisations and they’re so much cooler now in the last few years, like skate orgs in general, because I feel like people rightfully see political catastrophe coming to them, or all around them, so they’re looking to skate organisations or just having this feeling like, ‘I should do something about it’ or ‘I want to care now’. I feel like ten years ago, for a lot of people, at least in the US, the sentiment was: ‘I just want to focus on skating’. And now I hear a lot of people who, similar to me, they care about the world around them, they care about who their president is, they care about politics, they care about what’s happening in their community and so I feel like the work of community building is much more respected than it ever has been and I feel like that’s only going to increase. It’s followed the trajectory, both in the UK and the US, of kind of the collapse of what we felt were venerable political institutions – the fabric of our lives around us you know?

I agree. With Brexit, Trump getting elected, etc., I definitely feel a greater sense of ‘I need to do more. I need to make an effort’ and it puts you in action.
RL: Exactly. Things weren’t all right before that, but I definitely get the feeling that Pushing Boarders and the culture around that is going to continue to grow. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from our podcast (Vent City) as well from so many people who are like, ‘this is great!’ The Nine Club is awesome because it’s a historical project where you get these origin stories, but people want to hear… They want a little more depth around the conversation.

Ryan Lay with (there should be a shorter name for this trick) a switch backside 180 to nosegrind turning back out to switch in Los Angeles. Ph. Kyle Seidler

Yes and I think you guys do a good job of that. OK, one of the panellists, Paul O’Connor, a professor from Hong Kong, said that ‘skateboarding is no longer a sub-culture, it’s a culture.’ Do you agree or disagree with that?
RL: I missed Paul’s panel because I was doing interviews; I’ll have to watch it later, but I’m familiar with his work. But yes, I definitely feel that skateboarding has entered the mainstream and when you see the rollerblader at the skatepark, I look at that guy and I’m like, ‘you’re what skateboarders were 15 years ago’ ha ha…

…the rollerblader is core!

(Everyone laughs)

RL: For sure they are! The pack of three rollerbladers that go and do handrails around town… Those guys are badass now (laughs). Someone posted this thought that has always stuck with me, I can’t even remember who it was, but they were saying for years skateboarding was this refuge because it was a sub-culture for all the weird kids you know? They kind of felt like they didn’t belong in traditional sports and they were interested in weird music and stuff like that, but now you have those kids and their access to skateboarding is like Nyjah (Huston) and they go: ‘Ah I don’t want to skate; that’s what jocks do,’ you know? So they’re going to go do weird art projects and music and stuff. I definitely feel like skateboarding is really broad now, like it kind of includes everything. There’s ranges of it that aren’t so cultural and there’s countercultural and then there’s fully mainstream obviously.

For our generation skateboarding has been pretty much an activity for outcasts and we had to constantly deal with people making fun of us for skating, picking on our clothes, etc. but we persevered. I feel like it kind of shaped us as human beings dealing with all that. People didn’t understand us, but that was fine because we were determined to carry on with what we loved doing. Now with skateboarding being so mainstream, do you think it will change a bit of its soul? Do you get what I’m trying to say?
RL: Yeah John Dahlquist spoke about this on our panel, but it’s been institutionalised. That’s the danger of all this Olympics and skateboarding in schools but I think that’s my big mission, and a lot of other people’s mission is like: ‘How can we take the money from these big multinational corporations or the money that’s coming in from the Olympics, but not totally sanitise and sterilise the thing that we love?’ We have to look at this radical counterculture that we feel is inherent to skating so part of that has to be a critique of private property… You know there were some interesting panels on that from Luke (Cianciotto) and Dwayne (Dixon) talked about the criminality of skateboarding and how inherent it is to that and I definitely agree with that. Skateboarding has to have that edge or else it’s just a thing that is coached in school and has absolutely no soul.

Yeah I agree…
RL: And that’s something that a lot of people, myself included, who run more formal programs we try to keep that in mind, because we are institutionalising skating to some extent but we are trying to keep it formless and organic so that the kids can learn skateboarding the same ways we felt like we learned it.

But also the kids can pursue skateboarding the way they want to… They might just want to skate at the skatepark on the weekends or they might want to go to private property and try to get tricks before the security guard comes out, but you leave it up to them. Don’t tell them ‘this way’s better or that’s way is better’; let them decide.
RL: The organisations and the skateparks create more space for people to access the sport and the hope is that you access it and then there is culture and media behind it that can push them in different directions where, yeah you might learn how to skate at an afterschool program or at the skatepark, but then you take that energy and you start exploring the city with your friends. And figuring out what skate culture is in general…

