Features & Columns

Silicon Valley Roller Girls Expand Mission to Serve More than Hits

A recent effort by the Silicon Valley Roller Girls helped
donate hundreds of books to incarcerated women
BOOK 'EM: A recent effort by the Silicon Valley Roller Girls helped donate hundreds of books to incarcerated women.

Aside from beating the crap out of opponents on the flat track, Silicon Valley Roller Girls are laboring to find a new permanent home, collecting supplies for schoolkids and remaining active in social justice efforts. In short, they're everywhere.

This Saturday marks the Silicon Valley Roller Girls' (SVRG) second bout in a new temporary facility: South Hall behind the McEnery Convention Center. The squad used to practice and play its matches at San Jose Skate, way out there on the South Side, where the buses barely run. But when the landlord sold the building, the derby girls found themselves in search of a new home. South Hall will bridge the gap for the time being. Also this weekend, SVRG will be the featured volunteer organization at the eighth annual SubZERO Festival in downtown San Jose, serving suds in the beer garden and skating around to publicize the league and the June 6 bout.

But what really goes unnoticed when it comes to the derby girls, is the community service work these people do. Just to cite one shining example, former State Assemblymember Sally Lieber recently completed her annual book drive for incarcerated women and SVRG jumped at the opportunity to participate. The derby girls helped collect and donate hundreds of books to be distributed to California's state prisons. One derby girl in particular, Sasha Degrader, wrote a moving letter, a personal testimonial declaring how books helped turn her own life around, back when she was incarcerated several times.

In the letter, she describes the conditions of prison: up to seven women often sharing a locked room—pressure, anxiety, and virtually no mental exercises to even try and hone one's intellect except for books that others have donated. In cases of women trying to recover from drugs or alcohol, books are especially essential, even if it's just to improve basic skills.

"For some women," Sasha wrote, "the reading of books is the only mental exercise they will get because they stopped going to school at a young age and they are trapped in the lifestyle and economic status that led them to where they are today."

The rest of her letter is a poignant personal revelation about how she discovered Anna Karenina and Cormac McCarthy's The Road while locked up. Her roommates thought she was a nutcase for even showing emotion over such books. But the books helped her temporarily escape from the miseries of prison while increasing her mental capacity in the process—as if someone had thrown her a life raft.

When the derby girls collect books for women in prison, Sasha sees it as a perfect way of giving back. Anything to help. If a woman has more access to reading materials, even fiction, her recovery process will go better.

"By donating these books we are showing solidarity for our fellow women," Sasha wrote. "Women in prison are in the shadows of our society. Due to a broken correctional system, coupled with overcrowding, these women don't have a lot of resources. Libraries are sometimes nothing more than broom closets and storage rooms with a few shelves of tattered books."

I recently powwowed with the derby girls at Veggie Grill in Saratoga, where they skated all through the inside of the restaurant, many of them with kids in tow. One of them, who went by the name Kraken Rox, said being a derby girl had changed her life. At 53, she's the oldest skater in the entire league. She says derby is the most empowering thing she's ever done.

"When you get out there on the track, you're a totally different person," she tells me. "You could be the nicest person in the world off the track, but when you get on the track, you just beat the crap out of people and it's so much fun. And everybody loves each other. When it's all over, you hug each other and you go home. Then you come back and do it again."

Silicon Valley Rollergirls

San Jose Convention Center

Saturday, June 6