Laneway Learning started as the brainchild of four young PhD students, living and studying in Melbourne and looking for a fun way to share knowledge and connect with their local community.
Gathering in underutilised spaces across the CBD – like a café or bar outside its regular opening hours – the team and other volunteers began delivering informal workshops to friends and strangers over a coffee or wine.
“We were tucked away but word got out pretty quickly,” recalls Maria Yebra, who joined the founding four soon after inception, as a volunteer educator, and is now Laneway Learning General Manager. “Broadsheet and The Age published articles on what we were doing and before we knew it we had hundreds of people trying to get into our classes.”
The ‘classes’ were and still are eclectic, offering in a one-off session rather than an ongoing course everything from the science of rollercoasters to steampunk costuming. For years they continued in cafes and bars but eventually – as the crafting became more extensive and workshops were extended into weekends – the not-for-profit moved into its own space in the Nicholson Building on Flinders Lane, where it still functions today.
Now, a decade on from those first laneway classes, Laneway Learning has gone through an exciting transition, adding Queer Social to its program through a partnership with the City of Melbourne.
“Our Melbourne Manager, Delsi Moleta, runs Unicorns queer parties, which provide a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community to connect and have fun, and she suggested collaborating on classes specifically for the queer community,” says Maria.
As with Laneway Learning, there is something for everyone – whether you want to learn to make pride polymer earrings and unicorn cupcakes or learn how to fix your car or your sleep issues. But the content is only part of what makes Queer Social – like Laneway Learning – so special.
Indeed, social connection has never been more needed than it is in Melbourne now, following two years of lockdowns.
As one participant wrote in a survey following a class: “The second the workshop ended, I recommended it to three other queer friends. Lockdown has been hell on mental health. Counselling and psychiatry offices are booked; their wait lists are closed. This isn’t the cure, but let me tell you – I’m having the first good day in months and I owe it all to last night’s workshop.”
Maria says having an inclusive space where people feel completely safe to present as themselves has been very important to attendees who may not always have felt safe coming into the CBD in the evening.
“These events are really important, not everyone has a safe space to be themselves and that's exactly what this provides,” wrote one attendee in their follow-up survey, while another wrote, “It was great and I would really like to thank the sponsors for making it a particularly accessible (financially) session. I really feel acknowledged and supported by the sponsorship and event.”
Maria says that the partnership with City of Melbourne has enabled Laneway Learning to not just start up Queer Social but to pay teachers more, spend more money on materials and ask for just a $5 fee for the classes. “This was important to us as we wanted the classes to be completely inclusive.”
Maria adds that it’s not just the inclusivity that has resonated with people. “Another positive outcome of the Queer Social and Laneway Learning classes I’ve noticed has been that they bring people together from different generations and demographics. I’m Spanish and I was shocked when I got to Australia to see that the generations don’t mingle as much,” says Maria.
“Here, we have 20 year olds with 70 year olds, different social and cultural backgrounds, different religions... It’s how you break down social barriers, and you can see people draw energy from talking to people they wouldn’t normally meet.”