The rise of informal education in New York City

Groups like the Brooklyn Skillshare, Brooklyn Brainery and Presentation Party Night aim to make learning affordable in NYC.

Quilting class at Brooklyn Brainery

Quilting class at Brooklyn Brainery Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

In NYC, there are a plethora of avenues available for those who want to pick up a new skill or learn about a certain subject, whether it’s a lecture series, a traditional school environment or an informal learning center. Recently, we’ve noticed an uptick in the latter: Amateur, community-driven education options have popped up all over the city (many of these, perhaps not surprisingly, are clustered in Brooklyn). In advance of one such event—the Brooklyn Skillshare, which happens tomorrow at the Gowanus Ballroom (55 9th St between Smith St and Second Ave, Gowanus, Brooklyn; Apr 27 10am–7pm; suggested donation $10)—we take a look at three of the organizations that are helping steer the trend of community-driven, DIY education in NYC.

Brooklyn Skillshare

After visiting the Boston Skillshare with friends in 2009, Meg Wachter was looking for a similar type of event in New York City. “I came back to Brooklyn under the impression that that sort of thing would already exist here,” she explains. “And it didn’t, which was weird.” She took matters into her own hands, and that same year, launched the first Brooklyn Skillshare at Gowanus Studio Space. More than 400 people attended the first event, taking advantage of classes on topics like screenprinting and making your own kombucha. For the 2013 edition, there will be 18 classes offered (three sessions will take place during hour-long blocks), covering subjects as varied as bike mechanics, beer varieties and résumé prep.

The workshops are meant to serve as an introduction, rather than an in-depth course; you likely won’t master anything by the end of the day, but you’ll have the tools to find out more. “Skill-share classes are really jumping-off points,” notes Wachter. “If [a subject is] something that someone was interested in starting to get into but not sure how, then this gives them that platform to move further from it.”

From the get-go, engaging with other people—and offering an affordable alternative to traditional workshops—was important to Wachter. She notes that while online resources exist for many of these subjects, the community-driven aspect of the Skillshare may ultimately be more beneficial for participants. “There is something to be said about learning directly from someone and using your hands—it sticks with you,” she explains. “More than sitting in front of a computer.”

Brooklyn Brainery
Of the low-cost education groups that have sprouted in NYC in the past few years, the Brooklyn Brainery is probably among the most well-known. It was born in 2010 after founders Jen Messier and Jonathan Soma realized that few informal, inexpensive venues for learning existed, so they decided to give the concept a shot. (In a 2010 TONY story on the space, the duo referred to the Brainery as a “book club on steroids.”) Their first series of classes—which included sessions on meat and perfume—took off almost immediately, and the Brainery has only grown bigger since then.

Now, Messier and Soma (along with a group of teachers) lead classes out of two brick-and-mortar spaces, and will soon consolidate the entire operation at its new Prospect Heights location, which opened earlier this year. They’ve also branched out into events: Each month, Messier and Soma host the Masters of Social Gastronomy, a free, food-focused lecture series at Public Assembly (Soma calls it “our response to our terrible guilt at charging money for things”).

At its core, the Brainery is about learning about new topics—and not spending a ton of money to do it. “We wanted to kind of be in the middle in terms of cost and the amount of time you had to spend,” notes Soma. Classes are in the $5–$15 range, and the pair remains committed to keeping prices at reasonable rates. And like the Skillshare, the idea is to give you the foundation pursue interests more deeply on your own. “People teaching other people things isn’t a new idea,” says Messier. “[This is] just people giving shape to that and then making it seem viable.”

Presentation Party Night

Unlike the Skillshare and the Brainery, this Bushwick lecture series isn’t necessarily about hands-on teaching—but much like those organizations, the folks behind Presentation Party Night wanted to give people an avenue to learn new things without dropping a ton of cash. “One of the things that makes us a little different is that we've always tried to keep our event free,” explains Drew Weigel, one of its founders. Attendees are encouraged to bring snacks or beer for the group; recently, PPN has worked with Brooklyn Salsa Company and Brooklyn Brewery on sponsorship deals, all of which have helped keep the event free and community-oriented.

PPN began two and a half years ago, with a group of about 20 people gathering at a friend’s Bushwick loft to talk about different topics; after a while, the organizers realized that by opening the group to a wider audience, they’d learn more. PPN bounced around to a few different venues before finding a semipermanent home at Bat Haus’s coworking space earlier this year. Weigel credits the event’s Bushwick environs, and the support of the neighborhood's arts community, as crucial to its success. “I don't think we could have done something similar for as long as we have in Williamsburg and kept it free,” he notes. “When it started it really was, Here's an open space and here's a place for us to come together and have a DIY party, more than anything.”

Weigel jokingly refers to what the group does as “TEDTalks for drunks, more or less,” but it’s a fairly accurate summation: Participants are invited to speak on a topic (anything from ghosts and the history of video games, to dating on OkCupid and serial killers) for about ten minutes, with a Q&A session afterward. “We never try to curate it. We’re always open to anyone presenting,” says Weigel. “I want everyone who walks away from the event to be able to say, That was awesome, and I know something I can present on for ten minutes.” Next event: May 21 at 8pm; free.