Lisa Jacob – Sharing The Love
From growing up in the Parisian suburbs, studying poetry and skating for Vans, to building skateparks in schools in India and favelas in Brazil, Lisa has already lived a few lives, and I have no doubt a few more are yet to come. As we continued to languish in the weird uncertainty of 2020, we made the most of a lockdown-induced gap in Lisa’s busy diary to take a step back and reflect on her journey so far. Lisa’s passion for sharing the love of skating is truly inspiring, and it turns out travelling the world working on social skate projects doesn’t just help you learn a lot about others – but a whole load about yourself, too.
– Claire Alleaume
When we first met, nearly 20 years ago, you were living on the outskirts of Paris and had been skating for a few years. I seem to remember you were studying and working part-time in a skate shop on an apprenticeship of sorts? How did you find that time?
It was quite a hard time, to be honest. It was when I was 16 to 18 years old, and I only had five weeks of holidays a year. When my friends had school vacation, I had to go to work, when all I wanted was to be in the streets skating. I also noticed pretty quickly that I didn’t like selling things, even skateboards. For me it was kind of a wake-up call. I thought: ‘Wow, is this life? Is this what it’s all about? Doing the same thing over and over 35 hours a week, 52 weeks a year for 40 years?’ I don’t want to judge people who do that, because actually if you do what you love it’s probably really nice. But I was 16 and I didn’t know who I was – I needed to figure it out a bit more before getting stuck somewhere.
Did you have any sponsors back then? For a few years you travelled a lot to skate comps and events.
No, that came a year later. I got sponsored by Nozbone skate shop in 2004 and then Vans in 2006 and they still support me today. But yeah, before 2010 we’d travel around to events a lot. We’d go to Basel every year – that was definitely the best skate contest of all time. It really felt like nobody cared about the comp and everyone was just there to party! I have such good memories of those times, the parties at the Black Cross Bowl… I remember one night walking back to the hotel straight to the breakfast buffet, going to bed, then missing the contest because the girl’s comp was always on the Sunday morning!
You’ve filmed a few parts with Ludovic Azemar too, notably for Nozbone videos Rendez-Vous and Café Clope. How did you find that process? Did you film a lot during sessions with mates, or would you do a lot of solo missions with Ludo? Was it quite spontaneous or did you always have a trick or line in mind?
I loved it. Ludo and I are really good friends, so even in between Rendez-Vous and Café Clope we were travelling together and ended up with enough footage to release another part, the Nozbone Focus part. It was really natural as we would go on holiday together, and at that time that meant skate trips. He was always filming, and I was always skating. When we were on trips we’d mostly film during sessions with mates, then in Paris Ludo and I would go on solo missions. Especially towards the end – I remember jumping down stairs and thinking that it would be more fun to have a friend by my side! It was more spontaneous on trips; because you’d go to a spot you’ve never been to before, whereas in Paris you’d have a trick in mind because you know which spot is where and what you want to try there.
Did you have a set vision of what you wanted the parts to look and feel like, or did a lot of that come down to Ludo?
I wouldn’t say that I had a vision, but I guess I did have relatively high standards in terms of how I wanted it to look. With skating the most important things are to just have fun, feel sensations and share emotions. But when it comes to the representational side of it – like filming a video or shooting a photo – thinking also comes into the equation and I want it to look as good as it can. If I think there’s a certain trick that I’m only able to do in an ugly way, I’m not going to film it… Nobody needs to see that!
Music was always really important to me. I always had a song in mind, and just wanted to film to be able to skate to a song I loved. Although it didn’t actually work out like that for Café Clope. Me and Ludo had decided months before to use Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Waiting Around to Die’ on my section, but then he called me the day before the premiere to tell me that it didn’t match… The day before the premiere! He’d edited everything but my part, and then realised that the song we wanted to use just didn’t work… It must have been quite hard for him to make that call to let me know! [Laughs] But yeah, except for the music, I’ve never really interfered in the editing process so that’s all Ludo’s work – he knows me well enough to instil the vibe that best reflects me.