OK one of the themes for this Pushing Boarders conference was mental health. Do you think the skate industry should take a bit more responsibility for their sponsored riders’ mental health? What can we do to help other skateboarders with mental health issues?
RL: I have some thoughts on that… I feel like skateboarding, like a lot of other industries, relies mostly on contract labour… It’s like the gig economy has come to skateboarding. So people’s careers have really sharp arcs sometimes and companies will use riders to bolster their company and then, we’ve seen this time and time again, they kind of just get hung out to dry because they’re too difficult to work with or they start having mental health issues… I don’t know, I definitely feel like if you want to call skateboarders workers we’re really itemised and isolated. Obviously we’re considered private contractors in the States so we don’t get health insurance so that’s another big part of that. More broadly there’s just no resources: no HR department, no physical therapy, definitely no mental health services… So there’s that and the more obvious kind of glorification of partying, like the party lifestyle, which companies for decades have used to sell products to kids, which is bad for all sorts of reasons. But probably the worst part about all of that is that it just burns people out. You have really unstructured lifestyles, they’re so untethered from reality and then you’ve got companies that are glorifying that intentionally and marketing it and then obviously they crash and burn and are left hung out to dry.

Yeah it’s been going on for a long time.
RL: I wish that companies in general, not just in skateboarding, should really take into account how isolated their workers are… I don’t know; it’s interesting because it’s all sold to us like, ‘we’re a team!’ but we’re not really. I mean ‘you’re a team with the people you work with in your office, but I don’t work in an office so I’m not really part of the team.’ I think an on-boarding and off-boarding process would be really helpful. They have that in minor league baseball here and like the major league sports as well. Like, ‘this is what to expect, this is how untethered your life is going to be, this is how you pay your taxes, and also this is going to come in two to ten years so you really need to prepare for it and think about your injuries, your mental health, your relationships and start to balance those things.’ So many kids I see do this thing where they basically go, ‘oh I got sponsored. Finally this team manager is hooking me up with stuff. I’m going to drop out of college and quit my job.’ And I’m like ‘you don’t need to do that! You are not doing a 40-hour a week job; focus on skateboarding and try and build your career, but you can also go to school or work on what’s next,’ and that’s a trap I’ve fallen victim to too.

Lucy Adams, gap ollie in Nepal. Ph. Rich West

I think it’s one of the biggest misconceptions that you don’t have time to skate when you’re at university. There’s loads of time and there are big summer breaks too, which is when a lot of skate tours happen.
LA: Yeah, that’s correct.

After hearing all the talks at PB, did either of you get ideas for new possible panels or topics to be discussed next year, if there is another Pushing Boarders?
LA: For me, as I’m involved in that Olympic side of things from a GB perspective, and next year is obviously it hits the fan, so ultimately it (skateboarding in the Olympics) will be interesting in one way, shape or form for sure I think. It would be interesting to hear different perspectives on that. I was part of a small panel at the Innoskate event that piggybacked onto SLS London. Josh (Friedberg) chaired it and there was a lady there from the Mayor’s office in London and there was a member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and we got into a little bit of it, but didn’t talk very in depth about it. So I think it would be interesting to possibly do that next year.

Yeah especially if Pushing Boarders comes before the Olympics.
LA: The Tokyo Olympics start July 24th so PB would have to be a bit earlier next year to make this happen.

RL: I just did the PB feedback for so it’s kind of fresh in my mind. I think the really interesting thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is alternative funding models to get away from traditional advertising and then also structuring companies in a different way. Like what kind of possibilities are there to structure companies to move away from the traditional for-profit companies that we have currently, which we just went over – that don’t really take care of their riders…

RL: And not only the riders, the people who work for the company too. I think that would be an interesting conversation, like what funding models are out there? Whether it’s like worker-owned skate companies or unionisation in skateboarding, which there’s been a little conversation around that recently and I’m pretty sceptical of it, but I think it’s an interesting conversation. They tried to touch a little on the advertising model in the journalism panel, but again, they need to be explicit panels where you talk about one subject because there were all sorts of other avenues that sort of jumped into that conversation and they need to be able to expand a lot.

On one panel there was a guy from the city who said ‘I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here,’ and I thought that was interesting. I sometimes thought a few of the panels had too many people agreeing with each other and being on the same page. I’m not saying there should have been conflict, but it might be nice to have some people with different viewpoints so there can be a discussion. Does that make sense?
RL: I completely agree. Also I think having people who aren’t members of an identity group speaking about their experience is really helpful. I think it would have been great if there was a panel on race, but in addition to that, including non-women on the women’s panel and like straight skaters on the ‘Rage Against the Gaze’ panel, which could have been cool because you know you can speak to the ways which you maybe have been complicit in not being an ally… You know as a professional skateboarder I didn’t get on a team with a women until I rode for Welcome with Nora (Vasconcellos) and that was when I was like 26 years old. I watched her kind of go from being a nobody to having this crazy career arc, but it’s like you know I didn’t ever think about that because I didn’t grow up skating with women, ever. It was almost like a social… We were just segregated you know? It doesn’t need to be me, but I think that that’s really helpful to have those kind of painful conversations where you have to talk about that stuff otherwise you have… It doesn’t need to be argumentation, but I think that could be really helpful, because a lot of times it’s like you talk about the emotional labour that befalls people that have to constantly be speaking about their identity. I mean we don’t ask Lucy what it’s like for her filming a video part, we ask her what it’s like being a women in a skatepark; I don’t get asked those questions. No one cares about about my identity as like a straight white guy. I don’t know, I think that would be really cool to mix it up and get a little more conversation I guess.

