The Bay

by Julie Nichols

In ten short years of brainstorming, vision, community partnership, and creative dream, The Bay has become a nexus of Lincoln’s youth community. Beginning in a small storefront at Gateway Mall as the only indoor skate park in Lincoln, The Bay has expanded to one of the largest regional indoor skate parks, featuring classes, lessons and open skating for Lincoln’s youth. Through the efforts of committed volunteers and the tireless energy of an inspired staff, The Bay is an oasis for youth, a place that welcomes them without fail, a safe place to find like-minded new friends. A place to chill. A place to hang. The courage and passion found within The Bay’s community reflected in its motto: Dream Differently, Celebrate Each Other, Honor Relationships, Solutions Not Problems, People Over Policy; It’s Supposed to be Fun. 

The Bay’s impassioned mission to serve self-described outsiders, kids with interests constricted by the mainstream of sports and school clubs, especially focuses on engaging marginalized youth who may face personal, cultural and socioeconomic challenges. It’s a beautiful mix. Building authentic, individual relationships is a core value. The Bay’s evolutionary approach aims to draw youth into a sense of belonging and purpose so they develop self-confidence and self-reliance, with the knowledge that they have the power to support and give back to their communities. To this end, The Bay opens the door for Lincoln youth to pursue and reveal their own competence in art and graphic design, music, coding, writing and photography, and of course—skating.

Moving in 2012 to an enormous warehouse at 20th and Y streets, with over 1,200 square feet of modular indoor skate park, The Bay has bloomed into a many-pronged non-profit. With a coffee bar and featured pastries, gallery and meeting space, digital media stations, photography equipment, and the only strictly all-ages music venue in Lincoln, the space seethes with activity. Until last year, Lincoln’s sales and repair shop, Precision Skate, had retail space there, donating repairs and equipment to keep the skate park up to speed.

Do kids have to finish homework before getting to skate or make art? “No, that’s not what we do,” says founder Mike Smith. “We work to build relationships. Our goal at The Bay is to create significant moments of impact for young people. That requires building relationships that allow us to identify even what a significant moment of impact for a specific kid is.” Smith believes identifying these moments are key to kids’ discovering their own autonomy and power. “It might be the first time a young woman wins a skate contest and gets to visit Chicago to skate in the next round. We sent a group of kids to Los Angeles on a skate trip… Most of them had never been on a plane before,” he said. “That’s a significant moment of impact.”

Shayne Pearson, The Bay’s general manager, brought energy, fierce practical skills and vision since the early days of The Bay’s expansion. He, like younger counterparts, is a misfit. “I wasn’t the kid on the football team. I had a guitar and a dirt bike, and very much at odds with what was normal in my community.” The Bay’s mission to incubate a community of active youth is beginning to show signs of momentum. Many of The Bay’s employees emerged naturally from the outsiders of various flavors who were drawn there as teens.  

“The whole crew of young people now running The Bay’s programs, managing the skate park and booking events, all came here as kids,” Pearson said. “They’re taking ownership, and reinvesting in this community. Ultimately, they are going to do our jobs and run this space better than we ever could, because they grew up in it and it’s meaningful to them.”

Personal expression comes from experiment, and youth-driven ideas. The Bay runs not only skate classes and lessons, but now produces Rabble Magazine, a publication by, about and for youth. High school and college students rotate on the publishing staff. Budding writers, graphic designers, artists learn hands-on how to publish a magazine. Digital cameras and a digital workshop are provided, and all levels of experience. Although headquartered in Lincoln, kids statewide are encouraged to contribute their work. 

Founder Mike Smith, a Nebraska native from the rural western town of Imperial, envisioned an inclusive, under-one-roof refuge for young “creatives that fall through the cracks”. But he passionately insists on tangible service and support for marginalized youth, in whatever way needed. His brainchild, a warehouse full of proud misfits is now realized and still growing. Smith is also responsible for the startup of Skate for Change, a now international outreach with participating groups in over 10 countries and multiple states in the U.S. Skate for Change operates informally: gather, skate, give. Skaters get together and ride the streets, distributing food, hygiene kits and clothing items to those experiencing homelessness. 

