North Bay Learning Source brings classes to the masses

Botanical illustrator Nina Antze, seated, demonstrates working with watercolor pencils during her Drawing Summer Fruits class at Laguna Environmental Center in Santa Rosa, California on Saturday, August 22, 2015.


Deborah Wiig has created a single source for people to teach or learn in Sonoma County, but the catch is, it’s an in-person endeavor. Though North Bay Learning Source has a website, the classes are all held at community venues. Wiig’s goal is for people to meet their neighbors and fellow explorers face to face.

Ever since Wiig moved to Forestville less than a year ago from Denver, she has focused on becoming plugged into her new community and helping other people do the same. Instead of retreating into the redwoods, “I joined everything!” she said. Through her newfound church, the Sebastopol Grange, various meet-up groups and her son Evan Wiig (founder of the Farmers Guild), she met a cross-section of Sonoma County residents, including farmers, artists, social activists and craftspeople.

The level of involvement and passion she found in her fellow “joiners” was just the inspiration Wiig needed to start her new project. But it also comes out of over 20 years of experience: Wiig managed a Community School in Denver that was inspired by the Free University movement, offering classes in “just about anything you wanted to learn,” she said.

Eventually, the public schools lost funding for the Community School, and Wiig focused on her communications and journalism work. She started a community newspaper that is still in publication and established herself as a communications consultant for organizations like the Red Cross and the Department of Energy. She still works as a consultant for nonprofits, but she says she always dreamed of starting another school.

She noticed that there was a wealth of adult-education classes already being taught in the North Bay — at Santa Rosa Junior College and at numerous churches, community and cultural centers, museums, hospitals, churches, nonprofits and even retail shops. But there was no place to harness all of these offerings and make it easy for a teacher to list a class without posting 50 fliers around town, or a student to find a class without surfing the Internet for hours. After several months of research and development, including a survey about what classes to offer, Wiig worked with a software developer to create a user-friendly website that connects teachers and students.

“Many people have something they know a lot about, something they’re passionate about that they would enjoy sharing. It’s not necessarily about being a teacher,” she said.

“We used to learn from our family members and the elders in our communities.“ In this vein, there are no requirements for teachers on the Learning Source. There are purposely no interviews or qualifications required to teach a class and list it on the website.

She welcomes classes on the Learning Source that are appealing to a broad audience, from newcomers to retirees and anyone who wants to learn a new skill or make connections with people with similar interests. Topics range from year-round gardening and solarizing your home, to using Pinterest and tatting — a lost technique of lace-making. And if you don’t see the class you want listed on the website, Wiig invites you to suggest it or, better yet, teach it yourself. Examples of classes that have been suggested so far include “woodworking for women” and “how to raise backyard chickens.”

Until the Learning Source grows enough to have its own center, venues include the Laguna Environmental Center, Pepperwood Preserve, retail stories like Beekind in Sebastopol and StitchCraft in Petaluma, the Steele Lane Community Center in Santa Rosa and even the Santa Rosa City Hall. And if a class is not already associated with these organizations, there is a list of suggested classroom spaces on the website.

All classes are searchable by topic, and teachers can list their classes for free until the end of the year. The Learning Source will institute a $20 fee for teachers to list classes starting in January, but fees for students are determined and collected solely by the class teachers.

Wiig hopes that five years from now, the Learning Source will be the place everyone turns to either take or teach a class in the North Bay.

Like the original Free University that inspired the Learning Source, Wiig’s philosophy is that anyone is free to teach and free to learn.

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