In a time when we are witnessing the painful legacy of racism and inequality in America, Adult ISH co-hosts Merk Nguyen and Nyge Turner take a moment to highlight forward-thinking women who are working to create equal access in their respective spaces. Disability rights lawyer Haben Girma is making digital platforms accessible for people with disabilities. Actresses and IRL skaters from HBO's "Betty" are creating space in skate parks for girls to be themselves. Be sure to follow all our socials at @yrAdultISH.
Scroll to the bottom for the full transcript of the episode.
Surfing the Web (and Waters) with Haben Girma
Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer and Harvard Law's first deafblind graduate, tells the co-hosts to get over their fears of surfing and salsa dancing (because she does both). She also lays out what she’s doing to remove digital access barriers for people with disabilities and offers a whole lot more: from mama love to advice on building websites and chocolate cake.
Sk8er Girls from HBO's "Betty"
Dede Lovelace and Rachelle Vinberg are actresses-slash-skater girls from HBO's "Betty," a series about young women in modern-day NYC navigating their lives in male-dominated skate parks. They tell us how their show tackles female issues through skateboarding and how they push off sk8er bois tryna flirt/fight them (!) and their hopes for girls everywhere.
Merk: You ever wake up thinking about yourself?
Nyge: Uh, what do you mean? Like good morning, you are Nygel Turner? (laughs)
Merk: (laughs) Uh, kinda? Like, no duh. I wake up every morning and I’m like, “Yeah, I’m Merk Nguyen.” But for me, I wake up very aware of the fact that I’m a woman.
Nyge: Oh yeah. I wake up very aware of the fact that I’m a black man. Why?
Merk: Well, because with quarantine going on and my mind going to some dark spaces, I just wanted to remind myself of what I'm thankful for and things to be happy about. Being an independent woman paving my own path was one of those things for me. Like, how cool is it knowing that I have a mind with thoughts that I know how to express, a soul that feels and this body that is totally capable of producing another human body? That's nuts!
Nyge: Yeah, I was about to be “retweet,” until you got to the "I can produce a human body out of my body." (laughs)
Merk: Yeah. Thumb hovering over the retweet.
Nyge: Right? I’m still trying to figure out my identity after.
Merk: But, you know, there's other things too. I've got a spot of my own to live, I can wear what I want, we have this show which is our job and I'm really grateful for that. But it's just also weird knowing that those things aren't guaranteed. Like, they could be taken away. And if we look at history for a minute, there are things that I couldn't have had 100 years ago.
Nyge: Yeah, because you're like not a hundred years old.
Merk: I know! No I'm not! Okay, I'm not the Avatar! At least, not yet.
Nyge: You might be! Hasn’t been revealed yet.
Merk: I might be. Actually, people in middle school did call me Aang, because [my name being] Angela and [how it’s spelled a-n-g].
Nyge: They would have told you by now though. You're over 16.
Merk: I am. Forever twelve in my heart. (laughs) Anyway, If you look at it all, like in the grand scheme of time, women were only given the same citizenship rights as men just like yesterday. It wasn't until 100 years ago from this year, in 1920, when women were given those rights in the U.S. Constitution and could finally vote.
Nyge: Yeah, that was for white women though. People of color and stuff didn't really get the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act.
Merk: But, that is my point. Sixty years ago, you and I wouldn't have the rights that we do today. You as a black man and me as an Asian-American woman. And even though we're on the younger side of all this and are able to say we've had these, "equal rights" all our lives, it just doesn't feel like things are 100% equal. Would you say that?
Nyge: Would I say what?
Merk: I would say that things don't feel 100% equal. Would you say that, too?
Nyge: Before I answer that … (laughs) Welcome everyone to Adult ISH by YR Media, where we get into our early morning deep thoughts and quick history recaps with my co-host Merk. I’m Nyge, and to answer your question about if I feel equal to anyone as a black man my response is LOL. Especially with everything going on with George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, my family called me crying, scared about me running around my block. The skin I was born with definitely feels like a target most times. I mean, I can't even jog around my house without being in fear. So, equality is something I am very familiar with not feeling.
Merk: Yeah. And I could never imagine what that feels like, but we can relate that things, like you just said, don't feel equal.
