An ode to my forbidden sport

When traveling at 43 mph, the world is a beautiful blur of light and color. Outside the confines of a car, you can really feel the speed.

The wind gently pushes against me and even through my visor, I can smell the fresh-cut grass as I race past, balancing delicately on my board.

A neighbor waves and I reciprocate.

Everything is perfect.

I have taken great pains to prepare for this moment. The fastest section is up ahead and every tweak and improvement I’ve made to my form and my equipment is about to be tested.

If I make a mistake, my skin pays the price. My legs twitch and I lower myself to stabilize.

Clean and out, I made it safely through.

As I jump off my deck to walk back up the hill, I see the first car of the day and I know my time is up.

If I told you where I was, I wouldn’t be able to come back.

Everything I just did was completely illegal.

I’ll admit it, skaters have a stigma attached to them and there’s little we can do to shake it.

It’s been shaped by the way we’re represented in the media and by the way some of us dress.

Our disinterest in following rules leads to a presumed penchant for vandalism, drug use and overall shenanigans for the whole lot of us.

I won’t be the first to admit that these are gross over-generalizations and should by no means represent the skating community.

One bad egg can ruin the smell of the whole batch, but the rest are still edible.

Now, for the sake of specificity, I am a longboarder, which is quite different than skateboarding. While I could spend an entire column on the differences and benefits in both styles, I’ll define them in a nutshell.

Longboarding is the art of going fast downhill while performing controlled slides. Skateboarding is the process of performing flip-tricks and grinds at much slower speed.

Historically, skateboarders have designated parks, bowls and plazas in most towns across America. Conroe, in fact, holds one of the premiere spots in the area at Kasmiersky Park. Here, skaters hold demonstrations and safety classes for beginners. Kids and adults of all ages embrace the sport on a daily basis.

Huntsville has only one thing to offer skaters: City Ordinance Code 1961, § 25.01.06.

“It shall be unlawful for any person to skate or to ride on skates or any vehicle made with skates, or any vehicle of like character, upon or over any of the streets, avenues or alleys of the city.”

For those of us who consider our skateboards as a means of exercise, enjoyment and a viable mode of transportation, this code takes away a big part of our lives.

In my travels across our beautiful city, I have learned that all sidewalks, trails, parking garages, ditches, driveways, embankments and nearly every paved surface is off limits to me and my deck. Many an officer has politely pulled me over to inform me of that fact.

I’m not arguing to repeal this code. I do, however, feel that there are better methods to achieve what the city wants. The safety of the skater and those around them is the most important part of our sport.

I never leave home without a helmet, gloves, knee and elbow pads and I won’t let others skate without them.

We scout locations and track traffic patterns to avoid cars at all cost. We wake up long before you do and we stay out hours after you’ve fallen asleep in order to stay out of your way.

If you don’t see us, we’ve done our job correctly.

In June, a Sam Houston State student was critically injured on his skateboard after running a stop sign in the Avenues. While his life was spared, many have not been so lucky.

To this day, it’s not uncommon to see a skater traversing the SHSU campus or pushing through the downtown district on a daily basis.

Skaters will skate, with or without an ordinance. The question is, what we can do as a city to take steps to make skating safer?

First, we need to create a dialogue between the city and the skaters. Skaters know the roads that few use. Perhaps we could set up a designated spot and time where we could skate without fear of police and car intervention.

Regulation could prove more effective than banishment.

Secondly, we need to place an emphasis on safety above all else. Given a space to use, I know of multiple people, including myself, who would gladly spearhead safety classes for those interested. New skaters need to know how to act appropriately.

Like cyclists, we must follow traffic laws, yield to cars and pedestrians and share the road safely.

Lastly, we as skaters need you to understand that skating is a huge part of our lives. We are no different than cyclists and we do what we do so we can experience the beauty of Huntsville the best way we know how.

We keep to the shadows so you won’t see us, but that is no way to coexist. By coming together we can find a way for us to pursue our passions safely and legally.

Consider sharing the road with us. We may show you one you’ve never traveled before.

Former victim of modern-day slavery shares powerful story on SHSU campus

Imagine that you are 8 years old.

Your eyes are bright and filled with the joy that only an innocent child can possess.

Imagine that you are young again.

Now imagine that at that same age, you are betrayed by your parents and sold into slavery in order to pay a debt. You are taken from your home and moved across the world to work as a slave for strangers.

It sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood movie, but, for Shyima Hall, this was a cruel reality.

In front of a crowd of more than 200 people Tuesday evening at the Gaetner Performing Arts Center on the Sam Houston State campus, Hall recounted the powerful story of her captivity during a special presentation put on by the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy.

