community skillsharing breaks from the bubble – a look at free skool networking

Everyone’s knowledge is valuable. That is the main precept of skillshare-based education. I have been participating in Free Skools for a couple of years now starting with the Denver Free Skool, where I was worried whether I would be allowed to volunteer. Now I am involved with the East Bay Free Skool where I saw the project reborn with Enola D’s initiative. There are Free Skools that don’t even advertise–they exist by word of mouth. I like to call them Underground Free Skools (UFS), and they have been the most invigorating classes that I have ever attended. If you don’t think there is a Free Skool in your area there might be one operating underground wherever skills are shared with respect and without coercion. I think there is a very large movement of free education and it is the goal of Free Skool to remind everyone what is possible, and not to glorify in our own abilities or knowledge.

I have gathered together for you a small representation of this larger movement showing how they operate and giving you some insights from Free Skools in Baltimore MD, the East Bay CA, Santa Cruz CA, and St. Paul/Minneapolis MN.

East Bay, CA

The East Bay Free Skool (EBFS) exists to empower individuals to share their skills and knowledge by providing resources to teachers. This includes finding class sites, reimbursing copy fees, and publishing classes in a two month calendar of events.

The collective reviews all proposed classes. If the class occurs in the East Bay (from Richmond, CA to East Oakland, CA), is non-discriminatory in nature, attempts to create a safer space, and is free or donation based with no one turned away for lack of funds, the class is accepted to go onto our website and printed in a calendar of events.

The “non-discriminatory in nature” agreement in our class requirements has been a topic of much thought and discussion. It refers to the subject matter of the class. EBFS does not publish classes that teach discrimination.

Classes that have requirements of the students are allowed if it is necessary for the discussion to occur or creates a safer space. For instance, a class that is only for female-identified persons is not deemed discriminatory in nature if it is necessary to facilitate an open discussion. A class might require attendees to be over 18 in order to create a safer space. These guidelines have changed over the year and a half that the current East Bay Free Skool has been active. The Free Skool movement is autonomously organized and other Skools have different requirements.

In several ways EBFS interacts with the capitalist structure to be inclusive and to empower teachers. EBFS funds itself through benefit shows at local venues that include skill shares, music, and food. We ask for a donation at the door with no one turned away for lack of funds. EBFS is working to save money in order to reimburse teachers for their class materials. We choose to use commercial spaces as classrooms. In this way EBFS interacts with capitalistic ventures in a non-capitalistic fashion, attempting to inspire and empower others to live with less capitalism in their lives. Some of our classes ask for a donation from the students. We feel that this empowers the teachers, keeps things sustainable, and encourages more teachers to participate.

As an insert to the paper calendar, we print a teacher form. To propose a class, fill out a teacher form and drop it off at the Long Haul Info Shop located at 3124 Shattuck Ave in Berkeley, open 6-9pm Monday through Thursday and 3-9pm Saturday and Sunday or send an email with the class name, description, location, date, time and any contact info you want published to eastbayfs@gmail.com.

Usually the benefit shows occur every other month to coincide with the deadline to submit a teacher form for the next paper calendar. On Saturday, October 16th EBFS is hosting a show at the Actual CafĂ© (6334 San Pablo, Oakland) with Androgynous Elk, Annah Anti-Palindrome, Beltaine’s Fire, and the Detach Dolls. On Wednesday, December 15th East Bay Food Not Bombs, EBFS, and Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community (1317 San Pablo, Berkeley, CA) are working together to put on a dance party. Please contact EBFS if your band or venue would like to participate in the future.

Donations of art supplies and classroom materials for the East Bay Free Skool can be dropped off at the Long Haul Info Shop on Mondays during the weekly Free Skool meeting 7:30-8:30pm, which are always open to the public.

