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Omaha Magazine

On Board with SkateFest Omaha

Sep 22, 2023 04:21PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Empowering Youth and  Building Community  Through Skateboarding feature ocotber 2023

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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Freedom—that’s what skateboarding gave Blake Harris. He now aims to share that experience toward extending the sport, and more importantly, toward empowering area youth and building community.

Through his BIPOC-led nonprofit SkateFest Omaha, Harris serves inner city youth in need of positive outlets. He was once one of those young people himself.

Born with ADHD and a rebellious streak, he struggled identifying healthy ways to channel his energy and focus. 

“I had a rough home life dealing with domestic violence, getting in trouble in school, fights, bullying, you name it,” he said. “I needed an outlet to get away from those things and skateboarding really was that thing I latched onto. Because I was suspended, expelled from many schools I wasn’t able to get into school [sanctioned] sports, skateboarding was that next best thing I could turn to.

“The reason I started SkateFest Omaha is I wanted to give back to that kid I was in the inner city without any other outlets—that kid who gets in trouble all the time, that adults don’t want in their programs.” 

His introduction to the sport came playing skateboarding icon Tony Hawk’s video game series, Tony Hawk Pro Skater. 

“I played every single one religiously,” said Harris, whose mom not only encouraged him but joined him. They also watched the X Games together. 

“That was just something we would always do. But I never picked up a skateboard until I was like 10 years old when some kid in the community was riding one,” he said. “He was pretty good. I thought it was cool.”

Skateboarding culture forms a strong conduit for young people struggling to find their place, as evidenced by Harris.

“It’s just about expressing yourself and who you are to the fullest extent,” he explained. “There’s no uniforms or team in skateboarding. It’s really an individual sport. You’re encouraged to be who you are and to get out there with friends and have fun.”

Then, there’s the resilience it builds.

“You have to be a certain type of person to be a skateboarder because one of the main premises is falling, getting hurt, and getting back up again no matter what,” Harris said. “If you don’t have it at first, then you’ll develop that mindset—and that really takes you far.

“You have to just be willing to be out there and go against the grain because the very act of skateboarding makes you stand out. You can’t be afraid of being different.”

Much like graffiti artists are now in-demand muralists, skateboarders have become modern role models.

Harris appreciates all he’s learned from the sport.

“It just gave me that never-give-up mindset. When things get hard, you go harder,” Harris explained “Whenever I would take a fall, it would just fire me up. It just kind of transitioned right into life. I’ve done a lot of great things that I’m very proud of with my life.” 

Besides skateboarding, Harris credits the people he met in Omaha’s Bridge Church and Abide Network with helping him grow into the person he is today.

“It was a life-changing experience. They were all into traveling and doing positive things,” he said. “I attribute a lot of love to them. They took me in. I never had traveled before; I thought it was something that just rich people did. I traveled to 16 different countries within four years—went really hard at that.” 

He even learned the nuances of photography along the way.

“I went to school (UNO) for entrepreneurship but that was only because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Harris recalled. “I found a passion in photography and videography; after school I started pursuing that.” 

Globetrotting opened his heart to giving back. He realized that a goal of making images for hotels and resorts in exotic locales, such as Thailand and Italy, affirmed his eye.

“I then dedicated 10% of what I made to going across the world and doing videos and marketing for underserved parts of the world,” he said “I was able to do that for a school for kids with mental disabilities in Mexico and for an orphanage in Rwanda, Africa.”

Once back home, he sought to throw “a little event” around skateboarding in 2021. When it got pushed to late summer, he staged pre-events that exploded in popularity.

“The attendance was wild. I was like, wow, this is something that really needs to be done,” Harris recalled. 

The eventual SkateFest feat took things to another level—“It was a huge blowout.” 

After establishing SkateFest as an organization, he launched Sk8 School at Roberts Skatepark, the first of several programs he’s since developed. 

“We formed a real community around that. We continued to do events and were more and more successful each time,” he said. “By 2023 we expanded our programming to where we’re now in some inner city public schools. We partner with a ton of nonprofits. The programs and events are growing; more and more people show up.”

“Sk8 School,” he noted, “is about building rapport and mentor-mentee relationships—teaching kids how to skateboard in a positive manner. 

“We get to know the kids. We can really take a youth from not knowing even how to push or not even having any skateboard experience to being a good, safe, skateboarder. It’s really cool how it works […] We’re about showing that representation to kids who look like me and where I come from and saying, ‘Hey, you can be a skateboarder, too.’”

Sk8 Kamp offers a day camp creative experience. 

“We give kids a skateboard,” Harris said. “They get to design their board however they want with art, paint, markers. We teach them how to assemble their skateboard. We give them a brief history lesson. Then we give them a skateboarding lesson. They’re able to take their board home, craft it, and take it from there.” 

The immersive programs and events emphasize community engagement.

“A big part of our organization is bringing new people into skateboarding and letting kids know that this is here—this is another additional outlet you can pursue,” Harris said. “We go into schools or show up at events and we do pretty much a pep rally for the youth. Our demos are really energetic. I’m on the mic talking to kids, hyping them up. We bring our skateboards and ramps out and our staff hit the ramps doing cool tricks. The kids love it.” 

Among the elementary schools, SkateFest has intersected with Rosehill, Fontenelle and Howard Kennedy. It’s also shown out at the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, Juneteenth JoyFest, Kiewit Luminarium, Omaha Children’s Museum, The Kaneko, Seventy Five North’s Community Day, and various area parks.

Leandra Toney, DREAM after school program site director at Howard Kennedy, said she appreciates how Harris and his team use positivity to expose kids to a character-building activity they’d otherwise not experience.

Events feature live art and music, vendors and, naturally, skateboarding competitions –from beginner to advanced.

Josh Dotzler,  Abide CEO and Bridge teaching pastor, said, “It’s been fun to watch Blake grow as a leader in our community. He has always had a big heart and infectious smile. He’s combined his love for skating with his love for people and desire to make a difference. He’s a great example of what it looks like to pursue what you love and use it to make a difference in the world.”

One of Harris’ longterm goals  is to build more skateparks in Omaha’s inner city, and beyond.
“We really want a facility to house everything we do: an indoor skatepark, music venue, art workshop. That’s the vision,” he said.

Mark one down and more to go with the North Omaha Ramp dedicated in July at 3703 Florence Blvd. SkateFest teamed with PlaceMade and other partners to construct it. Led by Jewel Rodgers, PlaceMade converts blighted properties into community assets. 

Rodgers says she’s impressed by the community stakeholders Harris brought to the project, and the “energy and enthusiasm’” he brings to collaboration.

The project, Harris explained, “turned into this huge collaborative effort between many different locals and organizations in North Omaha.” 

The site includes gardening beds and a mural, where the Sk8 School sessions unfold.

The ramp is named after Caden Foster, “a youth who used to come to all the skateboarding events we held,” observed Harris. 

Caden died in 2022 in an automobile accident. 

The site holds special meaning for Harris as his grandparents’ home once overlooked the property. 

“It was really a haven for everyone in my family,” he said. “We would always be there on that property right where the ramp is now situated.

“Since the ramp was built and installed, it’s been used every single day. It’s really become a positive thing for that area.” 

Harris described the ride he’s taken with SkateFest as “amazing.” 

“I’m so grateful every single day I’m able to do this for a living—it blows my mind I get to wake up and have fun.”  

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This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, 
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Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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