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Siren Spotlight: Hybrid academic careers in sport—bridging scholarship, community, and consultancy work

Dr Indigo Willing shares how she has built a hybrid career in sport, finding and nurturing connections between academic, community sport and organisational spaces and what this kind of approach to our work can mean for marginalised communities in sport.

Dr Indigo Willing has built a hybrid career in sport. Image: supplied.

I acknowledge the Yugarabul, Yuggera, Turrbal, Yugambeh and Kombumerri peoples upon whose lands the five Griffith University campuses are located. I pay my respects to Elders past and present and extend that respect to other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

I started researching skateboarding through the encouragement of academic mentors and peers at the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research at Griffith University. But it was an unusual career move, as I had built a research profile in transnationalism adoption, cosmopolitanism, race, and ethnicity. Skateboarding began as something completely recreational for me. But over time, I began to see various dynamics of power at play in the social and cultural side of skateboarding and could not help but view things through a sociological lens. 

Flash forward to today, I have led several publications on skateboarding with great colleagues, including a chapter on community skate activism with former professional skateboarder and now urban studies specialist Scott Shearer in an edited collection by Kara J. Lombard published by Routledge. I also led a case study with Professor Andy Bennett, Dr Ben Green and Dr Mikko Piispa on positive and active ageing in skateboarders that was published in Sociology. This was followed by an exploration with Dr Adele Pavlidis and Dr Ben Green of ageing and alternative masculinity in the video the Bones Brigade featuring Tony Hawk that was published in Sport in Society Journal. All these publications have been enormous fun and work to break down stereotypes and barriers relating to ageing, body positivity, diversity, gender roles and welcoming people into spaces they may fear they will be judged. Such issues are not just relevant to skateboarding but other sports and areas of life too.  

I am a true believer that it is never too late to do something fresh that inspires and keeps you energised, and that we need to flip the script and change people’s perceptions of what a ‘normal’ career path looks like in and beyond academia. I did not decide to take up skateboarding until I was a mother, had finished a PhD, and was aged 41. I had always wanted to skateboard, but I was too shy, and it was never the ‘right time’. It was not until I finished studying and my son started school that I felt there was more time to follow up that childhood dream. 

I first built up my confidence going to skate workshops with my friend Evie Ryder. With hers and others encouragement, I became a dedicated skateboarder and also began to coach girls beginner classes with the Australian Skateboarding Community Initiative so a whole new generation could get started and be welcomed into a supportive space. 

In 2016, Evie and I co-founded Queensland’s largest community skate network along with Tora Waldren, Sophia Ross and other skaters who were keen to create a supportive environment for women and girls, who were still very much a minority at skateparks at the time. We called our network Girls Skate Brisbane (GSB). After listening to critical feedback from our skate peers, including Witt Gorrie, Riley Pemberton and others who always speak with integrity, and scholarly work such as by Professor Sandy O’Sullivan, we adapted, and re-named our network We Skate QLD in 2020. This change was to better reflect the gender diversity of our expanding team, including Miljana Miljevic, Alex Blyth, Lily Turek and other participants and supporters. 

Our annual skate competition for non-traditional skateboarders is celebrating its sixth year running and is now supported by the Griffith Sport and Gender Equity Network at Griffith University plus a range of industry sponsors. Past winners include Chloe Covell who is now going to represent Australia at the Olympic Games, Haylie Powell and Indiana Barnard who also compete internationally at an elite level, and girls like Abby Rose and Heili Servio who are now sponsored by Australian and international companies. 

One of the great things about working in small scale community events and projects is that you can offer foundations that let people reach their potential, whether it is just having fun or aiming to compete at the highest level. But there is often no or low pay, and a real struggle for resources. I really encourage anyone with grant experience to pay that forward and mentor others. Through drawing on academic advice on how to apply for funding, We Skate QLD network has so far applied for and been awarded two community grants. One is from Skateistan and the Goodpush Alliance to roll out the ‘We All Skate QLD’ project on anti-racism. The other community grant is from Relationships Australia for the ‘Adoptees Rolling’ project which will use skateboarding as a social tool to encourage children who are adopted from overseas to socialise and connect with each other in a fun, age-appropriate environment through skating together and complementary activities such as painting art on skateboards. 

The ‘Adoptees Rolling’ grant was also achieved with the encouragement of Lynelle Long, one of my adoptee friends who runs an intercountry adoptee network. It is a lesson in being open to see how your lived experiences, community work and professional roles can all come together over time, as I was able to bring my experiences as a Vietnamese adoptee and as a skateboarder together for a project that can introduce skating to many other adoptees. This is also an innovative approach that departs from traditional attempts by adoption professionals from fields such as social work, which are often held indoors in workshop formats not suitable for youth and can have triggering material that creates further trauma. Our program encourages adoptees to build confidence and bond over something outdoors, less structured in terms of content, and that encourages them to be creative and have fun.  

Community and consultancy work and academic research can also evolve with a range of interests and concerns you may develop overtime, which for me included wanting to understand and bring change to some troubling tensions and dynamics in skating around safety and respect. In 2019 I co-founded with some of the We Skate QLD team and became the project leader of Consent is Rad. An international campaign, Consent is Rad was launched at the Pushing Boarders academic skate conference and is dedicated to promoting education and awareness about violence prevention and building respectful cultures of consent in skate scenes. 