EBFS hosts a wikia web page (www.eastbayfreeskool.wikia.com). There has been considerable criticism of the appearance and accessibility of the website, all of which is valid, but there is currently no techy inter-web person volunteering for EBFS. The fact that the Free Skool is a personal investment of time, patience, and skills and is limited to the abilities of those involved is one of the most rewarding aspects of the project. We have learned how to use our energies in a way that continues the spirit and function of Free Skool without coercion. If there is no web master the web page will suffer, but we will not.

We sometimes take a month off to recuperate our energy. Last August we were planning to do just that when Autumn, a Free Skool organizer, announced she would be out of town during the crucial design, printing, and distribution time. Getting everything done without Autumn seemed like too much. So we announced a month hiatus. Then an intrepid traveler from Salt Lake City came to a meeting and said, “Why don’t we just make a calendar for August?” And so we did. It was printed on 81/2″x11″ paper instead of our customary 11″x17″ and was produced in the Slingshot office with cut and paste technology rather than the digital procedure we have been improving on. Thanks to a little input from an inspired volunteer we were able to publish and hold classes in August.

Other Free Skools operate in different fashions. There is another Free Skool in the Lake Merritt area of Oakland called the Ecovillage. They host mostly free or donation based events and have a website at www.ecovillage510.org. There are many ways to inspire free education and a Free Skool is not necessary to promote that function. We were discussing at one of our earlier meetings what we would do if there was another Free Skool in the East Bay. Would there be a split of energy? Would we be able to cooperate? So far we have found that doing nothing but encouraging each other works quite well.

Experimental College of the Twin Cities

In “Toward a University of the Common: The Experimental College of the Twin Cities” David Boehnke and Eli Meyerhoff describe the goals and vision of the Experimental College of the Twin Cities (EXCO).

“EXCO is a free school dedicated to transforming education on the principle that everyone can teach or take classes and all classes are free. Emerging from struggles within universities for equal access, workers’ rights, and democratic governance, EXCO creates an alternative institution, a microcosm of the university we desire, and that also serves as a means to transform current institutions. EXCO seeks to change the relations between life, work, and learning so that we can change the terrain of struggles altogether. In opposition to universities’ governance structures that discipline, neutralize, and frustrate collective learning, EXCO’s participants cooperatively run their own learning projects. As an institution that is owned through participation, it provides conditions for communities and movements to self-organize and co-create their educations.”

In St. Paul, Minnesota in the fall of 2006 students fought against classist admissions policies at Macalaster College. Macalaster announced in 2005 that it would change its admission policy from “need blind” to “need aware”. In researching ways to combat the administration, student activists looked towards the Experimental College model at Oberlin College in Ohio as an example of resistance and empowerment in a form that was desirable to create.

Around the same time at the University of Minnesota (U of M), graduate students were organizing a union drive. During the unionization attempt, a key slogan was “grad students are workers.” Redefining graduate students as workers clarifies the ways in which graduate education is a profit-making affair, shaped to cut labor and maximize profits from undergraduate tuition.

“In Fall 2007, the clerical, technical, and health care workers represented by the union of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) at the U of M went on strike when they saw the funds for their cost of living raises redirected toward the administration and faculty. During the actions in support of the AFSCME strike (students) helped organize a sit-in that shut down a Board of Regents meeting, a four-day hunger strike, holding classes off-campus, and solidarity pickets at campus loading docks. Questions were raised about what it would take to slow down production at the U of M, and to build workers’ power, to such extents that the Administration would be forced to yield to demands. The lack of a broader movement and the unwillingness of ostensibly supportive teachers and students to try more serious tactics, such as a general student strike or refusing to turn in grades or to stop holding classes, gave rise to questions about the obstacles to building cross-university coalitions and solidarity.” (Boehnke and Meyerehoff, 2010)

Members of these struggles started a chapter of EXCO at the U of M as a way to continue resistance and to create a microcosm of the kind of university they desire.