Nyge: Big facts.
Merk: So today we're going to focus on people who are creating equal access in the world. And since all of our guests just happen to be forward-thinking females, today's episode is titled “Future ISH Female.”
Nyge: Yup! Merk and I are gonna talk to two actresses/skaters from HBO’s “Betty,” a show that follows a group of young women as they navigate the NYC skate scene. I love this show so much, and it definitely brings me back to a very nostalgic part of my life! Good ol’ young Nyge skating days.
Merk: Because (sings) Nyge is a skater boy. He said see you later, boy! Speaking of which, Davey [our boss] got disconnected, so we might have to record all of that again.
Nyge: I saw. Like in the middle of my line, I saw that.
Merk: Facts though, you were a skater boy. When we’re on Zoom meetings, Nyge's bedroom walls are covered with skateboards.
Nyge: And people used to always hate that, because all my friends who actually skate are like, "You're such a poser if you just have fresh boards on your wall." And people would always come in my room like, "Bro, what's up? Can we skate these?" I'm like, "Ahh ... I don't know. Decoration."
Merk: But yeah, we'll get into how the characters in this show, and the actresses themselves, are creating space in skate parks, that are really dude heavy, for girls to ride freely, do tricks and just be themselves.
Nyge: We’re also gonna be exploring the digital space with someone who’s not afraid to take on tech bros and advocate for equal tech accessibility
Merk: And if you don't know what that is, you are about to find out, because joining us in just a second to talk about that is Haben Girma, a disability rights lawyer who Obama once personally gave the White House Champion of Change Award.
Nyge: She’s also the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, was on Forbes 30 Under 30 and she surfs and salsa dances! So we start off by asking about her school cafeteria (also known as my favorite place), which is where she first started fighting for disability rights.
Haben: Yes. So I went to Lewis and Clark College, and the cafeteria is like a lot of cafeterias. They had several food stations, like about six different food stations, and sighted students would walk in, look at a print menu and then go to their station of choice. I couldn't read the menu, not because of my blindness, disability is never the barrier. The problem was the format of the menu. So I went to the cafeteria manager and I explained, "I can't read the menu because of the format of the menu. Can you provide the menu in Braille or post it online or email it to me?" And they told me they're very busy. I should stop complaining and be more appreciative. I don't know about you, but if there's chocolate cake at station four and no one tells me, I’m not feeling very appreciative! So for the first few months, I just tolerated it. I told myself, why should I complain when lots of kids around the world are struggling for food? Maybe I should just be grateful. And I talked to my friends and they reminded me it's our choice to accept unfairness, or to advocate and do something about it.
Nyge: So what did you do?
Haben: I did research. I learned about the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA. The ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. So I went back to the manager and I explained the ADA and the history, and they have a legal obligation to make their services accessible. That conversation actually changed everything, because they realized I wasn't asking them for a favor, I was asking them to comply with the law. And after that, they started providing the menu in accessible formats. Life became delicious.
Merk: Chocolate cake for everyone!
Merk: So right now, through the power of podcast magic, it sounds like we're all chatting in the same room. But, obviously our listeners aren't able to see the logistics of how we're talking to each other right now. You have someone by your side interpreting every thing that we're saying, right?
Haben: That's a great question. So I can't hear Merk and Nygel. What we're doing is I have an interpreter here who's typing on the keyboard what Merk and Nygel are saying, and that's being transmitted to my Braille computer. It's a small device with Braille dots that pop up and I run my fingers over the dots, feel the dots, and that's how I know what Merk and Nygel are saying.
Merk: So on to question number two. You traveled the world being that advocate for people with disabilities. You've spoken at White House and TED Talks. And in many of your talks, I admired how you reclaimed the word “pioneer.” What's your personal definition of that word and how does it guide your work?
Haben: A “pioneer” is someone who's daring enough to try something new. It's not just about going somewhere new. It could be a mindset. It could be learning a new skill. We've mentioned salsa dancing. Salsa dancing I learned because when I was 15 years old and at a camp, I met a blind salsa dancer. And she showed me, physically showed me, let me touch her feet and her hands, and showed me how she moves for salsa dancing. And then I learned that I can do it too. I can learn to salsa as well. I've been dancing ever since.