LA: Yeah I agree.

For you each of you, what are the biggest takeaways from this past Pushing Boarders? How are you feeling about the whole thing?
LA: I think before I was so nervous, just because of the panel I was featured in, so I hadn’t thought about it. So at the London one (last year) I went in all day on that Saturday and I sat with Stu (Smith, of Lovenskate) and we left there buzzing. Like ‘oh my god this has been so good all day just listening about skateboarding and people talking about it’ and then we talked about it. I kind of forgot how good that that was because I had to do this and that (as I was chairing a panel this year) and think about all these people and I wanted them all to feel happy. So once it started to take place I was reading a little program before things were going on and I was like, ‘oh yeah this and this and that; it’s gonna be so interesting today! Oh I’ve met her; I’ve seen him…’ and the getting to talk to those people afterwards… There wasn’t like a particular thing, just the fact that it kept happening for days: it was great. And then as people said, those conversations just continued until late in the evening and you kind of just didn’t want to go to bed.

I know when the bar closed you didn’t want to go back (to the hotel) because you were having these great conversations with people you’d just met or people you don’t get to see too often. Like, ‘I want this to go on longer!’
LA: Yeah you’d be speaking to people in the lift, then you’d get out of the lift and we’d speak to people by the lift! It just kept going on and on.

What about for you Ryan?
RL: When I was there I just felt an incredible amount of vulnerability and humility and in the best way. I don’t know, we have our program in Arizona and no one gives a fuck about Arizona, it’s not a cool place, I love it, but it just meant so much that like… I mean I felt like a lot of people are doing really important work in isolated places and it’s just so cool to go there and see all these people who really give a shit that are working with whatever resources they have to create change. I don’t know, you feel empowered because there are so many other people who are doing the same type of work that you are. So many I met, who had like been to Palestine or volunteered with SkatePal who ended up starting their own organisations or it changed their life… Just seeing the interconnectedness of it all. We had people who I met who had come to Pushing Boarders because of the podcast (Vent City).

Ryan Lay, ollie in Torremolinos, Spain. Ph. Clement Le Gall

How flattering!
RL: That was the impetus for us all going as well you know! I feel like with a lot of people doing projects you are so buried in your work you start to get worried or paranoid like: ‘Am I even making a difference? Am I even changing anything?’ You know you can look at the raw numbers and be like, ‘what does this even mean?’ but the power to inspire people, and I speak from personal experience because I got to speak to some of my mentors there as well: Ocean Howell and Oliver (Percovich) from Skateistan. They’re people I look up to and then (I met) people that are younger than me that I now look up to like the people who are doing Free Movement. I was so blown away by their whole story… I don’t know that for me was the big takeaway. We’re so much stronger together and it’s really cool to see people firing on all pistons: like academics, skateboarders, people running skate orgs, journalists and it’s kind of like everyone has a common vision. And it’s really cool because a lot of times you get beat down, like I do, when people are like: ‘Can we just like stick to the skating?’ It’s like, ‘skating is cool’, but it’s the coolest when it’s a vehicle for change and community.

Yeah it makes skating that much better.
RL: Yeah it’s not cool in a bubble; it’s great and powerful because we have all these shared cultural references you know? You got to use that for something. I’m in bed sick right now, but I’m still so inspired by it all and motivated and I’m excited to continue the conversations that we had there. As everyone experienced it was quite emotional… There were several moments of crying. Multiple people in the room were brought to tears, like Theo’s speech at the end. There were some conflicts and some tension and you that might not really come across from just watching the videos. There was so much energy there in the room and especially in the in-betweens of talks… Like you said, it’s the conversations… Like I had a conversation drunk with Esther at two in the morning that I’m still kind of thinking about. That’s the powerful thing… The panels itself, they’re great, but it’s really about the conversations they lead to. Again like at 1:30 in the morning in an elevator with someone you just met an hour ago.

LA: Yeah totally!

Yeah it was one of the best things for me. It was so much to pack in last year in London. It was too much to talk about everything in a day or two… So this year they did a great job of not too many panels each day and couple that with skating in the afternoon… I mean shame about the weather, but you can still get some skating in.
RL: I was kind of glad when it was raining when we had panels because I didn’t want to feel bad for not going skating.

LA: Yeah sometimes I felt like that. It was much better the way it was structured this year so next year, if it happens, I would definitely keep it in that looser format where it’s not so intense. Also give everybody all the time to do all that informal stuff…

I think that’s so valuable: having time for those discussions afterwards.
LA: Yeah as you said right at the beginning, it’s not a brand thing; it’s not somewhere giving away free beer… It was just innocent. It was really nice.

Thank you guys for doing this…
RL: Yeah thanks for the opportunity.

LA: Thank you very much!