The Learning Center

Yesterday, we finally had it – the first meeting of our new Young Friends group. I had the idea back in September, and it’s taken until now to put all the pieces together; talk to key people assemble a proposal, present it to committees & the board, build it through nagging and reaching out to people one-by-one, evangelize about its future, set up meetings with potential partners, schedule a time to get together, lament over whether the cheeses being purchased for said get-together are tacky or tasteful, write the agenda – and then boom. People show up.

OK – so maybe only five people show up – but show up they did!

In the past I would have been kind of upset. Only a third of my new Young Friends actually came. In an earlier life, this would have made me feel unpopular and disappointed. Now, I’m just glad that anyone was there, so we could start moving forward with some planning outside of my own noggin – and I knew that the threat of frostbite outside, and not my personality, was what kept most folks indoors.

We started by sharing what we hope to get out of the group, and I was surprised to learn that for most, it was a sense of connection to the neighborhood that they sought; I had assumed they would want to meet other young people, and form a community/circle of friends. It was interesting & surprising to me that a desire to give back and feel rooted to a place were the driving forces bringing many people to my living room on a frozen Tuesday night.

From there, we created a big list on the whiteboard Husband lugged down from our office. We brainstormed different ideas for three types of projects – social events, community service events, and neighborhood events. I had assumed that the community service column (the thing most people had said in earlier conversations would draw them to such a group) would fill up first. But to my surprise, it was neighborhood events that people were most excited about.

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 8.12.56 AM” You know that empty lot on 13th & South? What if we could go in there and make it a garden?”

” I was just thinking about that the other day!”

” There would be a lot of red tape to cut through in order to do that – but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

” I’m going to text my old roommate – she works for an arts organization that does pop-up galleries – to find out how it works.”

” And there’s also that building across the street from the lot that’s been empty for months – could we do something in there, while they work to sell it, instead of having it just sit empty?

” Yeah, it could be a pop-up space, too.”

” What if it was really a pop-up garden, so that if they sell the lot we don’t lose the garden? Like, have all the plants be in portable containers, so that we can move them to another site if need be.”

” A moveable garden?”

“A moveable feast!”

” I love it – could we grow produce for neighbors?”

” Or at least get a CSA in this neighborhood?”

” Yes – and why don’t we have a farmer’s market? The neighborhoods on either side of us do – we need to step it up.”

” Yeah, and we could have programming in our gardens like other neighborhoods do.  We could have, like, a jazz night in the summer in one of the parks in our neighborhood.”

” What about something with food trucks? A farmer’s market with food trucks and live music?”

“We had that in Denver when I lived there; it was great.”

“Well then, there you go – if Denver can do it, so should we.”

“I was reading about another Civic Association in South Philly, and they have a composting program. That would be great.”

” Ooh! You could bring your composting to the farmer’s market, one-stop-shop.”

“They had that in New York at the Union Square market, it was fantastic.”

” They had that in Denver, too.”

“Dammnit, Denver!”

We laughed, and ate some more of the decidedly unclassy gouda with the lipstick red rind, and stared at the list, waiting for inspiration to strike again. The mood was light and energized. The enthusiasm for bringing events to the neighborhood was contagious, even within our small group of six. In addition to plotting ways to make our neighborhood a garden of eden, we also bounced around ideas for social events – block parties, First Fridays, fundraisers – and talked about how we could be politically smart about finding allies in the Civic and in the community at large to help us bring our plans to fruition.

Finally, to my shock, everyone unanimously voted on the community service project I threw out as a suggestion – that we adopt a room to renovate at the Mercy Hospice, which I visited and wrote about back in November. I was sure that folks would have oodles of suggestions for other service projects in the neighborhood; but while their creative energied flowed and grew the more we talked about farmer’s markets and block parties, when I nudged us in the direction of community service, the conversation was extremely different.

” I think the one you put up is a great.”

” Yeah – it’s really different. Let’s do that one.”

” I agree; that one sounds good. How should we start?”

“We can get our classmates at med school to do this with us.”