Nyge: So what was the hardest thing about learning to salsa?
Haben: The hardest thing about salsa dancing is finding dance partners. A lot of people, they look around the room, watch people, make eye contact and then they somehow get that person to come to them or they have the courage to go up to that person and ask them to dance. I can't do that because I can't see the dancers. So I have several strategies. After someone dances, I ask [that dancer], "Can you introduce me to someone?" And oftentimes they have another friend at the salsa club that they can introduce me to and that I can dance with.
Nyge: That’s cool!
Haben: Or I'll meet up with a friend there and the friend will help me find dance partners.
Merk: On your website, it also says that you like to surf, which is something I'll never do because of sharks. So I'm sorry, but screw that!
Merk: But, for you, Haben, what made you wake up one day and say, "You know what? I'm Haben Girma. I'm awesome. I want to surf."
Haben: The world is dangerous! You can't let sharks stop you from doing something.
Nyge: I wish I knew how to salsa dance and I wish I knew how to surf. I can't do either of those things.
Merk: Same. One day, Nyge.
Nyge: I have a mean bachata. But, as far as salsa goes, that's where I get mixed up.
Haben: How do you get mixed up? In what way?
Nyge: Bachata is like a two-step, and I’ve been two-stepping my whole life. But salsa is, like, a little more ... I don't know. It's the extra steps in it that confuse me.
Haben: Yeah. There are more steps in salsa than bachata. I also do bachata. It's super fun. I think some people struggle with dance, maybe because they haven't had the right teachers.
Nyge: Maybe I need to learn from you how to surf and how to salsa dance.
Merk: Yeah. Can I sign up for your classes too?
Haben: That actually sounds really, really fun. Maybe we could go to Costa Rica and do a salsa and surf camp?
Nyge: Aye, that sounds amazing! Are you paying for the trip to Costa Rica?
Haben: I'm assuming this podcast is going to pay for it.
Nyge: Davey, you heard her. So quick question. Surfing or salsa dancing, if you had to choose one?
Haben: Salsa dancing. No question about it. One, it's definitely more accessible to people. And ultimately, I'm looking for activities that are a form of exercise and social.
Merk: And it makes it look sexy, right?
Haben: Some people watching might feel that way. But when you're in the moment dancing, that's not what I'm thinking about.
Merk: Okay, for our next question, we wanted to know more about where you come from and, more specifically, who your mom is to you and how she's influenced the woman you've become.
Haben: My mom is amazing. She's from Eritrea. It's a small country in northeast Africa. She's not deafblind, so, growing up, many of the things I was experiencing were new to her and me. But what was really powerful growing up is hearing my mom's stories. My mom grew up during the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. And my mom, when she was about 17 or 16, she took the dangerous journey walking from Eritrea to Sudan. It took about three weeks. And then she was a refugee in Sudan for about 10 months. And a refugee organization helped her come to the United States. Then in America, she had to learn so many things: how to get a job in the U.S., how to improve her English. Those stories are stories of pioneering. Her stories of being a refugee and making it an America inspired me and really helped me.
Merk: I totally feel the same way about my mom, so I'm really glad you shared that, Haben.
Haben: Thank you!
Merk: Yeah, of course. So going back to being a pioneer, we know you're out on the front lines pushing to make tech accessible for everyone, which is obviously more than just being able to pop up on the internet to like something on Insta. What kind of issues are you really trying to tackle?
Haben: A lot of apps and websites only work if you can see or if you can hear. There are a lot of accessibility features that exist, but developers aren't putting them into their websites and apps. So we're trying to teach developers "build with accessibility." The guidelines already exist and we don't want separate websites or separate apps for people with disabilities. Separate is never equal. Sometimes people think, "Oh, we'll have the blind website have the same features as the cited website." And they'll start out with good intentions. but, down the line, the disability website won't get updated as often. It'll end up not having the same features and it becomes inferior. That's not fair. So don't do separate services for people with disabilities. Instead, design one service to be accessible to everyone.
Merk: Well, thank you, Haben. It's been "Habening" with Haben Girma here on Adult ISH.
Nyge: I’m so sorry, Haben, that you have to deal with her.
