Ben Warner, '09, '11, Sees Boundless Brilliance in Skaters

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Ben Warner is the recipient of a 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award from UW Tacoma, recognizing his work bring attention to the overlooked, underappreciated skating community.

Community Recognizes Warner

The community joins UW Tacoma in recognizing Ben Warner's contributions. Earlier this year, the Business Examiner named him to its 40 Under Forty list of the South Sound’s outstanding business and community leaders under the age of 40. He was also supported by a Jane’s Fellowship from the Russell Family Foundation, which includes 15 months of leadership skills development. He is a recipient of a 2016 UW Tacoma MLK Unity Breakfast Dream Award.

UW Tacoma alumnus Ben Warner is the perfect ambassador for the skateboarding community. First, he grew up skating himself. Second, he is outgoing and projects an easy empathy that sets his listeners at ease. Third, he’s gained skills in community organizing and non-profit management (partly from UW Tacoma) that he in turn can pass on to those he serves, acting as a human leadership-development pipeline.

Recognizing his exemplary and dedicated modeling of its urban-serving values, UW Tacoma has awarded Warner the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Warner—who is a founder and the executive director of Alchemy  Skateboarding, a  nonprofit “dedicated to providing opportunities and resources for youth to learn and grow through skateboarding,”— is passionate about the overlooked, underappreciated skating community.

“There are more 8,000 skaters in Pierce County, according to Metro Parks,” he said. “They are wildly talented, ridiculously resilient kids.”

Warner has seen up close the variety of skating communities throughout America. In 2009, as he was finishing his undergraduate studies in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (he majored in Self & Society, one of the predecessors to today’s Politics, Philosophy & Economics major), he and two friends longboarded across the United States, from San Diego to Savannah, Georgia, raising money for Boys & Girls Clubs of South Puget Sound.

Ben Warner, left, in 2009, preparing for cross-country longboarding trip. Photo courtesy Ben Warner.“I grew up on the east side of Tacoma, and I was a Boys & Girls club kid the entire time,” said Warner. Raising money to support the community organization that had been so important to him while he was growing up seemed the natural thing to do.

But that didn’t mean he knew how to do it.

Bending the System

What gave Warner the confidence to launch his cross-country fund-raiser was a chance meeting with UW Tacoma faculty member Stephen DeTray, who ran a popular course in non-profit studies.

Perhaps it wasn’t exactly a chance meeting. Warner had gone to Pierce Community College for two years. While there, he gained the understanding that he was called to a career in community organizing and social service.

He had heard about the UW Tacoma non-profit studies course. “I just sort of rolled into class. I didn’t enroll. I just showed up one day and snuck into the back, and didn’t say much,” said Warner. Whatever he thought would happen, Dr. DeTray did indeed notice him. Since that first meeting, DeTray has become one of Warner’s strongest supporters. He sits on the board of Alchemy Skateboarding and has been an ongoing mentor to Warner.

Warner went from thinking he would just “audit” DeTray’s class to applying and enrolling as a student at UW Tacoma, graduating a couple of years later. He did the cross-country fund-raiser during his senior year.

And then he turned right around and enrolled in UW Tacoma’s Master of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences degree program, graduating two years later.

Warner gives a lot of credit for what he’s accomplished to UW Tacoma faculty mentors. “Dr. Ingrid Walker has been a huge support to our board, and to myself personally,” said Warner.

“Dr. Philip Heldrich was an incredible man, and really helped me to understand what semiotics and symbolism are in relation to the skate community. That was a really beautiful time in my life,” said Warner. Heldrich was an associate professor in Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences from 2004 to 2010 before he died after a battle with cancer.

Alchemy Skateboarding, founded by Ben Warner, '09, '11, organized Go Skate Day 2014 in Tacoma's Tollefson Plaza. Photo by Andrew Cox.

Boundless Brilliance

“A person that is naturally drawn to skateboarding is going to have that spirit of not having boundaries,” said Warner. “There’s not really a playbook or anything that is written about how you do skateboarding, or what is possible and what is not. A lot of people in skateboarding do things that people wouldn’t think could be done.

“A skateboarder will crash and fail 100 times before they get a trick done well once. They are very tenacious. They believe that if they keep on working and working and working, they’ll get it right.

Learn more about Ben Warner and Alchemy Skateboarding

"Skating for a reason," by Jill Carnell Danseco, UW Tacoma Alumni e-News, Winter 2009

"Alchemy Skateboarding aims to turn four wheels and a deck into a better Tacoma," by Rosemary Ponnekanti, The News Tribune, October 9, 2015

"Hundreds flip for skateboarding at 'Go Skate Tacoma Day," by Debbie Caffazzo, The News Tribune, June 18, 2016

“They are innovative and brilliant and have everything they need. We just try to teach them the words, and give then an authentic mirror so they can see who they really are, rather than what more-negative members of the community might tell them.”

Warner believes skateboarders are undeservedly marginalized by much of U.S. society. He sees that they have already developed, as a natural part of getting involved in the skateboarding culture, many traits and skills that society values and works hard to cultivate.

For example, Warner believes that skateboarders have an almost instinctual grasp of the urban environment. “They can put to use so-called unusable urban spaces in a hundred different ways. They recycle and repurpose things. People spend millions of dollars in urban development trying to figure out how to get better traffic flow in cities, and skateboarders are just naturally doing it as children.”

Warner has been involved in his share of skateboarding activism. He has helped the City of Tacoma recognize skateboarding as “a legitimate alternative form of transportation and not just a pastime for troublemakers,” as reported by the News Tribune’s Matt Driscoll.

Warner is the first to give credit to the many kids, colleagues and mentors he has worked with over the years. “There are no self-made men or women in this country, despite what a lot of people say,” he said. “We are all the result of our community. If you want to go anywhere fast, you should go alone, but if you want to go far, you need to go together.”

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / August 2, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or