In 2020 I authored a study of the 25th anniversary of the controversial fictional film KIDS that was published in the peer reviewed journal Young. The research also involved a collaboration with Brygerriet High School for skateboarding in Sweden, with high school students reflecting on what kinds of lessons about consent the film could spark. In 2021 the work of Consent is Rad was also recognised by being placed second in the Exposure Skate Rising awards in the US, and our website was added as a resource on the Thrasher Magazine site. Consent is Rad has also been invited onto many international collaborative campaigns and events, including the Break the Cycle campaign that promotes consent and has featured in eight of the world’s leading skateboarding magazines. 

These activities would not be possible without insights from academic research, teamwork and collaborations from my community activities. Building on this work, a project that I am chief investigator on with co-investigators Dr Adele Pavlidis, Professor Molly Dragiewicz and Dr Justine Hotten was awarded a seed grant in 2021 from the Griffith Equality Research Network (GERN) to study consent in the context of men leaders in mainstream sports. These are just some examples how a hybrid academic career can unfold and bring valuable learning experiences while also allowing your work to have an impact across the sectors you engage with. 

However, having an academic career of any kind can be a very tough pursuit, and it is important to be flexible about what you want to do and how you can achieve it, alert to your own needs, self-worth, and professional worth in a broad market, ethically aware, and adaptable to changing conditions. Opportunities to engage in funded postgraduate study, fellowships and secure academic positions that have optimal and fair conditions for everyone are not plentiful in this era. The sector currently relies on mass-casualisation, and the journey of whatever you are working on (a thesis, a book, a grant, a project) and when you finally see the outcomes are rarely linear. Some may start their degrees later in life. Some may have to defer or postpone or withdraw from something due to other life priorities. And some will take on intense teaching loads for financial reasons. Yet as we have seen in recent times, even teaching work that was once taken for granted can be thrown completely upside down due to unforeseen global events like the Covid-19 pandemic. No work environment is ever a level playing field, with people who are traditionally marginalised having to overcome various structural barriers based on things such as sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, and racism. The impact of these issues is that many of us will seek or be forced to only work partly in academia and partly for other sectors.

Strategies I feel are useful to navigate careers in this unpredictable era include expanding your professional circles and being careful not to put all your eggs in one basket. Sometimes the line-up of supervisors and team you began working with in academia can completely change as people can retire, go on breaks, become transferred or pursue work elsewhere.  This is not a deal breaker for people in skateboarding or most sports however, as they typically have high levels of resilience, tenacity, resourcefulness, and are great at strategising, teamwork and having an ability to persist until they reach the finish line. We know how to keep our eyes on the prize, whatever that may be.

There are many of us who will not fit a conventional box, because our skills, reach, employment, and other engagement goes well beyond and rises above those expected and performed in conventional academic roles and jobs. You are likely to be bringing in and contributing so much more to academia than is often recognised. Always identify and amplify your worth as a professional and consultant. For instance, I am currently doing consultancy work in diversity and policy planning, with current roles including being the principal investigator on the Rolling Free: Diversity and Leadership in Skateboarding project as part of a Sports Australia Women in Leadership Program for Skate Australia with co-investigators Dr Adele Pavlidis and Professor Simone Fullagar from the Griffith Sport and Gender Equity Network (SAGE). Our strengths include that we can bring a combination of community, industry and academic skills and insights to these kinds of projects. I think of this as our superpowers and deluxe toolbox that we can unleash on any task and project. 

Whether in action sports like skateboarding, roller skating, surfing and parkour, or more well-known sports like football, netball and swimming, more and more people in sport are expanding their careers by doing postgraduate research degrees or are changing their focus to build hybrid careers that span the sports and academic worlds. Excitingly, many of these people are also women, non-binary, and gender diverse individuals whose perspectives are urgently needed due to their lack of representation in various fields and disciplines, and a need for their expertise to inform theories, policies, and practices in sports. Some of these individuals are former Olympians and elite athletes, some are from the organisational and managerial side of sport, some are coaches and team managers, or sports journalists and writers, community volunteers or recreationally involved in sport. And in many cases, emerging sports scholars in academia represent a combination of these roles and lived experiences. 

 

In contemporary times, more and more people from sport with non-conventional and hybrid careers will be contributing great things to the university life and bring fresh insights, new perspectives and external expertise and wisdom to any team and project. Build up your CV based on this rather than the usual routes to promotion for permanent staff alone. It is also important to emphasise that we are allowed to have done and still do different things across our life course, and to shift or expand our professional and research interests as we keep growing into and growing forward with our careers. Moreover, experience in different research fields, and non-academic experiences allow us to develop valuable people skills such as being adaptable and open-minded to new colleagues, teams, and audiences. 

Gaining broader experiences across workplaces can help us to network further and not be over reliant on familiarity with just a small circle of peers and getting stuck by what we know rather than what we might learn. Pushing ourselves helps us to progress socially as well as intellectually and professionally. An expanding circle of mentors, peers and friends are also often able to see the person you can become, before even you do. And we can do this for others too, such as identifying what gives someone the most joy and motivation, and to follow that up with invitations and occasions for them to pursue. There is a saying that goes something like be the person you needed when you were growing up. I also like to think we can be the person we need to grow up with across our life course and the many worlds we learn from, contribute to, and evolve within.

Dr Indigo Willing was awarded a PhD from The University of Queensland. She has been the recipient of numerous scholarships and awards. She was awarded a Medal in the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2006 and later resigned in 2021 in protest and in support of First Nations and LGBTIQ+ communities after the highest honour, an AC, was given to Margaret Court. Dr Willing is currently an Adjunct Research Fellow at Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research (GCSR), Affiliate Member at Griffith Sport and Gender Equity Network (SAGE), and Member of the Gender Equality Research Network (GERN) at Griffith University.  She is also the co-founder of We Skate QLD, and co-founder and project leader of Consent is Rad. www.indigowilling.com 

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