Haben: Thank you for having me on here!
Merk: Be sure to check out Haben’s book, "Haben: The Deafblind Woman who Conquered Harvard Law," on her website habengirma.com. She’s on all the socials @HabenGirma. And also, you can read the full transcription of all our episodes this season on our website at AdultISHpodcast.com.
Merk: So there's a series on HBO called “Betty,” about young women in modern-day New York City living their best lives as they roll through the male-dominated world of skateboarding. The show has the perfect blend of romance, family feuds and obviously skating. But it also touches on a few serious themes like #MeToo, as well as race and class within the skating community. Not to mention the athleticism of these young women! And right now, we've got two athletes from the show: Rachelle Vineberg, who plays the chill, yet super passionate Camille; and Dede Lovelace, who plays the loyal and strong-willed Janay. What's up, y'all?
Nyge: What’s going on?
Dede: Thanks for having me. Thanks for having us.
Merk: Yup! So right before this, our boss asked me if I'd ever skateboarded and I haven't really, but I've got some thick calves and I'm like, "Hey, I think that would make me pretty decent!" But he says that he learned flat feet is better for skating, which is why he never got good, apparently.
Merk: Is that the truth?
Rachelle: I’ve never heard of that.
Nyge: I don't think any of that matters, because I feel like once you put on your shoe, your foot is the shape of the shoe.
Rachelle: I think it would be that sole of the skate shoe. I have to look into that. I’ve never heard of that.
Dede: I’ve never heard of that.
Merk: But what about the calves, though? Is that a thing?
Dede: Did you run track or something?
Merk: Heck yeah, I ran track!
Dede: Yeah. That's the only way because I have thick calves too. I mean, that's good. You'd have, like, strong legs and muscle down there.
Dede: You need to jump a lot in skateboarding. That’s if you’re trying to do tricks. I don’t know if you’re trying to do tricks. But if you are…
Nyge: Work your way up.
Merk: Baby steps. Baby skates, I guess.
Rachelle: You can do it.
Merk: Good for me to know! So “Betty” was inspired by the movie “Skate Kitchen,” a movie from 2018 that was inspired by your real-life group of female friends and friends of female skaters of the same name. Those who aren't quite skater girls, like myself, who is Betty? Because there isn't a character on the show named Betty.
Rachelle: Alright, so, Betty. We actually didn't know who Betty was either. Betty is not really a person. It's an idea of a person. It actually comes from the ‘90s. So back in the ‘90s where the director, Crystal, grew up, she grew up in California, actually, but moved here when she was like 18. So she spent pretty much those late teen, early 20s years here with skateboarders. Those are her friends. One skateboarder in specific, Bill Strobeck, which I don't know if you know, but he's the guy who makes all the Supreme videos. They're really close. She couldn't figure out a name for the show and he said “Betty.” And basically Betty was a term that they used to call girls who either skated or hung around the parks. The guys would call them Bettys. So, not necessarily a bad thing, but not really a good thing, just kind of like a term. So she just used it. Kind of reclaim it, I guess, for this generation.
Merk: Speaking of the show, in it, we see that when y'all go to the skate parks, it's basically a sausage fest. You know, dudes are acting like they run the place. And they're on something, I swear, because it's like one minute they're flirting with you and then the next minute they're trying to fight you. Is that what it's like to be an actual skater?
Rachelle: You definitely have experience in this.
Dede: It's like a mixture of, "Oh yeah. She's the bro." But also like, "She's kind of cute."
Rachelle: “She doesn't like me? I hate her!”
Dede: So it was, like, I know they definitely would be like, "Yo, you're mad cute." But then it was also like, "Yo, nah, nah, she the homie. Let's just keep her around. She chillin’." But it's alright. It's funny, though.
Nyge: Stereotypically, what's the number one skate park pickup line that people hit y'all with?
Dede: "Hey, I like your board." Maybe like, "Yo, can really do tricks on that? You get tricks?"
Rachelle: "Let me see one."
Dede: "Let me see something."
Rachelle: Even if they know that we skate, they just want to like, "Hey, I can give you a tip on that?" Like, they just want to involve themselves. It's not always a bad thing, again. Like, if I were a dude, you would not be asking me like, "Hey, what's your board?"
