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Skillsharing: What's is all about?

A skillshare is the quintessential Sharing Economy creation. It’s a simple concept: people gather in a large space like a school or community center and teach each other classes on topics they’re passionate about, like salsa dancing, stock investing, and bike maintenance. Classes occur simultaneously in multiple spaces throughout the day, and no topic is out of bounds. It’s local, educational, and free.

Attendees get down in the 12 pm Salsa Dancing class, Photo credit: Paula Junn

Last summer I decided I wanted to try and bring a skillshare to my hometown of Somerville, MA, a diverse city of about 75,000 located just a few miles from downtown Boston. After bouncing the idea off friends and family and reading what I could find about skillshares online (including a short but helpful “How To” article on Shareable written by Brooklyn Skillshare founder Meg Wachter), I took a leap of faith and put down a deposit to rent a community performance space for an entire day in March, six months later. Would this experiment work? Would anyone want to teach a class? Would anyone show up to learn?

Fast forward six months, and the answer to these questions, was, to our great excitement, a resounding “yes.” On March 2nd, 2014, nearly 800 residents from Somerville and the surrounding cities attended the first annual Somerville Skillshare, featuring nearly 40 free classes taught by local artists, crafters, hobbyists and small business owners. Buoyed by over $2000 raised in a Kickstarter campaign, food and beer from local sponsors, and the devoted energy of eight core organizers and 15 volunteers, attendees dropped in on seven unique classroom spaces over six hours to learn about subjects like urban beekeeping, storytelling, jewelry making, community organizing, printmaking, yoga, tai chi. The event generated some unexpected online buzz, too: 1200 unique RSVPs on Eventbrite in just a few weeks and 22,000 unique site views on our website (which totally blew us away). We were even featured in articles in six different publications, including Boston.com and Boston Magazine. With the exception of a 15 minute, building-clearing fire alarm mistakenly set off when someone from the high intensity parkour class bumped into a smoke detector, the whole event went off without a hitch. We finished the day feeling happy, somewhat incredulous, and yes, exhausted.

View of the lobby between classes, Photo credit: Paula Junn

Now that the dust has settled (and we’ve taken a few weeks get some sleep and catch up on our day jobs), we’ve had time to reflect on this experience. Here’s my conclusion from our skillshare experiment: there is a vastly untapped potential in our communities for locally sourced, DIY, non-exclusive learning events that bring people together in the name of free education. In other words, the world needs more skillshares. And the fact that we were able to create Somerville Skillshare in our spare time, with neither a budget nor a guidebook, means that just about anyone can organize one on their own.

Why is the skillshare model so compelling? To start, skillshares turn everyday local residents into educational All Stars and give them a platform to shine in their own communities. People love sharing what they know. When you’re so passionate about a topic that you’ve spent countless hours mastering it, the opportunity to ignite an interest in that topic in others is an immensely rewarding experience. The numbers speak for themselves: even though we couldn’t offer our teachers any money and lacked any guarantee that attendees would show up, we were flooded with teacher applications from individuals who simply wanted to share what makes them come alive.

Photo credit: Paula Junn

Second, skillshares support local economies from the ground up and keep dollars local. The artists, crafters, and small business owners who participated were able to showcase their work to a wide audience and gain new customers and followers. Perhaps one of the most rewarding parts of this project were the thank you emails and good vibes we received from bootstrapping local crafters who gained business from the exposure they experienced at the event.

Photo credit: David Booth

Third, skillshares give people the chance to learn practical skills and spark new hobbies in an informal, fun, and free setting. People are fundamentally curious and will seek out opportunities to learn—even if the person teaching them doesn’t have any fancy degrees. Attendees showed up to learn what they don’t teach you in school, in the same classroom as their friends, from instructors whose sole qualification was that they’re passionate and probably live around the corner. People like learning from their peers. Skillshares enable that to happen on a large scale.

Photo credit: Paula Junn

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, skillshares bring a diverse group of people together in the real world. As more and more basic human transactions like education and commerce move online, and people become more siloed into their respective niche interest areas, this seems especially relevant. Instead of sitting along in front of a computer taking a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course), you’re showing up to a place around the corner filled with neighbors, new friends, and people you might not normally ever have the chance to meet. Where else does a bike fanatic with a budding interest in photography get paired up in a storytelling workshop with a salsa teacher from across town who recently learned how to juggle and make tofu with an elderly woman he just met who came because she wanted to learn more about indoor gardening? In what other context does a Latino teenager who showed up because of his interest in parkour find himself wandering into a class about community organizing with a graphic artist who moved to the area from Denmark? Communities grow stronger and more resilient as these personal connections are serendipitously forged in the name of free education.

Photo credit: Paula Junn

Combine all this with the many tools that currently exist for organizing people online, a few basic marketing strategies, a welcoming space, a simple blog, some volunteers, some free beer, and boom: you’ve got a bumpin,’ locally sourced, offline DIY educational platform in your own backyard. Let’s make skillshares a household name and add them to the conversation when talking about educational platforms like Khan Academy and General Assembly. If we started organizing these all over the place, what would happen? I think communities would grow more resilient and neighbors would become more connected in the real world—something that can be increasingly important to maintain in this impersonal, globalized, online world that we live in.

So now we come full circle, to the beginning of this story. When I set out to organize this event, I’d never been to skillshare before. Same with all of our other organizers. It was an experiment. But our experiment succeeded. And I think yours can too.

Photo credit: Spencer Lawrence

Photo credit: Paula Junn

Next: An In-Depth Guide For Organizing Skillshares

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