Raised by his single mother in East Cleveland, Ja’Ovvoni Garrison fell in love with skateboarding in a city that never understood the sport. Now he’s hoping to help others do the same, by providing 100 local youths with free skate gear and lessons.
“I look at where we were when I started skating, where there were no skateparks and no real skate shops even in Cleveland,” Garrison told GrindTV. “I used to skateboard down the street and have people yelling at me that I suck, that I was acting white.”
In a city where one-third of the population lives in poverty, and 60 percent of the population is black, skateboarding was a completely foreign concept to his neighbors.
“People didn’t accept the culture back then,” said Garrison, “but it’s starting to change.”
Growing up on Rodney Mullen videos his friend would bring over to his house, the now 25-year-old Garrison got his first skateboard at age 13 — a deck from Walmart that he says he broke within a month — and immediately became obsessed with the sport.
Even as his family struggled to find stable housing, bouncing from home to home as the foreclosure crisis devastated his hometown, Garrison found himself spending 8 hours a day skateboarding around the city, trying to replicate Mullen’s tricks. Eventually, he landed in Slavic Village, a neighborhood in Cleveland, but along the way he noticed something.
“I saw a disconnect between myself and most of the kids I went through high school with. Everyone had this negative connotation that skateboarders are lazy or that skateboarding is dangerous,” Garrison said. “But the kids I was going to high school with were breaking into houses to steal copper and selling drugs and shit. Skateboarding kept me away from all of that. It kept me out of the trouble I saw everyday.”
Now, Garrison wants to give kids in Cleveland the same chance he had.
In 2008, he started hosting skateboarding lessons at local rec centers. The attendance was small at first, but grew quickly as more and more local children got interested in the sport.
By 2010, Garrison founded Public Square Group, a nonprofit that aims to build up skating programs at local rec centers, while raising funding for skateparks across greater Cleveland.
He also started a citywide S-K-A-T-E competition, titled East meets West, to help foster a true citywide skate culture. And, as part of PSG’s efforts, the first skatepark in Cleveland, Crooked River Skatepark, opened in 2014.
Now, through public outreach campaign, Skaters Next Door, Garrison is looking to help remove the stigma from skateboarding, by offering free skateboard and skate lessons to 100 youths around the Cleveland area, but there’s a catch.
Each child that receives a skateboard will have to perform 40 hours of community service and attend 10 tutoring sessions that Garrison will hold across the area before they will be awarded the boards.
“Our plan is to build a culture first that accepts skateboarding, then to show the kids that skateboarding can be an entryway into economic and social opportunities,” said Garrison.
According to Garrison, when the iconic Dayton, Ohio-based skate company Alien Workshop shuttered it’s doors in 2014, it left Northeast Ohio without any major skate brands for locals to represent.
“The average skater from Cleveland who gets good today will go to skate on the west coast or New York or even down south, because that’s where the brands are,” said Garrison. “I want to change that. I want Cleveland to become the Midwestern hub of skateboarding.”
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