Fighting fear with the skater girls of NYC
Girl Riders Organization looks to empower girls and women through action sports and co-opting typically male-centric public skate parks.
The last Tuesday of every month, the Girls Riders Organization hosts a ladies-only skate night at Homage Skateboard Academy in Gowanus. The sessions attract younger girls, whose fathers stand awkwardly watching in the corner, to middle-aged women who stumbled across a passion they never knew they had. This most recent session was welcoming, loud with girls yelling back and forth to each other.
GRO is a national non-profit that looks to empower girls and women through teaching them action sports and coordinating meet ups where members co-opt typically male-centric public skateparks. It was founded by Courtney Payne-Taylor almost ten years ago; Payne-Taylor was in her early twenties, struggling with depression and trying to pull herself out of it, about to finish business school in Indiana. She felt that something was missing from her life. That summer she ran into a professional skateboarder at a park where she was thinking about planning a music festival. At his encouragement, Payne-Taylor took on skateboarding and quickly became obsessed. Over that summer, Payne-Taylor ditched her music festival plans to skate instead, which helped her pull herself out of the rut she had fallen into. “All of a sudden I was happy and I loved life,” she said. But that whole summer she saw only two other girls skateboarding and wondered why there weren't more out there. “I felt I had a purpose in life to help girls benefit from skateboarding the same way I was benefiting.”
Skateboarder Mame Bonsu at a GRO meet up at Pier 62 in New York, November 14, 2015.
Skateboarder Shannon South, Vice President of Events for GRO.
Skateboarder Zoe Herishen.
y the end of summer Payne-Taylor knew that she wanted to do nothing more than skate. So, Payne-Taylor sold the house she co-owned with her mother, bought a van and fifteen skateboards, and spent the next five years touring around the country builing a league of Girl Riders. She hit 30 to 40 states each year, using Myspace to reach out to the local girls in each town. She remembers an event she did in California, where she consoled one girl who was in the corner of the skatepark crying. “She was judging herself to the point where she was in tears over her inability to skate,” Payne-Taylor recalls. “But then she got back up and got skating. A year or two later she's riding for the Silly Girl Skateboards team. She went from someone that was really shy and quiet and afraid to speak, and now she’s one of the most outspoken people I know.” Payne-Taylor also remembered an event in Kentucky when she gave a skateboard to a six-year-old who had lost her parents and was being raised by her grandmother. The girl was medicated for ADD at the time, but a few months later the grandmother got in touch to tell them that after taking on skateboarding she didn’t need the medication anymore.
Eventually GRO was getting too big for Payne-Taylor to run it from the road. At the end of her last GRO tour, she was offered a room in a Brooklyn loft for a good deal, and decided to base the organization in New York City. “If I was going to show through GRO that anybody anywhere can make things happen through action sports, it was important to go somewhere that didn’t have the industry. New York is a place of creating new ideas, new thoughts, new everything. Plus the fact that in New York City, as a non-profit, I would be able to reach and help more girls per square feet than anywhere else in the United States. So I moved to New York.”
Skateboarder Nina Moran
Skaters assess the drop.
Jennifer Sayqua takes the girl she babysits to GRO skate nights at Homage each month. Sayqua, who started skateboarding four years ago when she was 20 and working on a movie set, commutes on her longboard to Park Slope from Bushwick every day. “It has improved my life by far,” she said. “It’s so much faster. I just can’t believe I ever lived here without skating.” For just over a year now she’s gone beyond commuting to working on tricks and skating on ramps. She met GRO rider Nina Moran skating on a mini ramp in Bushwick, who exposed Sayqua to GRO by posting photos on Instagram of the ladies-only skate nights at Homage. Not that it’s any less intimidating to ride with girls rather than guys: “With dudes it’s okay to kind of suck because no one expects you to be good,” Sayqua said. “But the ladies, they’re all killing it, so you want to do better.”