In keeping with the arc of empowering youth, Smith spearheaded a career fair at The Bay in 2019, hosted by Find Your Grind, which he also co-founded. Rather than “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, Find Your Grind concentrates on lifestyles and personal traits that nurture attraction to particular jobs or skills. The fair (and Find Your Grind online) lets students consider emotional, social and mental wellness—and encourages them to find a good fit for lifestyle preferences rather than simply finding a job. Some want adventure and variety, others predictability and routine. “We’re trying not to just focus on the career but for the entire life, which gives us a chance to focus more on a lot of social and emotional learning components that come with being healthy, successful adults,” Smith said. Over 600 students and ten local companies participated. For online resources, videos, self-exploration and career guidance, see findyourgrind.com.

Around the same time The Bay began serious formation, Andrew Norman, a classmate of Smith’s and longtime friend, started Hear Nebraska, an organization that combines music programming with civic engagement and a renewed commitment to diversity. The two non-profits, who had collaborated previously, merged in 2018 under a new umbrella: Rabble Mill. Taking the “rabble” to a “mill” to produce a creative workforce whose contribution will stay local. Sharing the vision of providing opportunity to culturally and economically challenged youth, Rabble Mill intends to expand possibilities for developing skills and chances to develop careers. 

Many partnerships and donations keep Rabble Mill and The Bay thriving. Whether donating digital camera equipment, food pantry items, skate equipment or big civic and corporate funds, a community of support has formed around The Bay. Local corporations Nelnet and Allo as well as foundational support from Cooper Foundations, Woods Charitable Trust and the Juvenile Justice Prevention Fund.

“It’s skateboarders at The Bay, who are absolutely counter-culture misfits…at Hear Nebraska, we serve musicians and those in creative industries who are also often misfits and kind of subcultural groups. We want to take these otherwise misfits… actualize and find what they love to do and turn it into a career…and keep their talent in Nebraska.” Rabble Mill aims to give those with obstacles to career choices or skill development their own platform. “We absolutely think we can teach kids digital media and content creation skills through their love of skateboarding and music.” 

Once again listening to young voices, The Bay responded in 2020 to young black leaders in Lincoln speaking out against ongoing injustice to people of color and gave space for a single statement: Black Lives Matter. The bold mural can be viewed from Vine Street near Antelope Parkway. With its goals to reach out to challenged youth, provide opportunities and work to end generational poverty, the mural adds to the web of community connections solidified by The Bay.

Pivoting quickly in response to the COVID-19 crisis, The Bay launched a virtual after-school program, Bayside Online, after closing all physical facilities for community safety in spring 2020. Seeing it as an opportunity, Bayside Online sought to expand not within Lincoln schools, but offer outreach to rural after-school programs. Developing an expanded, more refined set of virtual after school options, The Bay Online launched for fall 2020 for students registered in after-school programs. Go Live offers music, Capture It explores digital photography, and Skate School is available online as well. Elementary and middle schools—three Omaha schools and 11 schools throughout rural Nebraska jumped on board, making the programming available to students registered in after-school programs even in the smallest of schools. The programs also aid in introducing kids who might not normally have access to or contact with emerging technologies.

The Bay continues to collaborate with public schools with the goal of founding a focus high school for kids that ordinarily struggle with traditional school culture. Art, digital art and emerging technologies would be offered in curricula, and would join three other focus programs in Lincoln.

The Bay insists on inclusion and removing economic obstacles through subsidized All-Access Passes to all facilities, shows, and a free dinner at the coffee bar, where some of the same kids are also employed. “No one has a label and no stigma attached, whether you’re there getting help, or if you’re just there for a cup of coffee or to catch a show,” says communications director Alex Ruybalid. “You’re just a skater, artist or musician. You’re not a homeless youth, you’re not an at-risk youth, you’re not an immigrant. And that’s really dignifying and really empowering.”

To connect with The Bay and its programs, see thebay.org.

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