“How we view education is much in need of a shake up. While education in the U.S. is still spoken about as a path for everyone to better jobs and a better life, this is no longer true and was possibly never true for many segments of the population.” (Boehnke and Meyerehoff, 2010)

“What is needed is not a vision of education capable of saving the existing economy, but one capable of creating a different type of world altogether. Not a corporate university or even a public university, but a university of the common – a university that is constituted by the participation of the people and truly democratically governed, self-organized, and self-valorized to meet their desires for self-education, to build upon their communities’ and movements’ power and knowledge, and to destroy the relations of oppression between them. Articulating such a vision is imperative in our existing situation, because the status quo cannot be defended when the status quo is crisis, with impacts intensifying everyday. Motivated by our experiences and observations of increasingly precarious conditions, we see the double, global crisis of the capitalist economy and the University as an opportunity for redefining the relations between learning, work, and life.” (Boehnke and Meyerehoff, 2010)

“The ongoing challenge for EXCO’s organizers has been to transform EXCO into a community-led form. EXCO’s organizers see diversifying EXCO’s demographics as part of their larger project of overcoming educational segregations and inequalities. Their main strategy toward this goal has been the development of community-led chapters, beginning with the Academia Communitaria, an EXCO chapter of primarily Latin@ people who organize classes in Spanish. Rather than maintaining a hierarchical division between university-based and community-based chapters, we suggest reframing all of EXCO’s chapters as “community-led,” seeing universities simply as parts of the wider metropolitan terrain, composed of overlapping communities and having no special claims to expertise.” (Boehnke and Meyerehoff, 2010)

EXCO does fundraising through grants, donations, and events. They pay for some class supplies and honorariums to facilitators who couldn’t teach otherwise. To find out more visit www.excotc.org

A conversation between Slingshot, Baltimore Free School (BFS), Free Skool Santa Cruz (FSSC) and Seattle Free School (SFS)

Slingshot: Do you have a mission statement and if so what is it and does it change with time?

BFS: The Baltimore Free School is a grassroots, volunteer-run and community-funded project. Building upon a long tradition of horizontal organizing, collaborative learning and participatory education, we believe that the empowerment of people of all ages and backgrounds to share and learn is vital to the health of any community. To that end, we work toward creating a space where the exchange of ideas can occur without the exchange of money; a space where we can learn to relate to each other in new and meaningful ways. By building this infrastructure, we hope to form a microcosm of the world in which we want to live.

FSSC: Free Skool Santa Cruz does have a mission statement: we call it page two of the calendar:

“A radically different approach to living and learning, Free Skool is a grassroots educational project beyond institutional control. It is an opportunity to learn from each other and share what we know, to foster networks through autonomy and mutual support. We see Free Skool as a direct challenge to dominant institutions and hierarchical relationships. The project strives to blur the lines between teacher, learner, and organizer. Free Skool is decentralized, with classes held in homes, social spaces and parks. Part of creating a new world is resistance to the old one. Through this project we want to change the ways we learn and the ways we relate to each other.”

Yes, our mission statement changes over time. We try to re read and revise it each term, as a way to reassess our own visions and goals for the project.

SFS: The Seattle Free School is for the community by the community. All are welcome. No money ever exchanges hands. All we exchange are skills, knowledge and experiences.

Slingshot: How do you advertise for your classes and events?

BFS: We list them on our online calendar/website (freeschool.redemmas.org), we promote with a published, paper, monthly calendar with short course descriptions, and we tell instructors to promote the heck out of their own courses with fliers, online listings, emails, facebook pages, anything and everything.

FSSC: Free Skool Santa Cruz distributes calendars around town throughout our three-month quarters. We put them at cafes, natural food stores, community centers, laundromats, libraries and bulletin boards. We also do distro days at the downtown farmer’s market near the start of each quarter. We have an email list for teachers and students where folks can make class announcements that reach a large number of people, and we encourage teachers to get the word out about their classes. They distribute calendars on their own, and create fliers for their classes to post around town, which we will also help distribute. We talk to each other, and check in with teachers in person as well.

