Dagmar Schwitzgebel is the Coordinator at The Learning Exchange, a free and inclusive adult learning programme in Plymouth. The courses are offered by volunteer tutors, who share their skill or knowledge – and anybody over the age of 18 can enrol, without previous qualifications or referrals. Courses range from philosophy, history, economics, languages, technology, music, arts and crafts.
Made in Plymouth Community Reporter, Nick Ingram went along to meet Dagmar and find out more about the generous volunteers that make this place what it is.
It’s one of the coldest days to hit Plymouth after the New Year, and I’m sat in a small office on the second floor of the old Shekinah Building on Bath Street, just off the Union Street drag which is now being slowly redeveloped by Nudge Community Builders who are helping to put some new life into the old buildings and ex-night clubs of Union Street and Stonehouse.
Yes I did say the old Shekinah Building! For the whole organisation is at the moment in the process of relocating to a new location at Stonehouse Creek, Kings Road, where the old community centre has been repurposed into a new bespoke building where Shekinah can carry on the outreach work they are known for around the City, without the narrow limitations imposed upon them by the old architecture of Bath Street, which John Hamblin, Shekinah’s CEO, openly admits – the building is ugly and unwelcoming in his own words – is not fit for the purpose of helping people rebuild their lives with the support of the organisation – thus the move to the new building at Stonehouse Creek. This will allow Shekinah to carry on its work: ‘[which] for over 30 years, our services have supported people to build positive lives and futures by helping to find accommodation, assisting improved physical and mental wellbeing, providing training and personal development opportunities, and giving practical support to find employment.’
However, this small office in the building on Bath Street, belongs to Dagmar Schwitzgebel, who always seems to be drinking copious amounts of tea from a very large tea pot, and she admits to me that she drinks far too much tea, while at the same time doing a bit of art, and collaborative artmaking, alongside a bit of activism. As Shekinah’s Learning Exchange Coordinator she’s also a bit of a comedian and jokes that she was thinking of putting on a Learning Exchange Workshop entitled – Learn to Stitch Your own Underpants – which has yet to appear on the ever-expanding raft of workshop’s which Learning Exchange Offers, although I wouldn’t be surprised if this actually happened at some point in the future – for Learning Exchange, which is what we are here to talk about, anything is possible.
Comedy aside Dagmar is serious about the mission of the Learning Exchange. At root the whole Learning Exchange project can be defined as being a free and inclusive adult learning program which has now been offered by Shekinah over the past few years. ‘We have some very generous volunteers who are giving their time and skills for free, therefore it is a very friendly and immediate exchange of knowledge between people.’ It is a program which emphasizes the word ‘exchange.’ It is designed for students and tutors to exchange knowledge on a friendly equal basis. There are no exams here and no pressure. In fact, some of the tutors are students and some of the students are tutors. It is the very idea of a circular ‘exchange’ of knowledge which sustains an ever expanding sustainable and strong learning community; particularly in Stonehouse, and Plymouth, put in place to bring people up and offer a passageway through self-development. ‘It’s my favourite utopia,’ states Dagmar with a smile. Rising awareness is a theme which passes through all aspects of the work done at Shekinah.
The fact is you only have to look through The Learning Exchange Spring 2024 prospectus, to see the diverse range of workshops which are on offer: Create your own Comic Book; German Language; Emotional Logic; The Magic of Seeds; Playwrighting; Neurographic Art; Water Colour; Black History of Plymouth; Still Life Drawing; Landscape Photography; Theatre Skills for Creativity & Confidence; Film(ing) in the City. It is diverse and inclusive. The project plays to its own strength meaning it is open to people of all levels of experience. The Learning Exchange is a space where the beginner can dip their toe into a new subject if they want to, or someone with more experience can pick up again on a subject which maybe they left behind years ago.
There is also as part of this programme the chance to offer your own workshops which is supported by the Learning Exchange’s workshop: Becoming a Tutor: Prepare and Run a Workshop. A workshop designed by the Learning Exchange Team to help a would-be-tutor to prepare and deliver their own workshop which would be featured in the next prospectus, and which can provide a jumping off point into the community as a whole; for looking through the present prospectus Learning Exchange is starting to attract workshops run by already well established groups from around the city including Theatre Skills for Creativity & Confidence run by the rather magnetic Marion Clare, of the art performance outfit, The Spoils Collective, and the Film(ing) in the City run by DIY film enthusiasts Imperfect Cinema – and most of this has been up until now developed by word of mouth.
Of course, the move of Shekinah to Stonehouse Creek will offer the chance for Learning Exchange to expand in a way it can’t in the small confines of Bath Street. ‘We will have a ground floor, it’s a flat wide building, where there will be an art table, for those who would come to the drop in during the morning, and have breakfast and sort out their washing, and they can come and doodle if they want to. So, they can sit in a quiet space and do some water colouring if they want to,’ says Dagmar in a slightly excited fashion. Meaning that the Learning Exchange is trying to bring people upwards and that it’s all about connecting people back to themselves regardless of their present position in life. It’s about the offering of opportunity, and one hopes that as Learning Exchange develops further that these opportunities will become wider, and Learning Exchange will embed itself deeply into the cultural economy of the grass roots of the city. After all it’s a great project and deserves a future which only an exchange of knowledge can offer.
Learning Exchange Website (Prospectus download and Course Booking.)