“That’d be great; what do we need to do next?”

And so, to my surprise, the group quickly decided to move ahead with Mercy Hospice, and leave the brainstorming to the other categories.

We wrapped up around 8:30, and I collected the interest surveys I had everyone fill out – there seemed to be a good distribution of who would like to plan, or market, or attend the different events. I felt we were on the right track.

Tired from a long day and from the energy I’d riled up for the meeting, I fell asleep on the couch after eating dinner out of tupperware, surrounded by bowls of popcorn and with a well-intentioned book splayed, unread, across my chest. Around midnight I woke with a start to find I was still in the living room, and dragged myself up to bed. Nuzzling under the covers, stretching out my legs and fluffling my pillow, I waited to fall asleep after what had been a tiring but wonderful day.

I rolled over and my eyes opened wide, feeling fresh. Shit, I thought. My eyes should feel like licked Werthers rolled around in dust right now. Why are they so open?

I fluffed the pillow again, sighed, and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I lay in the dark for two hours, wide awake. I live life dangerously on the narcoleptic side of the spectrum, so this sudden onset of insomnia was strange and disarming.

But I had an idea that I couldn’t shake – and dammnit, just like the coaching, I was seeing it all in a flash – from the big picture to the tiny details.

That building across from the empty lot on 13th street – I had been the one to suggest we do something in there, while they work on selling it. And I had an idea for what it could be : The Learning Center.

The Learning Center would have two purposes:

1.) Create diverse learning opportunities for the community.

2.) Teach community members how to share their knowledge.

Everyone has something they can teach; but so rarely are we taught how to teach others, and share what we know effectively; and rarely do we have opportunities to do so outside of dinner parties or the office.

I also know that I love to go to talks, classes, workshops, but sometimes it can be difficult to find them. That’s why I loved the 92Y in New York – they had so many learning opportunities – from Israel/Palestinian relations to The Secret Chocolate History of NYC – under one roof.

The Learning Center would be similar. It would be a community space where there would be talks, classes, and workshops, led by a wide variety of real people. It would give the community a place where interesting learning opportunities are always happening; and it would give people a venue for giving readings, talks, or classes. I can think of many friends & neighbors I have: doctors, journalists, lawyers, non-profit managers, personal trainers, real estate developers, restaurateurs, marketing professionals, psychologists, writers, accountants, event planners, community organizers, financial planners. All of them know something I would love to learn more about; I would go to a talk given by any of them. And I bet it would feel great to them to share what they know.

And I‘m sure that there is a vibrant literary community here in Philadelphia, but so far I have yet to find it. A quick Google search of “Philadelphia Reading Series” shows me that there is a heavier emphasis on poetry than on fiction or non-fiction. What if there were a monthly reading that occurred in this space, too? I’ve always wished there were a place where I could read from my short stories without being a published author, but I don’t know where to start. I would be interested in giving a reading there . . . 

There could be learning opportunities for children, as well; as a child or teenager, I would have loved to have a place to go to learn about anything I wanted. Oh wait; I suppose that should have been school. Well, emphasis on wanted. And actually, wouldn’t it be incredible to have children and teenagers lead some of the classes/talks? What could we learn from them? And what an amazing experience would that be for them?

The Learning Center would accept donations for the classes; pay what you can, and what you think you should. There could be a suggested donation of $5 a class, like at a yoga studio.

I would also want there to be support for anyone interested in leading a talk, workshop, or class, but who might not know how – we would run workshops on how to structure them for folks who are novices, so that we are also teaching others how to share their knowledge effectively.

I can picture the space inside – worn floors, kilim rugs, a big chandelier, fresh coffee always on, jazz playing softly when you walk in, a big sign  above the door with lime green, sans serif logo: THE LEARNING CENTER.

This idea kept me up until almost 3:00 in the morning, and I woke up just as excited about it as when I went to sleep. I don’t know, though – perhaps this is a crazy idea. What do you think? Is this a place you would go to? If so, what would you want there to be offered?

(ps – I found the building listed on Craiglist…)


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