Yeah I love those parts where you really sense the bond between filmer and skater. Can we hope for a new Lisa Jacob part someday?
No idea! I’m not skating every day anymore. I’m working every day nowadays. So it’s not that I don’t want to film, it’s just not my priority anymore. I have [skatepark] builds planned here and there, and lots of work on my computer in between… Because I’m not on the streets skating every day, it’s never going to happen naturally like it used to. And both mine and Ludo’s priorities have changed – I’m really glad we created those memories but now I want to create different ones with more people.
You mentioned your work… Did you always think you’d end up working with skating, or did you have other plans? You studied a lot – literature, screenwriting – did you ever, or maybe still do, plan to work in that field?
To be honest, I never had a plan and I still don’t have one… I studied to allow myself a bit of time away from the 9-5 thing. After I worked those two years at the skate shop, it was clear to me that I wanted to pursue long studies. Not that I had a career plan or wanted to study something specific – it was more that I wanted to have enough free time for myself, to skate but also to live and figure things out a bit before settling into a routine that I might not even like. So I’ve never really had a plan to work in that field, but I can say that I’ve always loved literature and especially poetry – it was my other secret passion. I say secret because at the time I felt like people in skateboarding – and just people of my age in general – wouldn’t understand or would make fun of me. When I was 15, I wanted to be a poet, but I never told any of my friends back then. In my twenties, I was skating in the day and writing poems at night. Now I want life to be a poem.
How did you go from studying to building skateparks? I wouldn’t have guessed back then that you’d become a really skilled builder – I’d never seen you do any DIY before!
Me neither actually… That’s the funny thing with life, you can have all the plans in the world but if you allow a bit of randomness and drifting around, life just happens! Happy accidents, as Bob Ross would say. You might think you’re someone who loves particular kinds of things, but life has so much to offer that you never even considered. You might not even see that there’s another way if you just stick to your comfort zone.
When I finished studying around 2013, I wasn’t in a place then where I could study further, like do a PhD, so I knew it was time for me to stop buying myself time and start having to make choices about my life. My parents sat me down asking what my plan was, but I still didn’t have one… Luckily I was filming for the Café Clope video at the time and so I told them I couldn’t get a job as I had some skate trips lined up. But a year later we premiered the video and the same question was raised again. So I just left… I guess that’s what I do when I don’t know the answer. I left for India with Louisa [Menke], and we ended up meeting Atita Verghese who was building a park in the Kovalam SISP school at the time. I didn’t learn that much about construction at that point, but I loved the vibe. It was sick working closely with the school kids to build them their first park… It’s like an NBD that everyone was working on and we couldn’t wait to see the make!
I can imagine that was an amazing experience! Was that your first foray into DIY then?
Yeah, I hadn’t planned any of it – we were just bored tourists in India, contacted a local skater to enrich our experience and that’s how it ended up! It had a big influence on my life, and similarly for Atita I think. Seeing Louisa and I by her side, she realised it might be something she could do to create change for girls in India. So the next year Atita invited me and 12 other girls to go on a bus trip around India, to show that skateboarding – and everything else, for that matter – doesn’t have a gender. Then from there I heard about social projects that [non-profit] Make Life Skate Life were doing, and joined a build in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a few months later.
So how did you go from those first builds to really learning the trade?
I dedicated all my time to this. I’m really curious about how things work, so I’m eager to learn. I discovered I had a passion for working with my hands. It’s funny because I never thought it would be something I liked, as I’ve always been more of an academic kind of person, but I do find manual work very satisfying. To be able to create something new out of different raw materials, something that’s going to last forever… It’s a special feeling.
