On a gorgeous and unusually warm January day, I arrive at the Jim Warren skatepark in Franklin, TN to shoot an episode with Lew Ross, a social activist and the founder of Fickle Skateboards.
While the crew sets up the shot, Lew skates with some locals - two young men in their twenties (one a teacher and the other a government agency worker) and a clean-cut high school kid.
Lew lives in Northside, a relatively diverse part of Cincinnati, OH, where he connects just as easily with skateboarders from all walks of life.
"When you're skateboarding, all the stuff you worry about, how you fit in society -- it doesn't matter when we're rolling on skateboards. You could be on the opposite end of the political or social spectrum from me. When we skateboard together, that's not there," he explains.
We cover so many interesting things in our interview that it's impossible for me to edit anything out. So we decide to break it down into two parts, both equally informative and inspiring.
PART 1: STIRRING THE POT
It all comes down to one thing: Be who you are and don't let culture pressure you into being something you're not.
We talk a lot about conformity and the price people are willing to pay to fit in, finding value through the tricks they perform or the clothes they wear, a topic I've been exploring a lot recently.
"I'm passionate about empowering people to dare to be who they are and to skate differently if that's their thing," Lew says. He runs his brand not because he loves wood, but because he loves the people who skateboard.
Running a skateboard brand is the way that I can reach to the culture and say: Hey kid, you don't need the hat, you don't need the pants, you don't need the right shirt. You are! Whatever you wear is right because it's on you. Your spiritual being, your intellectual being is what is most important. -- Lew Ross
PART 2: POWER AND LOVE
It's Lew's personal story that, for me, makes what he does so meaningful and impactful. It's one of those stories that seems to be a common thread in society, and that many will find familiar.
But it's a story that has to be repeated over and over, because within it lies a universal need to be loved, heard, accepted, validated, and embraced. It's a story that when ignored can have tragic consequences. Lew speaks at length about his experiences during our interview:
"Martial arts and skateboarding were a big part of how I began to find my way in the world. You know, 12-year-old kid, sensitive, socially maladjusted... I got bullied pretty savagely. So many people have that story and... I got into a really dark place...
I got really gnarly 'cause the world is extremely unwelcoming toward organisms like me. People who are sensitive and idealistic really get... they really get the business in the world..."
Self-harm and rage became a real way for Lew to take control. He looked for power in darkness and nihilism until he got 'whiplashed':
I was extremely ugly. I valued decay and death very highly, like religiously, and became a very, very dark, evil person for a short time. And then I just got whiplashed around. I started to shatter. I started to fall apart. It was too much for me, all this negativity and all this decay in all of this very sincere punk rock nihilistic engagement. I started to fall apart.
His waking up moment came during a talk by Leo Buscaglia that was broadcast on TV.
I watched a talk by Leo Buscaglia with my mom and I just began to weep. I remember I was weeping uncontrollably and I left the room 'cause, you know, I 'hated' my parents, I didn't wanna talk about it and I didn't wanna have any feelings and I... it was like one week I saw Leo Buscaglia speak on TV and it busted me.
I called my Hindu friend up that night and I said, there has to be a god. And I said I discovered it. God has to be love!
Lew's personal story of waking up to love has been his inspiration and motivation for how he shows up in the world.
Being exposed to acceptance and love at a baseline level have... it's caused me to sort of file a divorce with this world and its dumb fashion rules and its dumb conformity and its: Oh well, you have to wear this or wear that or look like this or look like that. You have to be cool, or you have to be thin, or you have to be beautiful, or you have to be gay or straight, or black or white...
Lew is not afraid to be different and controversial. He believes that questioning authority is the only way to find the relevant truth. True to his beginnings in the punk rock movement of independent thinking and independent life choices, Lew is passionate about standing up against misogyny and racism and phobias of any kind -- in skateboard parks and in the world.
If a human community is going to be bigoted about what you're riding in a skatepark, then that community is definitely gonna fall like dominoes when it's time to be bigoted about other things.
You can find the whole transcript of Lew's interview here on Waking Up in America.
Lew Ross is a social activist from Northside in Cincinnati, Ohio and the creator of Fickle Skateboards. Lew crafts each board in his workshop with the intention of encouraging young skaters to be who they are and not force themselves to conform to the ideals of modern skating culture.