CHICAGO — A battle has raged for years to make skateboarding more inclusive of women, gender-nonconforming and queer skaters.
They are known as “non-traditional” skaters — skaters who are not cisgender, white men.
These skaters “feel kind of targeted,” said Lid Madrid, of Horner Park. “Sometimes you get labeled as a poser or not good enough, and it’s not OK, because when you’re by yourself, you can feel so, so discouraged.”
To combat that, Madrid, 23, co-founded the OnWord Skate Collective, a Chicago-based group of women and gender-nonconforming skaters focused on inclusivity. The group was also founded by Catherine Hodge, Deb Hwang, Bridget Johnson and T Smith.
OnWord is trying to change what skate parks in the city look like, not only in diversifying the people who skate there, but also in the design of the parks. In May, the group members built what they say is the first skate park in Chicago fully designed and led by a female and gender-nonconforming team. The mobile skate park includes a series of ramps that can be set up in parks.
Madrid, a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said the idea of building the skate park came to her as an architecture student when she was discovering her love of skateboarding. The sport fascinated her as a child, but her mother always said it was too dangerous for girls, she said.
Diversity in who designs the skate parks means “more accessible skate obstacles that beginners feel comfortable with” and “spaces where women and gender-nonconforming skaters are celebrated for their skills,” Madrid said.
OnWord built its skate park at an event called OnSite, where the aim was to teach the community how to work with tools like drills and wood, so they could “build their own spaces, hopefully, in the future,” Madrid said. It was followed by a skate session that would be the first of the collective’s biweekly meetups.
On Aug. 21, about 20 skaters met at Piotrowski Park in Little Village. As the sun blazed, Kennedy Pony, 24, taught members how to skate down a step about 3 inches off the ground.
Pony, who has since resigned from OnWord, was one of six founders and one of the group’s main recruiters, according to two other founders. Rochelle Rideau, mother of 10-year-old skater Brooklyn, said she learned of the group when Pony approached them at their local park in Oak Park.
“I was excited because [Brooklyn] had just asked me to learn how to skateboard,” Rideau said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about skateboarding.’ Oak Park charges a lot to do it. And so when Kennedy came along and said it was free, I was like, ‘Perfect.'”
When Pony saw girls at skate parks getting harassed or laughed at, she would tell them about OnWord, she said.
“There’s a lot of people in Chicago who have made a business off of charging people, like, $60 to $100 just to learn how to skateboard. … Why are you charging someone such a ridiculous amount?” Pony said.
Other OnWord members, such as 24-year-old skateboarder Camille Ochoa, found the group through Instagram.
OnWord has “turned my mental health around completely,” Ochoa said. “I feel good. I’m getting physical activity and I’m building relationships.”
Before finding the collective, Ochoa, who is queer, would skate in her parents’ garage to avoid discomfort and a sense she didn’t belong at skate parks, she said.
The co-founders also try to stay mindful of the geographical disparities that may put skate parks out of reach for some in Chicago. According to the Park District, Piotrowski Park is one of only six skate parks in the city. The South Side has none.
Madrid said that’s why they wanted their skate park to be mobile.
“When a skatepark is mobile, real change can happen, because you’re not asking the community to come to you. You’re seeking out that community and you’re coming to them,” Madrid said.
Madrid said the group members hope to raise enough funds to one day have their own truck, so they can take their mobile skate park to different parts of the city.
OnWord follows in the footsteps of a sister group in Chicago called froSkate, which was formed in 2019 to center women; Black, Indigenous and people of color; and queer skaters. Karlie Thornton, the 24-year-old founder of froSkate, said the number of female skaters at the parks has gone up in the past two years.
“The people who are at the park are also more accustomed to sharing a space with [women] and queer folks, too,” Thornton said.
OnWord’s mission to build accessible skate parks in Chicago, and the fact that the parks are “femme- and queer-made,” is “incredible,” Thornton said.
“The city definitely needs it,” she said.
Madrid said the group will place a renewed focus on inclusivity this fall and winter. In a town hall meeting over Zoom Sept. 20, members, including Lex Davy, 20, spoke out about the need to rewrite the OnWord mission to include trans-masculine and masculine nonbinary individuals, identities they say do not fall under the umbrella of “women and gender-nonconforming” skaters.
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