And it’s even better when it’s a skatepark – it’s going to be providing not only sensations and fun, but also friends, community, love, passion, purpose, maybe even jobs and money… So for me, learning the trade is not only something I want to do for myself, it’s also something I need to be able to master to touch other people’s lives too. I think that’s key – if you do something that is only good for yourself, at some point you will need more. You’ll want to be more connected to other people; you’ll want to work towards improving your life and other people’s lives at the same time. That’s the main reason I don’t feel the need to go skate every day anymore. I did that for so many years, but I realised it’s quite selfish and I was doing it for myself, which is fine, but at some point it was no longer that satisfying.
You must have worked on 30-odd skateparks by now? Some are for NGOs, and some are for skatepark building companies, right? Clearly the contexts are often very different, but do you find that in some ways they are very similar experiences – or are they just worlds apart?
They’re worlds apart because it’s a different cause, you clearly don’t do it for the same reasons. With corporate builds you satisfy a need for a place to skate in a local community, but with projects you help the community satisfy their own needs themselves. And in a lot of places they don’t have anything else to do, as kids. Building skateparks makes sense to me in any case because skateboarding is my passion but when it comes to NGOs’ social projects, we work closely with the locals – they ask us to come and build a park because no one else will. And they are involved at every stage of the process from the design to the on-going management of the park. The locals build it with us. We really get to know them and become friends, so it is a different vibe. And everybody on site will give everything to make it happen, because we’re there with the skaters who often have been trying to get a park built for years. You know what it means to them. On the last day of a project in Angola, a local skater hugged me and told me we’d made his dream come true. I will never forget this. I’d rather hear those words than get paid at the end of a build.
You mention locals are always involved in the builds with NGOs. How important is that to you and to the success of the park? I understand some of the NGOs have had the opportunity to pay local apprentices for the projects? And sometimes presumably it’s just local kids wanting to give a helping hand?
Yes Concrete Jungle Foundation has an apprenticeship program called Planting Seeds. I wouldn’t say it’s an opportunity we had – we really decided we had to do it as part of the project. It’s in the budget, alongside materials. It’s not easy for locals to be part of the build, even if they want to. They might have to work, study, support family or whatever. If you want locals to be part of the project, you should try to pay them. It also helps show how important they are to the success of it.
But yes sometimes it is just local kids helping out! In Mozambique it was crazy, the neighbourhood was full of young kids who all wanted to play on site all day every day. They love the wheelbarrow – it’s like a small car they can drive their friends around with! They pick up tools and copy the moves they see you doing. They don’t even need to talk… You just know they are with you to help and play and have a good day!
Listening to you talk about some of the builds, and reading about them in your zine, they sound like really intense experiences – amazing human adventures, but also incredibly hard work. What are your favourite moments, and what tend to be the most difficult?
My favourite moments are actually really difficult to explain, because they’re more like natural acid moments, if you see what I mean… Moments when you realise something about yourself or the world, phases of clear lucidity that feel like breakthroughs, points of no return, like a mind switch. It’s not easy to define what circumstances bring you to that moment – likely a mix of factors, being way out of your comfort zone, far away from home with strangers who feel like your best friends, overworked and knee deep in an unknown culture… You’re so far away from your ‘normal’ self and all your landmarks are gone… That’s how you make space for this kind of epiphany.
In a less abstract way I would say opening days are my favourite moments. It’s on that day, after all the work, that you finally see the meaning behind it all. It’s really powerful seeing everybody super stoked and kids playing around. There’s a very special unique energy on that day that stays with you forever.
There are a lot of difficult moments because most of the time we find ourselves in very harsh situations. Having to work seven days a week, 15 hours a day for a whole month, in the rain or beating sun, sometimes lacking tools, with trucks unable to deliver the concrete because there’s no road or not enough budget, having to drive hours to get on site, etc. But in the end that’s all OK because it’s manageable – they’re not really problems, more challenges. What can actually make it very complicated is when on top of that personal stuff happens. Building a skatepark can be very challenging but we’ll get it done one way or another… However when you’re already out of budget, trying to crowd fund online from Africa, everyone’s missed their flight home in order to finish the park, all the power tools have been stolen and all you have left is one screw gun for 1000m2, which your friend has to sleep with at night, and then on top of that he gets malaria… Then you start questioning why you are on site at 3am waiting for concrete to dry when your friend is suffering alone in a dodgy hotel room. That was Hawassa, Ethiopia. In those moments you’re not quite sure what makes sense anymore. That’s the most difficult part: when you start doubting.