SFS: We have a website (www.seattlefreeschool.org) where we list all of our upcoming classes. We also occasionally post things on teachstreet.com.

Slingshot: How do you deal with money or not deal with money?

BFS: We have kept afloat for just over a year, but are always precariously perched on the brink of being absolutely broke. We solicit donations to keep our space open and the lights on. We host a monthly trivia night pub quiz. Our second Free School Dance benefit is on Saturday, November 20th featuring The Bellevederes and DJ Jason Willett at the Whole Gallery in the H&H building, 405 W. Franklin St. Baltimore, MD.

We’re happy to get money from grant making institutions that are aligned with our overall mission of community building. We have received a small grant from a local organization and are pursuing others as we come across them. We think it is necessary to have a stable and centralized physical location for the BFS. Therefore we hustle as much as we need to in order to keep the doors open.

FSSC: All classes that are listed on the Free Skool calendar are free. Teachers can ask for small donations that cover materials or space rentals, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. We are explicitly anti-capitalist and as such don’t list classes that are connected to commercial businesses or public or state institutions. No one who participates in the project, as teacher, organizer or student, makes any money at it. We do occasionally raise funds for printing costs, which are low because we print through a local anarchist print shop, We accept donations online and in person.

SFS: We don’t deal with money…at all. We decided from the beginning that we weren’t interested in getting all tied up in the non-profit industrial complex. Our website is hosted through a supporter of the Free School for free, and the website itself was designed by students in a computer class at a local community college. We host all of our classes at free, open-to-the-public locations like libraries, community centers, and certain restaurants, bookshops, and coffee shops that graciously host us. All facilitators volunteer their time and if supplies are needed, we find a way to get them donated. We’ve never needed money to operate, and we simply refuse donations.

Slingshot: How do you connect with teachers?

BFS: We get all course proposals through our online form on our website. We then follow up through email, phone calls, and in-person meetings if needed. We talk about the project to anyone we come across. Sometimes we bully, er, persuade, our friends who are really knowledgeable and excited about certain topics/skills to offer a course. We need to have some sort of fun gathering to get all the instructors together, a potluck for example.

FSSC: We do outreach to find teachers by distributing calendars and fliers, but in large part students become inspired to be teachers by attending classes. That is part of the beauty of Free Skool! We maintain a teacher email list for announcements, reminders, deadlines and general communication. We have a quarterly Free Skool picnic at the end of each quarter, and a How To Run a Free Skool workshop as well. We maintain a website, do distro days at the Farmer’s Market, and rely on word of mouth. Class submissions can be done electronically through our website or by paper.

SFS: Word of mouth, teachers are often former students. Sometimes we contact people directly if we are looking for a facilitator for a very specific class that people have requested we organize.

Slingshot: Where are classes held?

BFS: In our “campus,” which consists of 2 classrooms in a rented former retail space and has a capacity of maybe 60-75 people total. It’s at a nice little intersection in a pretty accessible mid-town neighborhood, located at 1323 N. Calvert St. Baltimore, MD 21202. We’ve partnered with the collectively-owned Baltimore Bicycle Works shop for bike maintenance classes, the Baltimore Development Cooperative for gardening workshops at their Participation Park, and the Maryland Institute College of Art for electronic music composition classes.

FSSC: Classes are held in social spaces, homes, parks, community centers and cafes. Anywhere a teacher can coordinate. More and more are happening at SubRosa Infoshop nowadays. It’s important to us that Free Skool is decentralized, and that it happens in different environments.

If you are in search of more information, you can check out our website, which is full of fliers, archived calendars, and other information: http://santacruz.Free Skool.org

SFS: Free places! Such as libraries, public beaches, coffee shops, bookstores and community centers. Our automobile maintenance classes are held in parking lots. Seriously!

If you would like your Free Skool listed in the Slingshot, please submit your information to slingshot@tao.ca