Nyge: “Nice board, bro.”
Dede: Like she said, it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes there are guys and people who are just genuinely interested. They have not seen a girl do tricks on the board. They're like, "Can you actually do something? That'd be really exciting to see." I’m not against that.
Nyge: You, like, actually have a dope board and they're like, "Yo, dope board." There's a part in the show that I really liked where Kirt is walking down the street and I think somebody was like, "Yo, you know to do it?" And she's like, "Nah, I'm a poser bro." (laughs)
Rachelle: Oh yeah. She really does, though. That’s what she does in real life. And then they’re just like, “What?” Like, they don’t know how to react.
Nyge: Yeah, I think that's the perfect way to react. But, like Kirt [who is played by Nina Moran], playing a fictionalized version of yourself on screen must be a trip for both of y'all.
Rachelle: Oh my God yeah. I’d never just ditch my friends. What about you, Dede?
Dede: I mean, I'm not as confrontational as Janay is.
Rachelle: You're becoming more like that, right?
Dede: No, I have my days where I'll say things when I'm frustrated. But, in a situation like that, I would not go and stalk this girl and then find her and yell in her face and call her "b," and all that stuff. But, I have stalked people on Instagram. I have done that. That's about it.
Merk: Who hasn’t, though? (laughs)
Nyge: So, on Episode 1, Rachelle, I'm glad you brought this up. On Episode 1, “Key Party,” Kirt, Janay and Honeybear show up for a girl skate sesh or whatever. So, like, their newly formed group goes and helps Rachelle's character, Camille, look for this key all day. They're going in and out of everywhere in New York looking for this key. It's to get into this exclusive skate spot. Like, y'all tease it the whole episode. As a viewer, I'm like, "Oh, dope, cool. Now I got this group's origin story. Now they're about to link for this epic skate sesh!" And then, that's not really how it goes. So let's hear how that actually played out.
[Clip from “Betty”]
Guy: Sup girls.
Camille: We have a key.
Guy: Oh, that’s cool. You have a key. Is it yours?
Guy: Well, I didn’t think so. I’ve never seen none of you before.
Camille: Well, it's Philip’s. And we’re using it.
Guy: You’re cool. You can come in. Skurrr, I don’t know about the rest of y’all.
Camille: It’s not my call. What am I supposed to do?
Dede: What the f***! Are you kidding me?! (slams door)
Kirt: Damn, that b**** is cold!
Nyge: So, Rachelle's character, Camille, basically is like, "Yeah, I don't know them like that." I personally liked it a lot, because you expect her to support other women. But, at times in this show, she really cares [more] about her reputation with the other male skaters. And it was an interesting change of pace in the writing. So that's what I appreciated about it. But why didn't she let them claim them in that situation?
Camille: Well, okay. So one big inspiration for Camille is the idea of like ... so we know that sometimes guys can be mean to girls skaters and not welcoming, but there are girls like that too. In everything. [Someone who] cares more about looking cool than actually being a cool and nice person.
Merk: Something I really like about the show is how y'all use skateboarding as a lens to talk about other female issues. There's another scene from that same episode where your characters have an uncalled for encounter with an old man, which leads to a conversation about creepy men sexualizing girls or women. And then skateboarding is talked about as a form of protection from that. Would you say skateboarding serves as a shield for you in real life?
Dede: It's definitely given me more confidence in some ways. Stepping into this world, that one moment where it wasn't that easy for a girl to skate and just enjoy herself, I had to overcome that barrier of, I guess, having eyes on me. I wouldn't say as a shield, but definitely helped me push through something that was uncomfortable. It's so rewarding as well, I can say. Like when I'm learning a new trick, just being able to say I did that. I worked on this for months, weeks, and now I'm here.” So, I think skateboarding is great and it helps in so many different ways.
Merk: That's really cool, because when I was just watching you all skating, it made me want to also get a skateboard. And I love how ... I'm not going to spoil the ending! I love how the series concludes itself nicely! And, like, seeing stuff like this scene made me think like, "Man, should I get board?" If so, what kind? Y'all have any advice? I am taking notes.
Rachelle: So do you want to do tricks or do you want to just have something that's nice for cruising or do you want a mix of both?