In Angola, we also had a really hard time on site, but people were hyped and dedicated to fight. We were really overworking to make it happen, and one time after a night pour we felt so tired we started skitching to get back home instead of walking up the hill. But I imagine the driver had never seen anybody with boards grabbing onto his car before, he went so fast that we all had to let go, me the first. I fell, hit my head, and when I got up there was blood on the ground and pretty quickly it was just a waterfall of blood flowing from my head. They put nine stitches in at the local hospital. We were already in the shit and just didn’t need something like that to happen… People got really scared that night as they were worried about me, but we already had enough to worry about with the park. I took a day off but then I had to go back on site, I wanted to. Everyone felt bad that this had to happen, but sometimes it does take a lot to complete a project, on a personal level, physically and mentally. You might get hurt, have a nervous breakdown, catch a deadly disease in Africa, find yourself in the middle of people shooting Kalashnikovs in Iraq, have a gun pointed at you in the favelas, run from the Israeli army in Palestine, witness a bomb attack in your neighbourhood in Syria… All these things happened, to me or to my friends.
Sometimes people also tend to lose it in difficult situations and have a hard time dealing with their emotions, which makes it harder. No matter the circumstances you’re in, if people around you snap, it’s really difficult – otherwise you just try to laugh about all the shit that you go through to make it bearable and it’s pretty easy to find it funny in a way!
A lot of the builds you work on are for NGOs, including Concrete Jungle Foundation, Make Life Skate Life and Wonders Around the World, building skateparks in places with few existing facilities for skating such as Iraq, Ethiopia and Palestine. Could you tell us a bit more about these types of projects? At the core, what are they driven by?
Most of the time, these projects are a direct answer to people in the skateboarding scene reaching out to the community for help in fulfilling their dream of getting a skatepark. They reach out to us because their local authorities won’t help them make it happen for various reasons. We will make it happen because we care. To us a skatepark isn’t just a training facility for skateboarders, which is how local authorities might see it – it’s more than that and we take the time to really understand their needs. Occasionally a build is not driven by direct demand, but takes place in an area which has a real lack of opportunity for kids to just be kids, particularly where there are very challenging political, economic and social contexts such as in conflict zones. But I want to make sure people understand it’s not a way of imposing occidental culture. It’s not only about skateboarding itself. We think it’s very important for kids to generally have access to sport, playing games, doing art… To connect people and strengthen communities.
For me the social projects are driven by something most of us skaters share – the knowledge that skateboarding can be beneficial for us as human beings trying to find a place in a complex, sometimes hostile society. I want everybody to get the chance to experience life through skateboarding considering how helpful it was for me. Skateboarding carries very strong values that are unique in a capitalist society. I really think it can make the world a better place, and what better than something playful to do that?
Some might feel a skatepark isn’t the most useful thing for some of these communities who lack basic access to clean water, food, education, healthcare, etc… But can it be important, in itself, or as a conduit for a wider programme of benefits?
Absolutely. It’s definitely about more than building a skatepark. Are you meant to only ever prioritise how you help others according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I feel like belonging, love, self-esteem and self-actualisation are even more important to people who don’t have access to all the primary needs you mention. It is something, and something is better than nothing!
That really resonates… I was speaking to my brother, Seb Toussaint, who is an artist and travels the world to paint in slums and refugee camps as part of his Share The Word project. In some ways his projects are similar to yours, as he immerses himself in underserved communities for weeks or months at a time, to bring something some might not see as essential – art in his case. When it comes to how ‘useful’ help can be, he told me that it didn’t have to be one or the other – communities who are lacking don’t wait until they have enough education, electricity or food to love, to appreciate art, to have fun or to play sports. These are essential needs too and can be very helpful for mental health and for finding happiness or at least making life bearable.
