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A No-Brainer For Brooklyn Brainery: Affordable, Community Based Courses

Community development through localized learning in Carroll Gardens

If you're interested in the social habits of bees, making ginger ale, or anything at all, really, Brooklyn Brainery is the place to go. A truly unique organization that offers affordable, accessible instruction, and works in collaboration with the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, the Brainery is making tremendous steps towards a new approach to community development.

So much more than a learning center, Brooklyn Brainery is the brainchild of Jen Messier and Jonathan Soma (aka "Soma"). Located in a storefront on the corner of Court and W. 9th streets, it's a self-contained, all-inclusive learning center, a self-proclaimed "book clubs on steroids."

Many kinds of courses are taught here, from bookbinding to Sarsparilla making – and all subject matters are considered. Instructors range from doctors with PhD's to your local neighborhood knitting superstar.

The Brainery shares office space with the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, and thus has combined forces with GCCDC managing director David Kreiger in an effort to boost community growth using a unique approach – strengthening the community through personal interaction.

As a general non-profit organization focused on the revitalization of the region, including environmental and real estate development as well as creating social programs, the GCCDC has found the perfect partner in Brainery. Their collaboration uses a more forward-thinking approach, stepping away from the traditional mentality about community development and instead building on a more personal, social, community based project, oriented around sustainability and social enterprise.

Messier's and Soma's vision for Brainery, which launched in January 2010, was to provide accessible, affordable education. Courses range from $5 - $40.

The Brainery originally rented out space on an hourly basis – and at one point, they were approached by Krieger via email, which Soma initially blew off.

"I don't know who this guy is!" Soma recalls saying, after receiving an offer by Krieger to rent space at the GCCDC.

Coincidentally, Krieger was later approached by Messier, and the three realized they each had the same vision, while each providing two powerful resources that, in tandem, would be able to make that vision a reality.

Soma, a web developer, and Messier, who works in fundraising at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, started Brainery after expressing frustration with what was currently offered at schools and learning establishments in the area – expensive, restrictive courses that required time and financial committment, and that didn't really offer the flexibility that the two had in mind.

"Me and Jen were taking a lot of classes and we were going broke doing it, basically," said Soma. "So we thought we might as well start an organization where we could offer classes inexpensively, because that's what we would want, and we were sure others would too."

The idea of Brainery, he explained, was not only to be wallet-friendly, but to create a niche – to sort of fill a gap, for those who want to learn a particular craft or subject, but just for their own personal knowledge, and not necessarily as a profession. Of course, programs of this sort exist, but are out of reach, financially, for many.

"We were like, you can go to a lecture and get this very introductory sort of thing. On the other end of the spectrum you can take a 6 or 8 week long class," said Messier. "Something in the middle is what we wanted to hit."

"We took welding classes, shoemaking classes, but we're not going to be welders or cobblers, we're not trying to get certified," explained Soma. "I don't need a Master's in Cobblery," he joked.

Eventually, the Brainery team and Krieger realized their collaboration was a potential match made in heaven, and each would equally benefit in coming closer to realizing their goals.

"I was excited to have them in the space [because] it's a way to expand our own program without having to duplicate efforts or starting from scratch," explained Kreiger. "It has to be driven by talented, smart motivated people who understand value of community source education."

Krieger's goal is to bring merchants and people together.

"Stores and merchants have their own set of resources, but they don't think to, or have a platform, to connect," said Krieger of local business owners, who are an untapped potential source of knowledge.

For Krieger, it's very important to elevate the sense of knowledge and pride in people's different skills and abilities in the neighborhood and put that into action.

"How can we take this community sourced educational method, and go to Frank D'Amico, who owns a coffee roaster and do a session of coffee roasting with him?" he said.

Brainery is entirely privately funded – they raise all the money for the classes through the course fees and and try to keep it as inexpensive as possible, charging enough to pay for rent, insurance and materials.

Brainery is planning to roll out a bunch of neighborhood oriented projects in the near future, for which their collaboration with GCCDC is invaluable.

"They've been around for 30 years," said Soma. "They have a really good read on everything around here. They're a valuable resource."

Krieger said Brainery is invaluable to GCCDC as well. It's a mutually beneficial relationship.

Commercial educational establishments put up barriers between teachers and learners, said Krieger, adding that the Brainery does just the opposite by providing an accessible, affordable alternative.

"It's about breaking down those barriers," he said.

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