Mike Smith is a big name in the skateboarding community, just look at his social media stats: 32k+ Facebook likes, 62k+ Twitter followers and 100k+ Instagram followers.
At 26 he started a Lincoln-based nonprofit, The BAY, and the internationally recognized movement Skate for Change.
Mike’s website touts him as a professional speaker, consultant and brand ambassador, having worked with brands like Puma, Red Bull, Ethika and Toyota.
At one point during our interview I told Mike it felt like I was talking to a celebrity. Not because he acted like it, not because he wanted to be one, but because Mike Smith has connections. He knows so and so at MTV and ABCFamily, and what’s his face in LA and New York.
I could tell that my celebrity comment made him feel a little weird, because Mike still sees himself as a skateboarding wannabe watching FUEL TV at his parents house in Imperial, Nebraska.
But Mike’s story isn’t about a small town kid making it big.
Mike’s story is about connections. He tells his story to thousands of high schoolers to connect with them, but also to bring awareness and passion to the movements that are close to his heart.
Lincoln’s The BAY is one of those places.
Mike started The BAY back in 2011 as a way to combine his passion for skateboarding with youth outreach. He took a run-down space in Gateway Mall, added some skate ramps and things were up and running.
A short while later, The BAY outgrew the space and moved to 22nd and Y streets, just northeast of UNL’s campus. Kids were eager for a place to skate or just hang out, and that’s what The BAY gave them, but this was never all that Mike envisioned.
The easy part was finding a place and a way to interact with kids, Mike said. The hard part was everything else.
Bills. Staff. Rules. Growth. Plus the fact that Mike was a 26-year-old who started a nonprofit in the middle of a recession.
Mike saw the ugly side of the nonprofit world. He was disappointed by passionate people who lost their fire after not seeing the progress they hoped for within a few months. And he made his own mistakes, lots of them. He couldn’t pay his employees or always keep the lights on at The BAY, but those hurdles didn’t hold up the process.
When Mike realized The BAY had $5 in its bank account, he went and lived homeless under a bridge in Lincoln for a month and then skateboarded across Nebraska to spread the word. He started speaking on a national scale to funnel funds back to The BAY. When his list of reliable employees got short he sought out specific people to propel his vision.
And so far, it’s worked.
“We fell in love with the bad stories,” he said. “We didn’t do this for the good stories. We did this for all the stories.”
Sustainable change isn’t about how you feel from one day to the next, he explained, it’s about consistency in the midst of complicated situations.
And making The BAY more than just a cool place to skate is complicated.
This year, The BAY served more than 100,000 meals, gave away socks and hygiene kits to the homeless and helped kids get out of juvenile detention centers. Skateboarding is a catalyst for some of the best stuff The BAY does, Mike said, and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
Mike has big dreams for The BAY. He wants it to include job training, legal aid, artist spaces and small business, and Mike wants Lincoln’s location to be the first of many across the country.
To make this happen, Mike has to spend the majority of his time away from The BAY. He travels and speaks for 80 percent of the year to raise awareness and make more connections to bring his dreams to life.
Mike said he often lays in bed at night and scrolls through social media, looking at pictures from The BAY or kids getting involved with their local Skate for Change chapters. Most of the time, he’s in awe of how something that started on the streets of Lincoln ballooned into something that thousands of people are getting behind.
Mike is adamant about the fact he could never have done this on his own. While his name can stand alone, what he does can’t.
Whether he’s speaking, representing a brand, dreaming about The BAY or promoting Skate for Change, his work has always been about building a community, not changing what already existed.
And he’s done that, but he’s not done yet.