Exactly, well said Seb! Another important aspect of what we can bring through skateboarding is education. At Concrete Jungle Foundation, thanks to Tim Van Asdonck, we have a solid program called Edu-Skate, which focuses on life lessons through skateboarding. It is based on the Self-Determination Theory, which states that humans have three basic psychological needs to satisfy for psychological well-being: competence, relatedness and autonomy. To meet those needs, an Edu-Skate season focuses on different soft skills, like Confidence or Cooperative Learning, which are brought out through skateboarding, community activities and discussions.
I also think skateboarding can simply help connect people on a deep level. There are so many labels that divide us in society today – whether it’s religion, gender, or ethnicity – but many skateboarders identify primarily as skateboarders before any other labels. It’s a strong part of our identity and I think that’s great because it can bring people together who would otherwise never have felt like they belonged to the same community. We forget that humanity is the community we share, the label we all have in common, and skateboarding has the power to remind us of that.
What’s the long-term legacy that you and the teams are hoping to achieve when building skateparks in these communities?
At CJF we highly value local ownership and sustainability for our projects; that’s why we stay active on the ground for a number of years to build up local organisational capacity. To do so, we provide employment to local youth so they can earn a living wage while helping at-risk youth through what they love. We want them to be able to support their community independently providing guidance through the process until they’re able to take over the project on the ground themselves.
Even those who don’t have programs running after builds do partner with local established organisations that are active on the ground, in order to make sure there’s enough structure for the park to be used to its full potential. I think for most organisations the main goal is to create an independent, self-sufficient system that supports people in developing their own community through their passion, and sharing skills and values that would be beneficial for kids to grow, develop and thrive as a human being in society.
Do you also look to transfer practical building transfer skills to the locals, so they can build more parks and maintain them?
Yes, we involve locals every step of the way. They get to learn about designing, carpentry and concrete shaping, as well as budgeting and management. Then after the build other skills can be acquired, like teaching, videography, photography and editing. The skills we aim to share go beyond construction and practical skills though, because the aim is to empower the locals to do whatever they want to do in the future. Not just building skateparks, but building confidence and opportunity! In India the locals ended up launching their own skatepark company. It’s all about local ownership, just giving that helping hand so that local communities can develop their own scenes as they see fit.
You’ve also partaken or run social projects that are not about building a park but about leveraging skateboarding in other ways. I’m thinking for example of the skate play you took part in in Jayyous, Palestine. How did that come about?
That was so random… When I was in India, I randomly met a Korean girl who lived in New York. A year later she called me out of the blue saying she was an associate producer on a play that was going to be performed at a skatepark, with skateboarders, in Palestine, in Arabic… That sounded pretty interesting to me so I said yes right away! It’s probably the most exciting project I’ve taken part in; I was thrilled! And it made me realise a lot of things about skateboarding, like how it can be a powerful medium to convey positive stories. And maybe that’s what it’s all about in the end: storytelling. Because you are the story you tell yourself, your life is how you perceive it. There’s a quote from the Richard Bach novel that the play is inspired from that’s really meaningful to me: ‘Why is it, that the hardest thing in the world is to convince a bird that he is free?’ You can be a bird and fly around, but if you let outer circumstances draw boundaries for you then your wings are useless.
