Alumni Spotlight: Miles Jackson, Cuba Skate

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Miles Jackson is the Founder and Executive Director of Cuba Skate, an international nonprofit organization that works to build community and develop youth leadership in Cuba through skateboarding. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Miles about Cuba Skate’s work, and his experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Jackson: The nonprofit sector includes a variety of different fields, and within them different approaches to affect change. My partner and I had the opportunity to study abroad in Cuba during my last semester in college. The experience there was very humbling. Coming back to the United States, we felt a responsibility to help out and make a difference, so we decided to start our nonprofit.

Cuba Skate, in a sense, is a hybrid organization. We operate in Cuba, but we are based in the United States. We work with sports, but also with creativity and the arts. Skateboarding is a way to combine sports, culture, and art into a new form of expression. Youth development has also been a great thing, we’re very focused on our work with kids to provide them with opportunities and resources. We like to say we are providing kids with the tools to skate through life. It all happened very organically, but it happened at a good time. Now we are celebrating our tenth anniversary. We certainly could have done some things differently, but I am very happy with where we are at and what we have accomplished.

CPNL: Cuba Skate cultivates community-building through the unique medium of skateboarding. Why is community involvement so important to develop youth leadership?

Jackson: There are a variety of nonprofits that do very important work. But many international aid organizations are often criticized because they give a lot of money for salaries and administrative costs, but how much of those funds are actually being allocated to the work on the ground? For our organization, we are almost 100% volunteer-based here in the U.S., and we have paid staff in Cuba. We believe that community building is extremely important. Beyond the relationship with Cuba and the U.S. being not as good as it should be for us being neighbors, we know that in order for Cuba Skate to succeed, we need to fulfill the needs of our participants, team and staff in Cuba. It can’t be me going down there every few months and saying: here take this skateboard, or you need to skate this way. Skateboarding itself is a very individualistic expression, so it is important to emphasize a team mentality and build a community where we are supporting each other. Community building for the youth is so important because not only are we dealing with a nation where the relationship with America is not great, you are also speaking a different language, so there are some barriers. We need to build a strong network for youth through this community because our end goal is the sustainability and prosperity of Cuban skateboarders. We provide the resources and have brainstorming sessions, but at the end of the day, the community takes charge and whatever we do is determined by our participants and our staff.

CPNL: What are some of the long-term goals you have for Cuba Skate and community development in Havana?

Jackson: Definitely increased sustainability. We receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in supply donations which is very helpful. But skateboards eventually break, shoes get holes in them, things like that. Recently, we brought down a wood press which allows our participants in Cuba to build their own skateboards. We also set up a wood shop where they can recycle materials to manufacture their own skateboards. Most of our operations in Cuba are in Havana, but we also want to make sure we are reaching people and skateboarding communities all across the island. We take trips each year for the staff in Havana to deliver materials to people in all 13 provinces.

One of our bigger projects is supported by the Vanity Fair Corporations. We do beach cleanups. One of our new partners in Havana has a big warehouse outside Havana where we were going to host a skateboarding festival, which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID. In this warehouse, there are tables and picnic benches that are made from recycled materials and plastics, so they introduced us to the process of upcycling. We have sent our team and staff to the local beaches, the street plazas, and other places in Havana to pick up trash and sort the materials into different categories. Those materials are upcycled at a local warehouse a few hours outside Havana. The whole process is organic, there are no artificial materials in the glue or anything else. I think it’s really important, and this process has opened up the window to increase financial support for sustainable solutions. Beyond taking care of our earth, we are also developing leadership skills among our youth by encouraging them to be stewards in this process and take the initiative to better the environment. The long-term goal is to build a fully sustainable indoor skate park from recycled plastics. We will see how that goes, but the next steps are to see how we can make other things from these recycled materials like wheels, boards, we’re taking it little by little. This grant has been an opportunity to pursue sustainable development and leadership.

It has also always been a long-term goal to bring our Cuban participants to the U.S. Obviously the situation depends on COVID. But we would also love to take them on a tour to other cities in Latin America, like Mexico City, where they can experience skateboarding outside of Cuba and bring those lessons back home to develop their own expressive style.

CPNL: What is one significant challenge you have faced as a leader in the nonprofit sector?

Jackson: Fundraising is always tough. Because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, we have had to work with legal teams. Bank accounts have been closed, Paypal donations have been frozen, international wire transfers have not gone through. We are a fully apolitical organization, but we are still an organization based in the U.S. with programs in Cuba. So at times we have really had to emphasize that our financial spending is not just on flights and travel, but to work on the ground. People are happy to give you shoes or boards, but they are more reluctant to give you money. And this isn’t true for all nonprofits, there are big donors in fields like health and international aid. However, our organization is very unique and to secure funding, we have had to put together specific metrics to convince our donors and constituents to donate. Yes, it costs $50 to donate a skateboard, but if you donate more, we can hire more people to help build those skateboards and work with the community. It is important to reframe the dialogue. We aren’t just giving people a skateboard to have fun, but we are giving them the tools to be successful leaders and young adults. Our program builds a supportive community to help our participants build and shape their character.

CPNL: How has the certificate program helped you in your career?

Jackson: It helped tremendously; I am very glad I was able to do that program. I participated in 2016, and at that time it was brighter days because of the Obama Administration’s advocacy to improve the U.S. ‘s relationship with Cuba which helped us to facilitate more programs. But meeting other people from different walks of life and hearing about their nonprofit work was very beneficial. I was lucky because so many of the participants were interested in my work in Cuba and skateboarding, so a lot of the modules we did in class used my project as an example. The Certificate Program also helped me to think about the bigger picture in terms of nonprofits and how we communicate. There are a lot of misconceptions that nonprofits are charities. People misconstrue the idea that if you donate more, nonprofits will have more money, employ more people, and have more programs. It was an impactful learning experience. I know why Cuba Skate is important, but learning how to communicate that through our website, annual reports, social media, etc. I was able to make other people aware of the work we do, it is not just important to me personally, but an important cause that is making a global impact.

Additionally, all the different professors were very knowledgeable. Dr. Kretman and Dr. Boyarski were very helpful, and all the professors really shaped my experience. Bea Boccalandro was someone who stood out to me. I’m still on her email list and I receive information that helps me look at my project and organization from the outside looking in. I was able to see a different perspective, and I’m forever grateful for the experience. I had a great group of classmates and I learned so much. Learning should never stop, and in this program, everyone is so invested in their education and their career.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Jackson: Apply immediately. It is a great program that helps you evaluate the work that you are doing, connect with peers who are doing similar work, and allows you to grow and develop your organization. When I reflect on the before and after with the Certificate Program, I think my organization benefited significantly from my participation. I was able to bring back the skills and knowledge I had acquired. I shared the readings and lessons learned with our volunteers in the U.S. and our staff in Cuba. Even in this virtual environment, I’m sure it will be a great experience, so sign up immediately.