Milling about the dining area of the Whole Foods on Couch Street, I’m about ten minutes late for my meeting with Sima, and she is nowhere to be found. Naturally, my first thought is of her waiting patiently for me at any of the other Whole Foods in Portland, but then I am soothed by the ding of my iPhone as she has just texted me, “I needed a few groceries”.
I spot her in the cheese section with a box of mixed greens, some sliced cheddar, and a bunch of bananas pitched against her vertically striped, black and white blazer.
“When in Rome. . .” I think, and grab a hunk of brie and a demi baguette.
She’s dressed rather elegantly for a casual day, though I know from our planning this meeting that she has just come from an appointment at the hair salon. She looks fantastic, and I tell her as much.
In turn, and as if the last true disciple of Dale Carnegie, she effortlessly returns an authentic appreciation of my appearance since we’ve last seen each other, and begins to extract my wants and needs in life, genuinely interested in how she can bolster them. Sima and I have been peripheral friends for a few years now, and I have to remind myself that I am interviewing her, and not the other way around.
Sima Safavi-Bayat is an Environmental Science major at Portland State University, and an event coordinator for the Portland chapter of Skate Like a Girl, whose mission, in their own words, is to “create a more inclusive community by promoting confidence, leadership, and social justice through skateboarding.” Admittedly a specific endeavor, though imperative to a community in which thousands of “non-traditional skaters” (women, girls, queer, trans, and youth skaters) remain underserved, underrepresented, or unseen.
When prompted to conduct an interview regarding social innovation, Sima’s smile shone brightly in my mind. Though she is not a founder of Skate Like a Girl, I couldn’t imagine anyone more definitively embodying the work of a social intrapreneur.
I start our interview by admitting that my own knowledge of skate culture has been informed solely by my male friends, often struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, disadvantaged by the toxic masculinity that has stained their community.
“That’s old school…” Sima expresses wryly as I lather my bread in cheese, “it’s still there, and there are even girls tripping over their boards, drunk, you know? But the thing with this nonprofit is that it not only brought a lot of awareness to women and the LGBT community in skateboarding and opening that up, but it also brought an awareness to men that are skateboarders who, for years, felt suppressed in their emotions and drink.”
She goes on to describe the positive change she has seen in her male counterparts after they are given the opportunity and safe space to befriend women and others in the queer community.
“and Skate Like a Girl has allyship clinics, so we’re actually giving people a space for a moderated talk.”
Through the crumbs in my mustache, I manage to broaden the scope of our conversation, and inquire about other social inequities or issues she is seeing within the community.
In the hour long discussion thereafter, we delve into a range of concepts both social and environmental, but always come back to two things: money and marketing.
“Where in this culture”, I ask, “do you see needs not being met?”
“I think it might be a social media presence that needs worked on. Clothing, products for women, branding, awareness. . . DC is coming back with a skating line, and the entire social media page is women who don’t skate. That’s fine, not everyone that buys Vans skates, and they’re also marketed as a fashion shoe, but their entire Instagram page is women in their bras and skate shoes. You can’t put ‘women’s skateboarding’ on that.”
Sima goes on to say, “That’s still a big issue, the marketing side of it. If you want to be inclusive, bring in a trans woman who skates, bing a non-binary person, and a femme. They’re the ones that are the most relatable. People to people, not models to models.”
She also makes a point to mention the importance of inclusion as far as industry leaders are concerned. For while Skate Like a Girl is inherently youth based, nonprofits need money to run.
She notes that it’s important to think from a business perspective in order to secure funding for social programs and events, and that we need to be changing the narrative of money as it relates to fueling social and environmental innovations.
“I think it’s realistic for a brand to want to make money. It’s okay to talk about money. We talk about money all the time because we have to. We are a nonprofit, and try to keep everything about our community, but at the same time we can only serve our community when we can make money.”
We continue discussing the importance of fundraising, especially in the skateboarding community where things like events, meetups, and competitions are so integral to the sport.
“Spending money on auctions and fundraisers is how we get big donors like Pabst involved, and at the end of the day, that money is going back into our community. . . You’re allocating jobs, and they’re remaining in the nonprofit sector.”
Skate Like a Girl has, indeed, secured funds and sponsorships from big companies such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, Levi’s, and Dickies, and Sima says that they don’t treat their patrons like customers.
“They’re part of our community.”
Briefly shelving our community talk, Sima boldly insists that it is okay to see things from the perspective of a corporate stakeholder. It’s okay to talk about money, and to tailor certain aspects of events in order to establish mutually beneficial contributions.
“Skate Like a Girl stemmed from empathy [and] breaking industry norms. . .On the business end, it opened up an entire market of female pro boarders for the men in the industry who didn’t even realize it was there.”
That market being given its time in the sun is indicative not only of a juicier bottom line for those stakeholders, but of a growing representation in a community whose ambassadors are often straight, white men.
Moreover, with her sharply sardonic wit, Sima admonishes that one cannot serve their community if they cannot feed themselves first.
A lot of our conversation tended toward a shift in thinking that needs to change within nonprofit organizations about money, and we both conclude the inevitability of money as the lifeblood of any organization trying to better its community, and that the topic itself can no longer be taboo if anything is to be done.
Having housed nearly an entire loaf of bread, I have but one last question for Sima after I define the term social innovations as such: “Social innovations are new social practices that aim to meet social needs in a better way than the existing solutions, resulting from - for example - working conditions, education, community development or health. These ideas are created with the goal of extending and strengthening civil society.”
“What, then,” I ask Sima, “is something that someone reading this right now can do in their community to extend and strengthen civil society?”
She responds quickly as she does practically, “It’s amazing how there are people who are on a platform, protesting….but not everyone wants to be like that. Not everyone can be like that. Who you can influence are the people in your life. Think small first. Good information [and] good social thought can be influenced within circles.”
My greatest takeaway from my discussion with Sima, aside from several carbohydrates, was the importance of shedding the taboo around money as it pertains to social innovation. Sure, money is uncomfortable to talk about, but any social innovator or Fosse enthusiast knows that it makes the world go ‘round.
I also understood for the first time the nature of the skateboarding community as I have not before, as one of inclusivity that can thrive under the proper circumstances. And in giving those who have been historically underserved a platform for edification and networking, Sima and the good people at Skate Like a Girl are doing just that.
For more information regarding the organization, readers may visit skatelikeagirlpdx.com, or follow @skatelikeagirl on social media.