“I can’t even tell you how miserable I was,” Hall told the crowd as she wiped a tear from her eye. “I fell asleep crying every night.”

At the tender age of 8, Hall’s parents gave her away to a wealthy Egyptian couple in order to settle a debt initially owed by her sister. After being smuggled into California, Hall was forced to work as a maid and as the couple’s children’s caretaker.

During her captivity, Hall was deprived of every possible liberty imaginable. She slept on a dirty mattress in the garage and was forbidden to attend school. She was forced to work exhausting hours while enduring verbal and physical abuse on a daily basis.

She was a slave, hidden in plain view, right in our own backyard.

Miraculously, a neighbor of the couple noticed her with the children in a park during the time girls of her age would normally be in school. Acting on a tip from one of those neighbors, local authorities, along with child welfare services, rescued Hall from her captors in 2002. However, because of her age and the constant threats she faced while she was a slave, it took her nearly six years to tell her full story to the police.

After her rescue, it would have been easy for Hall to quietly live out her life here in America but she has chosen a different path.

She now speaks for those who cannot.

Now 25 years-old, Hall travels across the country to speak about human trafficking and what can be done to stop it. She has worked closely with law enforcement agencies and immigration services to brief them on the trauma that comes with a life in captivity and how they should handle such cases. In January, she published her memoirs entitled “Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave” which tells, in greater detail, the harrowing story of her life.

After years in the shadows, she hopes to bring light to an often-overlooked epidemic. By getting people to understand that modern-day slavery exists, she hopes to create a culture that can stop it in its tracks.

“I know that there are others that have experienced things much worse than me… This is why I do these talks, if you see something you too can help stop it,” Hall said.

For more information on human trafficking and how to get involved, visit www.enditmovement.com.

SHSU’s Global Center wants to help stop modern-day slavery

Atop a platform in the Lowman Student Center mall area, a man stands partially dressed as his owner attempts to barter for the right price.

A large crowd gathers. It’s almost lunchtime on Wednesday and the modern-day slave trade is taking place in broad daylight.

On this day, the participants in this auction are all actors — Sam Houston State University students — taking part in a powerful demonstration. For more than 27 million people around the world, human trafficking is a daily reality.

“We raised some eyebrows today,” said Kelli Arena, executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at SHSU. “We thought it would be a good idea to get in our students’ faces and show them what human trafficking really looks like, instead of just talking about it.”

While the GCJD put on the event, volunteers were from all colleges within the university. Many of the students passed out informational literature and answered questions from their peers who were passing between classes.

Volunteers from the theater department donned graphic makeup to demonstrate bruises, black eyes and bound hands, making the message hit close to the heart. Student actors portrayed domestic, sexual and forced labor trafficking in order to show onlookers that modern-day slavery happens whether they see it or not.

“It was difficult to look at,” Arena said.

This demonstration was only the first in a series of events geared toward shining a light on the worldwide epidemic in an effort to stamp it out.

Next Monday and Tuesday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be an exhibit and display in the Lowman Student Center atrium with facts and figures about modern-day trafficking to inform the public.

Also on Tuesday at 5 p.m., former victim of slavery, Shyima Hall will share her story at the Gaetner Performing Arts Center concert hall.

Both events are free and the public is invited to attend.

The message about human trafficking and slavery is not being limited to the SHSU campus. By way of a social media campaign and a partnership with the End It Movement, the GCJD is hoping to spread the word on human trafficking as far as possible in the hopes of ending it permanently.

Houston has been identified the one of the largest human trafficking hubs in the United States, according to the FBI. Texas, as far as states go, is second only to California.

For more information, or to get involved in the movement, visit shsu.edu/global-journalism. More information on human trafficking or modern-day slavery can be found at www.enditmovement.org.

Capturing life in an instant

Realizing one’s true calling in life sometimes takes time.

With most college students, it takes a semester or two — maybe even a year or three — to fully understand where they’d like to devote their talents. A sampling of classes and the direction of dedicated parents, professors and friends and suddenly it all seems to make sense.

For Casey Jackson, who spent his formative years in the New Waverly Independent School District, that realization came as early as junior high.

From the first moment he picked up a camera, he knew he wanted to be a photographer.

“He was in junior high at the time and he was always following me around when I was taking pictures of the football team,” former New Waverly High School yearbook teacher Sharon Brown said. “He kept asking, ‘Can I take a picture, can I take a picture?’ I would never let anyone borrow my camera because it was my personal camera, but one day I said OK.

“Within a year, he was teaching me about the camera instead of me helping him.”