Do you revisit parks and local scenes? Is it hard to spend such an intense time in a community and then leave and potentially never return? My brother Seb told me it was the hardest part of his job…
That’s definitely one of the difficult things that I forgot to talk about earlier… Goodbyes. Missing people. Spending a lot of time wondering how they’re doing. You totally immerse yourself in a community and a new life, really, but then constantly have to leave to start yet another life elsewhere. Most of the time you tell everyone you’re going to come back, and you mean it, really! But it’s not always how it works out. I feel really bad that I told the kids in Palestine that I would come back… I think about them almost every day and they’re very special to me. I was supposed to go back last May on a skate trip with a crew of girls, and it was a relief for me to know I would be able to honour my promise – but of course it was cancelled due to the pandemic. I think I feel particularly strongly about the kids in Palestine because they can’t leave, they know that they’re physically stuck where they are for now and that means it’s up to me to go back. That’s the only way they are in touch with the rest of the world. I miss them. Love you Ismael, Walid, Anas, Naddim…
You recently officially set up your own NGO, Forever Playground. What made you want to establish your own organisation?
With Forever Playground I’m looking to share knowledge and connect social skate projects, showcasing solidarity initiatives that are happening around the world. I want to shine a light on anything that inspires others.
It initially started as a magazine of the same name, right? I have to say it’s really impressive – the quality of the content, the stories, the photos… And the fact that you self-publish it, with all the editing and design work, logistics and cost – why do you do it?
Thank you! It started as a way to freeze memories in time and as a way to emotionally process all the things that happen – sometimes it’s hard to take time to reflect on your experiences when you’re constantly flying from one place to the next. I think sharing these experiences is golden, for skateboarding but also on a human level, because people take different things away from each experience and that’s why I want as many people as possible to take part. It also provides resources to anyone looking to start projects involving skateboarding, playing, education, storytelling, etc. I love that people reach out saying it’s really inspiring and that they want to do social work with skateboarding. If I can help them in any way I do, and I’m also stoked on the ideas and news they share with me about different projects.
I want everybody to know that they have a platform to express themselves and share how they’ve been able to help their community. And I want to give back to these projects because they give and mean so much to me. Every euro that goes to Forever Playground, through zine sales or our webshop, goes back to projects from various skate charities, and this won’t only include skatepark builds.
Do you get any financial support for the mag? If not, are you hoping to in the future?
Vans paid half the printing price for the last issue, which was really helpful because it’s quite expensive… I hope they keep on supporting and that I can find more support because it’s certainly time, energy and money consuming! Antidote Skateparks is also supporting indirectly by giving me jobs, so I can invest money into these projects.
What are your plans with Forever Playground, in the short and long term?
I’m currently working on the third issue of the printed mag, but mostly working on the website since the other aim for Forever Playground is to be a platform to share cultural knowledge within skateboarding. We have a resource page on the website with blogs, articles, and interviews presenting different projects, as well as a library of links to documentaries, books, studies, talks, etc. That’s an area I really want to develop, because there’s so much useful knowledge around skateboarding in various fields like education, urbanism, history, neuroscience, journalism, identity, writing, industry…
I’m really stoked to see what comes out of skateboarding nowadays, it’s super inspiring! Some people say we’re living the worst times of skateboarding with the Olympics, but if you don’t focus on that and look at what else has been going on, it’s for sure the best times skateboarding has known! At least within the last 20 years I’ve been skating! [Laughs] Just look at Pushing Boarders, how sick is that! I need to give a huge thanks to Pushing Boarders actually – they are doing awesome work creating a space for discussion, connecting activists and skateboarders from all over the world, not only skateboarders but also experts in different fields who can bring other perspectives to our nice little bubble.
And on a personal front, what do you have in store for 2021? As difficult as it can be planning these days…
I do have a few projects lined up including Bangladesh, Peru, Afghanistan and possibly Zambia, but let’s see how things go with the pandemic… I will be moving from Paris to Grenoble, looking for a shared office with Léo Poulet so we can communicate better between CJF and Wonders Around the World, and planning to work on the Chamrousse DIY extension in the summer. Then of course, Forever Playground, a few paid jobs, more welding, my driver’s license and who knows what else… I hope I still have time to drift around to make space for unplanned, unknown stuff!
Well… Definitely plenty to keep you busy! Thanks Lisa, it’s really been a pleasure.
Thank you and everyone with good intentions. Stay pure. Love you all sweet human beings, take care. 🙂