DeFremery Park in Oakland is tubular—grimy.
The blinding sun’s reflection hits empty cans of beer, and buds and roaches on the corners where the ramps and the walls meet. There’s an untraceable scent of burning cigarettes and weed. It is a place where during the day, kids wearing bright orange, green, and blue shirts with skateboarding graphics skate in patterns as they cross paths with adult skaters, wearing gray and black grungy shirts and jeans with holes in them.
Norbert Elliot, 24, looks like the stereotype of a Californian skateboarder: Dreads down to his chest, a black tee that says “New Legacy” (the name of the apparel company that sponsors him), yellowish orange jeans, cool flat-sole skateboarding shoes, and white headphones in his ears. Every sentence that comes out of his mouth slides up and down, like a skateboard going from side to side on a ramp—a Californian drawl.
“There is a sense of fellowship,” he said about the skateboarding community at DeFremery Park. Elliot, however, is not a California native. Elliot was born in Georgia, but his family moved around the country when he was young.
His father is a former cross-country Olympic athlete, and his mother was a biochemistry professor. After his mother passed away from lung cancer during his freshman year of high school, Elliot searched taught himself the basics of skateboarding and tricks by watching videos on YouTube. It saved him from a “real deep” depression, he said. “I skate it out. It helps me not to be mad for too long,” said Elliot.
Elliot said that when he was in high school, his father did not fully support him doing this sport, and he never attended any of Elliot’s skateboarding competitions. But that did not stop him from following his passion—today he still dreams of becoming a famous skateboarder. Since 2006, he has shared videos of himself and his friends skateboarding on his YouTube channel, Koep. His skateboarding achievements include winning a 2014 ollie contest (named after the jumping trick, the ollie), and competing six times in the Zumiez Best Foot Forward national skateboarding contest. He was also featured in the skateboard publications Berrics Magazine and Thrasher.
“The game never ends. There is always something else for me to do,” said Elliot about why he likes skateboarding. His best tricks include front and back 360 spins, and rail tricks.
When he was 17 years old,
Elliot decided to start over and live his life the way he wanted, so he moved away from Tennessee, where he was living at that time.
“I wanted to make something more of my life. You can’t chase those dreams around Tennessee,” said Elliot about becoming a professional skateboarder.
During this time, one of Elliot’s friends began a hippie commune in the middle of the desert, south of the Grand Canyon. He lived there for two months until an accidental fire destroyed the homes on the commune, which forced Elliot to move again.
After driving to Berkeley to give a young woman from the commune a ride to her friend’s house, Elliot ended up at the Berkeley skate park, where he skated for a while with a stranger. When Elliot he asked about the next nearest skate park, he ended up at DeFremery.
His first months in Oakland were tough. DeFremery is a place where, at night, those without a home can call it home—including Elliott. After couch surfing for a while, he slept outside the Berkeley park until he found a job at a furniture store that allowed him to be more financially stable. Elliot currently lives in North Oakland, where he rents a room in a family’s house.
Elliot says he felt accepted in California. “I found Oakland. It was like home, totally a place to settle down as a Black skateboarder,” he said. He calls DeFremery Park
“the Black Panther park,” because the activist group frequently used it for rallies, speeches and social service activities. Today, the diverse skating community, made up of kids and adults from many backgrounds, including a large Black community, is what attracts him to the park. It’s also where he found friends through his favorite thing to do— skateboarding.
In early 2017, Elliot met Tion Bukue, owner of FME Culture, a management company that works with the Berkeley Unified School District on providing enrichment programs and instructors. “When I look to hire a skateboarding instructor, one of the most important things is their positive attitude. That is more important than [the] skateboarding skill itself,” said Bukue.
Bukue saw Elliot in action, teaching a group of young kids how to better their skateboarding tricks at DeFremery Park. “Norbert has always had a very positive attitude, very empowering,” said Bukue.
He referred Elliot to apply for a part-time skateboarding teaching position at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. He got the job. “It is very helpful for us to have young people of color instructing, considering that the core demographic for the schools we provide our programs are young people of color, as well,” said Bukue.
Today, Elliott teaches a class of 20 kids the basics of skateboarding, from how to get on the board to jumping in the air and landing on the skateboard.
“I feel like those kids have one amazing opportunity to be able to learn from somebody how to skate at such young age,” said Elliot.
“It’s a real trip,” he said about seeing his students land an ollie. The most difficult part about teaching, according to Elliot, is telling his students that “everything is going to be okay,” when they ask him for advice regarding their personal lives.
On weekends, Elliot spends his afternoons at DeFremery, teaching from two to four kids how to skateboard. Sometimes he gets paid a little bit of cash. But in, some cases, he doesn’t get paid at all.
Up and down the ramp, over and over again 11-year-old Oaklander Silas Campbell attempts to jump into mid-air at the edge of the ramp. Elliot carefully watches as he sits on the side of the ramp.
A year ago, Elliot began mentoring Campbell on how to polish his tricks. “He said, ‘Do it like this,’ and I tried it, like, the fourth time and I ended up landing it,” said Campbell.
“It’s a lot like ballet,” said Elliot about teaching his students how to make small adjustments to their moves in order to find balance and land tricks. His sessions are “freeform,” according to Elliot. He doesn’t have a plan for which tricks the students will be working on, and he tries to spend most of his time observing their moves instead of demonstrating how to make them.
Elliot hopes to fill up his schedule with jobs related to skateboarding, to turn his part-time teaching job at the school into a full-time position, and to teach at more schools. He is also working on refining his signature tricks, and hopes to further his own athletic career.
“I want longevity. I want to do it at a level that I am proud of,” he said. “I really want to win a big competition so that I can pay my rent for a year with that [contest winner] money,” said Elliot.
But in the meantime, he said, “helping the kids—that’s probably my greatest achievement.”