Armed with a basic digital camera, Jackson began capturing images around his town and school and quickly understood that this was something in which he really wanted to sink his teeth.

I just fell in love with it,” Jackson said last week. “I was always an athlete and I really enjoyed shooting sports. I picked it up really quickly and just stuck with it.”

Within a few semesters, Jackson’s work was already picking up national attention as he won an award for his football photos in a competition sponsored by Canon and the National Football League. He also became the head yearbook photographer and was featured multiple times in The Huntsville Item for his compelling images.

“He just had a phenomenal ability to figure out the camera,” Brown explained. “He took pictures of nightlife in New Waverly at different sites around town and the New Waverly House restaurant went and framed all of them to put on their walls. He was just that good.”

After high school, Jackson was accepted to the competitive Savannah College of Art and Design, where he studied as a Bachelor of Arts candidate with an emphasis in photography. It was in Georgia that Jackson narrowed his creative focus as well as taking on a role with the college baseball team.

“In art school, you not only have to take regular classes, but you have to take art history classes on top of more art history classes,” Jackson said. “By the end of my freshman year, I had been introduced to all these new artists.”

With an influx of creative influence and a new community to explore, Jackson’s passion for photography quickly translated into a ongoing project that he never expected to begin.

“I remember just one time walking by a guy who was laying on a bench,” Jackson said. “It was pouring down rain and about 40 degrees out and I just sat down to talk with him. Growing up in New Waverly, I had never seen homelessness. I knew it existed, but I had never seen it at such levels as when I moved to college. I had never interacted directly with someone who was homeless.”

After taking the man he met out of the cold, Jackson knew he wanted to explore the country’s growing epidemic. He sought out more information on the homeless community around Savannah.

“I decided that I wanted to find out more, so I went to find them,” Jackson added. “It turns out that in Savannah, it’s illegal to sleep on the streets, so many of them sleep in huge, elaborate camps in the woods of Georgia.”

In his time away from class and work, Jackson dedicated every moment he could to spend time in the camps, existing within the community and documenting everything he experienced.

“I lived in the camps and spent nights there eating with them and just spending time with them,” Jackson added. “I wanted to live with them on their level, because I knew it would be intrusive if I just came and left at will.”

During his time in the camps, Jackson soaked up as much information as he could about what it’s like to live a transient life. He listened to what these people experienced, where they had been and where they hoped to go.

“I met a lot of good people, I met a lot of bad people and everything in between,” Jackson said. ” More importantly, I learned that every one of them has a story. While I couldn’t tell every story, I knew I could at least create awareness and show people just a glimpse into that world.”

By way of his photographs, Jackson was able to shine a light on an often-overlooked problem. Through his work, he became directly involved in numerous efforts to help the homeless population through local nonprofit organizations.

“I began working with nonprofits in Savannah, including the Chatham Authority on the Homeless. We coordinated fundraisers and awareness campaigns to raise funds to go right back into the homeless community. I released all the images I took in the camps to any organization that could use them. They’ve been in fliers, pamphlets, galleries, websites, anything that will help put a face to the problem.”

Over the past year, Jackson has attracted some well-deserved attention for his efforts and has been invited to participate in the prestigious Eddie Adams Workshop for Photographers in upstate New York. Out of thousands of applicants, Jackson is one of 100 students who will participate in program tuition-free.

“Adams was a documentary photographer who photographed the Vietnam War and numerous other wars and social issues,” Jackson explained. “He created a foundation to educate more people about this type of work and how powerful it can become. He is a perfect example of how a single photograph can influence the world and move people.

“I’ll get the chance to meet and work with some of the biggest editors and photographers out there from National Geographic, the New York Times and the Washington Post. I’m really excited.”

Aside from the workshop invitation, Jackson has been honored with numerous awards for his work, including a top slot in the Photolucida Critical Mass exhibition in Oregon.

“I’m so proud of his persistence and his ability to see the beauty in things that other people would overlook,” Brown doted. “It’s just so exciting for me to see a kid so focused on finding the beauty in life since so many times in school we see a focus only on athletic prowess. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Casey’s are worth 5,000.”

Through it all, Jackson knows that he has an opportunity to use his creative practice for a larger purpose. By using his photography as a catalyst to begin a discussion, Jackson’s work can play a larger role in shaping public views on important social issues.

“I’ve learned to keep trying to step back when I see a problem and look at the bigger picture,” Jackson said. “It means so much to look at a different angle, just like when taking a picture. You always have to try and see things from another person’s point of view.

“My only goal is to keep producing work and hopefully move people with the images I create. I hope to contribute something to the world.”

To view samples of Jackson’s work, visit www.caseyjacksonphotography.com.