Sayqua's not sure if there are actually more girls on skateboards in the city now, or if it’s more of a "Grand Theft Auto Syndrome" sort of deal—where you never see a type of car in the game, but then see it everywhere once you steal one. “I feel like I didn’t notice girl skateboarders until I was a skateboarder,” Sayqua said. “Or there really is just a surge that started happening in the past few years. There’s a ton of girls who are really good around here.” She also pointed out that Instagram has allowed more attention to be placed on girl skaters who are good at the sport but aren’t sponsored.
Girl Riders taking a break between runs.
Skateboarder Bombette O'Malley dropping in.
Skateboarder Vicky Reyes.
Chelsea Piers skatepark.
erhaps the most interesting thing about GRO, and women skaters in New York in general, is the diversity in the age of its riders. At GRO sessions skaters can vary from middle school-aged to women in their forties. Katie Andrews, now the president of GRO’s New York chapter, didn’t begin skating until her mid-twenties and has only been in the sport for a year now. Payne-Taylor says that Andrews is already making big impacts in the skateboarding world, even though she’s still a beginner to intermediate rider. “I think she’s a great way to show that skating is not something that judges you on your skills,” Payne-Taylor said. “It’s a relationship. It’s a world, a community between people. She’s already a professional in developing the world of skateboarding.”
Like Sayqua, Andrews started skateboarding as a way to commute. She’d ride the handful of blocks from her home to the Bushwick Food Co-op, which used to have a skate shop in the same building and had prompted her to buy a board. A friend had mentioned GRO and recommended that Andrews go to a session, encouraging her to try to meet Payne-Taylor. Payne-Taylor ended up being out of town for that first one, and Andrews fell and broke her wrist. She said that Payne-Taylor sent her an email the next day saying that she heard Andrews had taken a spill, and to let her know if there was anything at all that she needed. As soon as she healed, Andrews was back at the GRO sessions. She was hooked. ““Riding a skateboard—even just down the block—is a special feeling, and that’s what it’s always about. Just how it feels with you on your board.”
Skateboarder Bombette O'Malley.
Skateboarder Lindsay Chapman.
Neither Payne-Taylor nor Andrews were able to make the most recent GRO session, which speaks to their laissez-faire leadership style; they choose instead to let the girls take ownership of the group and the space. This makes sense, given Payne-Taylor’s expressed aversion to planned-out, team-based, competitive sports. “Skating in the end is really just a mental game. It’s just you versus yourself,” Payne-Taylor said. “You learn to do a trick as soon as you believe you’re capable of doing that trick. So when a girl is learning to drop in, she already knows how to do it." It might take a few spills, Payne-Taylor says, "but the moment she actually gets it, it’s because she was able to tell herself, 'I am capable of doing that.'"
Outside of skating, GRO also participates in skate-oriented events around the city, like Skate Night at Leftfield Bar in the Lower East Side. Having gotten there early, Andrews was playing one last game of pool before they put a board over the table for the night’s eating contests. Videos of women skating were playing on the TVs. “I love that we have the girls and the boys here tonight,” Skate Night's host said at one point. An old GRO sticker was stuck to the bar’s draughts, and skateboards hang from the walls. “Where do you skate?” was a common question after an introduction, and if the answer was “I don’t,” the response was usually something along the lines of, “You should! It’s easier than you think.”
Skateboard Nina Moran, Director of Social Media for GRO.
Skateboarder Mame Bonsu.
This "easier than you think" mentality is exactly what drives Payne-Taylor to show that skating is not—and has never been—a boys-only sport. "Honestly the only thing you need to do anything in your life is to believe that you’re capable of doing that," Payne-Taylor explains. "I think that’s one of women's biggest problems; it’s not the men that hold us back any more, it’s not a glass ceiling. It’s us judging ourselves, and thinking, 'I'm not good enough.' Or going to a skate park and being like, oh, the guys don’t want me here.' That’s not true." Skating, she stresses, is a great way for women to confront their fears and prove how capable they actually are.
"I think that’s really the biggest benefit from skateboarding," Payne-Taylor says. "And if you get too cocky, your skateboard will throw you on the ground; it keeps you humble if you’re going too far to the other extreme.”
Editor: Gabriella Garcia