San Francisco

Meet Shawn Connolly, Engaging Students Through Skateboarding With SF Skate Club

Last month, we asked readers to nominate local people, businesses and organizations that are doing good in their communities to be featured here on Hoodline. This week, we're running a series based entirely on those reader suggestions. Here's one such story.

Next to Mojo Bicycle Cafe on Divisadero stands a yellow building strung with lights. There is a front yard of sorts, where a unique bench faces the street—the back is made out of skateboards cut in half, spray-painted with bold, graphic exuberance. Inside the window, a hand-drawn sign invites you to “Roll in, we’re open”; from the street, you can see three more signs affirming that the space at 635A Divisadero is indeed open and pointing the way inside. Look to your left, and you’ll see a wall entirely covered in skateboards hand-painted with figures, patterns, and the message “SF SC: skate and create, art, friends, family, learning” with an arrow directed toward the door.

This is the San Francisco Skate Club, an after-school program focused on creativity and skateboarding; the space doubles as a skate shop, and also runs Saturday and summer programs. It’s the passion project of educator Thuy Nguyen and her husband, skateboarder Shawn Connolly. And even if you’ve never been on a skateboard in your life—or thought that “skate” referred to roller skates—you're invited to come in. “Even though we are called a “club,” we’ have a very open-door policy for anyone who wants to participate,” said Connolly. “And you don’t have to be good to be down with us.”

The shop is brimming with the art of Connolly’s students and friends. You can find student-made bracelets and planters, Bay Area seeds that were packaged by the kids, hand-drawn cards, and screen-printed t-shirts. Many of the shirts have images from a sing-along coloring book about skating made by Greg Gardner, a skater who’s worked with the club’s summer camps: “We dream of shredding, even in our sleep./We’ll carve every bowl, no matter how deep.”

Connolly pointed out a board printed with the club’s graphics—colorfully dressed people pushing off on skateboards with their front legs—and explained that’s how beginners usually start skating, but that the method is “traditionally shunned” by experienced skateboarders. “So I wanted to make something that poked fun at the self-imposed rules that we have for ourselves while skating.”

Connolly himself has worked as a professional skateboarder (you may have seen him in Slap, Thrasher, and Transworld magazines), so he knows a thing or two about the rules of the industry. He grew up in a small town in Maine and picked up skating from magazines and VHS. According to him, the popularity of skateboarding dipped right after he started. “No one really thought it was cool,” he said. “Nowadays, that’s changed a lot. There’s handsome people who skateboard.”

Cool factor aside, he found teenage appeal in the fact that skating was something that riled the police and scared dogs and old ladies. “Even more than that, I was attracted to the artistic side of it. I could look at my hometown, which was like crappy banks to skate and things like that, and juice my environment for all it was worth.” Looking for new skating environments is what lured him to the West Coast; in 1995, he made the move to San Francisco “strictly for skating.”

 Nowadays, he and Nguyen see the opportunity to channel the same motivation he drew from the sport in their students. They wanted to expose kids not only to skateboarding, but to all aspects of the industry. “There are creative professionals in skateboarding, like graphic designers and filmmakers. Even down to people who work in the shipping department, you can find ways to be involved in skating.”

The kids come to the club after school. Once they’ve arrived, they’re expected to do their homework first; if they don’t have homework, then they’re instructed to find what Connolly calls “alternative programming”: reading, drawing, or working on a project. Then there might be something scheduled with one of Connolly’s friends from the skating industry or they might work toward their ongoing project—their last one was an art show where students created usable art such as painted skateboards, planters, and zines.

“Then we skate with the kids on Tuesdays and Fridays, but skateboarding is treated as a reward for the kids,” said Connolly. “It has to be earned.” Students have to bring an "A" grade on a paper to receive a free skateboard. “We’re using our resources to makes sure our kids do the things they need to do.” 

Cost of the program runs on a sliding scale. Connolly tells the families to pay up to $300 a month at their discretion, so some pay that amount, some pay nothing, and some pay fluctuating amounts depending on their situation month-to-month. "We wanted to make the program an option for everyone, so that's why we decided on this system," he said.

Connolly prizes the club's sense of community. “One of the most exciting and fulfilling portions of doing Skate Club, is having kids sit down and have skateboarding be a melting pot for different backgrounds. It’s cool when kids get introduced to each other, and they say, ‘Oh, do you have a nanny?’ Or ‘Oh, you live in public housing?’ We have a diverse group, and that’s what I’m most proud about.” What’s more, though skateboarding is loud by nature, the group has not run into any problems—a testament, he says, to the neighborhood and the behavior of the kids.

The students often find the club themselves; once in, they actively sell their art and come up with ideas. “It’s so rad when they advocate for themselves. No one is forcing them to come here. The kids want to be here.”

Case in point: While we were in the shop, Jesse Abrams, one of the youths in the program, walked in with a bicycle wheel he had found in the street. He had the day off from school for Veterans Day, but had come into the club because he had a last-minute idea for the art show: he was going to use clothespins to attach photographs to the spokes and possibly put a hook through where the valve had once gone to hang it up.

“I’ve learned that you can be creative in any way,” said Abrams. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be drawing, or projects, or 3-D art. It can be music, it can be graphic design on the computer. There are so many things that you can learn at Skate Club that it’s kind of hard to just choose one or several.”

On another day, we stopped by for one of their sessions. Iris Skateboards was there, showing the students how they recycled old boards by cleaning off the grip tape and stickers, gluing them stacked together, and cutting a cross section to create a new board striped with all of the colors of the old ones. The engagement in the room was palpable—kids sitting upright, eyes on the newly-sliced cross section, volunteering ideas for what shape they wanted the skateboard to be and asking questions about the process, such as whether the skateboards all have to start out as the same shape in order to stack them together (the answer: yes).

Connolly arrived late—he had run out to buy paletas. He uncrumpled the paper bag to start passing out the frozen treats. “There should be one for everyone.”

Thanks to Christopher P. for nominating Shawn.

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.