Hey, do you have any idea where you want these?
I look up from my clipboard and meet the eye of a woman holding pair of large Chinese lanterns. One paper globe is bright blue, the other is pumpkin orange. A tangle of cables hang behind her like Godzilla’s tail, disappearing behind a nearby trunk of wires and power strips.
I am in a 1960s-era dome-shaped building without windows. The work lights provided with the building rental emit a droning buzz, begging us in a nasally whine to please bring in our own lighting for our event. Suddenly someone begins thumping a steady beat on a bass drum on the grass outside, preparing a jam area for the hundreds of musically-inclined children that we are expecting soon. I point the lantern-carrier towards a ready row of video projectors surrounded by a fanned array of seating for media presentations, and tell her that we will figure out the exact placement of the lights soon. Just as soon as I can get my head on straight.
I survey the entire dome, trying to picture what this room will look like in 24 hours, when we open the gate.
It is October 2011, the day before Halloween. We are setting up for the first annual Word Up! Community Learning Fair, and if it feels like we are making this up as we go along, it’s because we are.
Word Up! Fair is a project of Literacyworks, an educational non-profit founded in 2001 that soon became an internationally recognized provider of learning resources. Literacyworks relocated to the North Bay in 2010, and is the parent organization of this journal.
Once settled, the organization adapted a bold new focus. Executive Director Paul Heavenridge proposed making a mark on the intellectual landscape by establishing the Bay Area as the "lifelong learning capital of the world." The vision was of a large, connected community; where people of all ages are empowered to find the inspiration and opportunities necessary for continuous learning in a variety of disciplines, regardless of education or income level.
This is, admittedly, a very ambitious goal but it’s one that has resonated in the community. And if successful, it will provide a great model for other communities.
Of course, the Bay Area is far from Philistine, and it was apparent to the Literacyworks crew that people living there already had many opportunities to learn. Just look at the many colleges, proactive businesses, and studios offering hands-on workshops on all manner of projects.
What we wanted to do was display of the importance of lifelong learning in a very public way, and a to provide a place where an average person could engage with many local educational groups at once. That’s when the idea of an annual event began to circulate: “Perhaps we could reach a critical mass for lifelong learning in the Bay Area by bringing everyone together…”
And Literacyworks did just that: bringing together businesses and community organizations in five subject areas. The first annual Word Up! Fair was held at the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds on October 30, 2011 with over 1500 adults and kids attending. You can see a video of the event HERE--LinkPleaseMarty. With a successful inaugural event, we decided to expand the project. The second annual fair was immediately booked at the Marin Center for October 7th, 2012.
The notion of people coming together to learn at community events is not a new concept in the United States. The Chautauqua movement of the early 1900s provides an early analog for Word Up. At Chautauqua, participants would set up huge tents for weeklong education and entertainment fairs in towns and cities throughout the country. These tents would host speakers on politics, theology, literature, and current events— as well as theater and musical entertainment.
Chautauqua was an incredibly popular in its time, providing millions of people with stimulating discussion and entertainment. Dozens of companies mapped out circuits through every community they could access during the summer season.
Of course, with the advent of mass media, it may seem that Chautauqua has gone the way of medicine shows and vaudeville stages. But this is not entirely true, as many new breeds of learning events have popped up in recent years. Events like the TED conferences, in which experts lecture on a wide range of interesting topics, are then posted on the internet. Another good example is Make, which publishes a magazine and hosts a series of fairs across the country, where people can meet inventors and crafters. South by Southwest Conference represents another example, in which the public can learn more about technology, film, and music. Literacyworks is a part of this new-era Chautauqua movement, producing projects such as the Word Up! Fair as well as this journal and its accompanying speaker series.
The idea of learning at fun, public events is being reinvented by these groups. One of the constant challenges is explaining Word Up! to people who we want to recruit for the fair. Here is an example:
Me: We think your organization is fantastic, and we want you to be a part of the Word Up! Community Learning Fair on October 7th at the Marin Center in San Rafael.
Them: Wow, thanks! I really appreciate it, Josh! Errr… what is a learning fair?
Me: We host a free event, where people have the opportunity to join in educational experiences with twenty-five Bay Area organizations specializing in five different content areas: Green Living, Health, Science and Technology, Art, and Community Resources!
Them: When you say free…
Me. Totally free: we want to get a big crowd of all income levels to come out and learn at the fair.
Them: Great. So, is this an event for kids?
Me: We work to make the fair fun and interesting for everyone. We bring in partners who offer fun educational experiences for a wide range of ages and learning styles.
Them: You keep saying that. What does that mean, “educational experiences?”
Me: People learn through experience, so we ask all of the organizations that participate at the Word Up! Fair to provide some kind of interactive element to their booth. That keeps us from being an expo, and makes us more of a fair. And, of course, the goal is that once people have these learning experiences at the event, they will have the opportunity to continue visiting these great community organizations and businesses throughout the year.
Them: Sounds interesting.
Me: Sure is! So.... Do you want to be a part of it?
And by that point, they usually do.
With the Word Up! Fair, Literacyworks is helping to move a great tradition into the 21st century— a great tradition of public events where speakers and activities appeal to people's natural curiosity. If the reports from the participants, attendees, and volunteers from last year's event are any indication, then we are taking some good first steps in achieving Heavenridge’s goal for the Bay Area. It’s a bumpy ride, full of uncertainty and experimentation, but it feels right—and necessary.
Now, as I sit in the enormous exhibit hall of the Marin Center in San Rafael, I’m trying to picture what this year’s fair will look like. We will be hosting many new groups: NASA scientists, beekeepers, and children’s authors (to name a few). I am not sure exactly what this year’s learning fair will look like, but it’s a thrill to watch this new chapter in education coming together, slowly, before my eyes.
Works as the Literacyworks "Director of Upportunist Relations," facilitating partnerships with educational groups around the Bay Area. He has worked on the 2011 and 2012 Word Up! Learning Fairs, and a number of other Literacyworks events. Josh is also an active music promoter and performing artist in the North Bay.