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Agency in the Workplace: Doncaster Skate Co-op

Emma and Lewis tell us about how their new co-op took on Twisted Skate Park in Doncaster – a hub for the city's skating community – and their experiences of control and ownership at work.

Doncaster Skate Coop 3

The Doncaster Skate Co-op team, with Emma (middle) and Lewis (right).

@LeedsCath
Series supported by Ownership Hub logo

This piece is part of our generative inquiry entitled Agency in the Workplace, exploring worker ownership and worker control of organisations in South Yorkshire through the stories of local people.

We are also hosting two events as part of Festival of Debate 2023: What if everyone had real agency in their workplace? (17 May) and Co-ownership drop-in session (23 May).


Earlier this year, a group of local people teamed up to buy Doncaster's Twisted Skate Park as a worker co-operative. Previously run as a profit-making business by someone not connected to the scene, it's now headed by a team of skaters who have big plans for making the space more accessible and community focussed.

Emma Plant and Lewis Johnson told us more about their experiences so far – and how the joy of riding and building community is fueling their work in one of the UK's newest cities.

Hey both! Thanks so much for having me in your awesome park. There’s some serious nostalgia happening for me here! So let’s get straight into it, shall we: How has ownership and control in the workplace changed your life?

Emma: This whole thing is pretty life changing, to be doing something like this.

For some of us, it's been a really big learning curve, having to suddenly be responsible for everything and learn all these things about running a business that we were never privy to before, because of the way hierarchies exist in workplaces.

But this is what it is – you just turn up every day and you do the work, and all the work gets done by you... It's super empowering, because usually you don't have control of what your day-to-day is.

Lewis: For me, I've come from construction for the past 12 years, where I have been just told to turn up to a job and get it done. No supervision from employers, because I can be 50 miles away from them on a construction site. So it's just a difference in dealing with people.

Emma: It's just a whole new learning curve of new co-workers, having to balance out the natural hierarchies that do tend to come out as well, and figure out how to work around those [issues] addressed in ourselves and see them for what they are, because they're going to come up!

On that basis, why would you say that ownership or worker control is important to you in this context, as opposed to other potential operational methods?

Lewis: I think with the skate park, it needs to be controlled by the workers on a day-to-day [basis].

We run sessions that start at half 12 on a Thursday. We expect one person and if one person turns up and gets that practice time, we're happy with that. It's not about the money. As much as we will understand that businesses need money to run and function and to be prosperous in the future, if you're sitting looking at a spreadsheet and profit margins in an office, not on site, you're not gonna give the community what it needs.

Emma: We get full and total say... as to what to do with everything that we're building here. We don't have to refer to anyone else that's higher than us who isn't in the culture.

Lewis: And it could reflect back to the wage bill as well... We've seen the value in putting the unpaid hours in, whereas if you employed somebody they will just sit on reception and do what they need to do for their hourly rate. That will not make this place survive.

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Ben Jackson

Emma: One of the reasons that we made it into a worker run co-op was because we wanted everyone that ever got involved here to feel like they were part of it, that they owned a part of it and they had that responsibility for making it what it is.

We came from a wide community and network of people. We just want to keep tapping into that network and boosting everyone up with us. That's only going to work if we are run by ourselves and not run by some big, faceless, nameless boss.

Within this community, as well as the park itself, what commitments do you hold that are important for you to honour your work?

Lewis: Oh, that's a bit of a vague question! [laughs]

With the commitments, it's just being here every day. We have young teenagers who will get on a train from home to Doncaster, do the big journey by themselves. If we are not here when we've said we're going to be here, that is a massive disappointment and leaves people stranded in a city that they don't know. And the commitment to this place. Just personally, I love skateboarding – my whole life is skateboarding – and so I was here every day anyway. I'll be here every day no matter what.

'Commitment' sounds like it's meant to be a hard thing: 'I'm committed to this and I'm going to do the grind'. No, I just wake up and I'm like, 'I run a skatepark and I'm gonna go smash it!' [laughs]

Emma: And I think, to add on to that, commitment to skateboarding and the culture and to scooter riding and everyone who does extreme sports, because we're a teaching environment here as well. It's just sharing the love for it and the passion, getting as many people on a skateboard or scooter or whatever, because there's so much freedom and joy to be found when you're riding.

Doncaster Skate Coop 1
@LeedsCath

What does ‘good’ look like for this place? What's the best thing that could happen? And what would you like to see happen next?

Lewis: It’s all about the generations. It's just a long process of nurturing all action sports. Not just skateboarding, but scooter riders, BMX, inline [skating], everything, so that they can progress, get competition ready... [or get] ready just to teach and start up their own tuitions.

Skating outdoors, unless you're a fully-grown male, can be quite scary and quite intimidating. And this is key: this is a safe space where people can come and practice and not fall off the skateboard and end up with glass in their hand.

Emma: I’d say that the dream is to get as many people on skateboards and scooters and whatever their thing is as possible, but we want to start doing school outreach and just get bigger and better and make the ramps a lot more accessible... We need things that are suitable for all ages and all abilities.

I think because we're a community hub, we have access as well to multiple cross-sections of people from all different walks of life. To be able to meet them, converse with them and share ideas, experiences and things like that is a really powerful thing.

We get a lot of at-risk kids that come through our doors... Even if they're not skating, they can come and chill out. We want to be everything that the community in Doncaster needs, because we've got the space for it, we've got the love for it. We're all community builders and just want to turn Doncaster into the awesome city it really could be if it had the drive and the people to do it. These people are everywhere, so it's just giving them the space and the resources they need.

If worker controlled organisations became the norm, how do you think communities in South Yorkshire, particularly Doncaster, might change?

Lewis: I think workers' mental health would massively improve. To get back into my construction past, I've decorated a care home that was owned by the people who lived in it. They employed the staff themselves, they employed the receptionists, and it was all owned by the people who were in care. It was the nicest, cleanest, most vibrant place I've ever decorated. Coming into any place where people have control and say in what's going on just, I think, makes people happy. Even the workers were happy, because it was all close communication. It wasn't going through channels above to come back down.

I think the regular ways workplaces are structured is quite manipulative. It's set up in a way to abuse the worker for as much financial gain as possible.

Emma: This feels like the most natural way to run something and do something. I've worked through a lot of jobs where there's been a big boss sitting behind the glass doors, and you can't go and talk to him about anything. It's all through secretaries and hierarchies. You're just there earning someone else money and making someone else's dream come true. With worker-owned collectives, you're making your money and you're making your dream come true.

Through this process, we've learned so much about the business world and all the icky bits of it – how unfair it is and how the rules are clearly written by businessmen for themselves. For once it feels like we get to write the rules and we actually get to be in control. I think if everyone could do that in their own work, our workplaces would be so much better. We'd have a higher quality of things or whatever that we're actually putting out there.

Lewis: And I'd say it's a lot more possible than what people might think. Even if it's not a cooperative, and you just set up a company for yourself, go out to be a window cleaner for yourself – do it, fail, learn how the system works.

Emma: It’s about community. Nobody can do anything alone in this world. We need each other.

That's what working as a collective is – not doing it as an individual. It's doing it as a collective of people, knowing that what affects you will affect the collective, and what's good for you is good for the collective... I hope everyone gets to work or run or become a member of a coop because it's a different way to do business.

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