Merk: I want a mix of both. I got these calves built for tricks and stuff, so...
Rachelle: So I think that the best thing to get is like a cruiser shape with some nice bigger wheels, but not too big. I would say 60-millimeter wheels. Like a size 8.25 or something. Right, Dede? That’s a good mix.
Merk: I can't wait to look into this and then replay this tape to actually understand what you're talking about. (laughs)
Dede: Yeah. It took me a while to get it too.
Nyge: But, you've got this Merk! I believe in you. (laughs) So, growing up, my favorite show ever was this show called “How To Make It In America.” And I was immediately drawn to “Betty” because it gives me that same New York City street culture vibe that that show gave me and that I love so much. But this is from the perspective of women skaters, which is dope. What other aspects of the New York City skate and fashion scene do people not see, but you want to highlight with “Betty"?
Rachelle: Well, I think “Betty” does a better job, compared to “Skate Kitchen,” at really highlighting the communal aspect of skateboarding. I love how, in episode two, we're just in one skate park, but there's so many different things going on, because that's really how it is. As far as fashion, I mean, in skateboarding it's funny because no one really ... I feel like you don't really think about what you're wearing as much. It's kind of just you see someone wearing it, you're like, "Oh, that's cool. How does it skate?" "Oh, it's perfect. So comfortable." And then you're like, "Alright, I'm gonna get some." Or you just borrow friends' clothes. Like, I borrowed Dede's clothes and it is kind of ... Do you remember, Dede, that one pair of pants that we're like floating around? Those black Dickies?
Rachelle: That's just how the vibe is. I think the show captures that.
Merk: “The Sisterhood of the Black Dickies.” Not “The Traveling Pants.” The black Dickies.
Dede: Yeah, right?
Nyge: So the movie was a hit. The show is a hit. I'm curious, what's next for “Skate Kitchen?” And if y'all can't speak to what's next for “Skate Kitchen,” then what's next for both of you in the future? And it's perfectly okay to answer this question with like, "Okay, bro, we just dropped a movie and a hit HBO show back-to-back. Let's chill for a second."
Rachelle: Oh gosh…
Nyge: But if there is anything in the works, what y'all working on for the future?
Rachelle: I just want to tell more girls just keep skating. If we can help in those ways, hold more events that maybe incorporate brands giving us stuff to give to people, that would be the dream. Like, be responsible enough to be able to do that.
Dede: Supporting artists, because a lot of skaters, they're all just like weirdo, artists kids. So, supporting artists. Being able to do that and curate shows or just, you know, be a contributing factor to art shows and upcoming artists, because that's important.
Nyge: Appreciate it. Thank y'all so much, for real, for stopping by. For all of you listening, follow Rachelle on Instagram at @rachellevinberg and Dede at @dedelovelace. And make sure y'all go watch “Betty” on HBO right now.
Merk: Right now!
Nyge: Just don't be surprised if you want to go cop a skateboard or dust off the one you got under your bed after watching because I fasho did. Thanks again, both of you, for coming along.
Rachelle: Thank you.
Nyge: By the way everyone, Dede is also a DJ and if you want to listen to one of her playlists, it’s on Spotify, just search “It’s All Love.” And with that, thanks for listening to another episode of Adult ISH, produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.
Merk: Our special thank yous go out to our Senior Producer Davey Kim, engineers Cari Campbell and Galnadgee Joe-Johnson, Executive Producer Rebecca Martin, all the young people at YR who made the art and music for this episode as well as Adan Barerra for providing the transcriptions for all our episodes this season.
Nyge: We’re also on all the socials @YRadultISH — if you already follow us, you already know we see you! Just be sure to keep the Adult ISH fam growing by telling your friends, your family, your neighbors, your coworkers, basically anyone you’ve talked to in the last 24 hours.
Merk: We’re also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX. An independent listener-supported collective of some of the most fantastic shows in all of podcasting. Find them at radiotopia.fm.
Nyge: In our next episode, we’re gonna get into what it’s like livin’ life solo. Not going to tell you about it now. Sounds a little vague? Well, it’s on freakin’ purpose. Just use your imagination and we’re gonna leave you by your solo self to think on it.