Many WEA struggled to survive when the government cut their funding in 1991. The Otago WEA continued for quite some time, then closed its doors. Now they’re back – this time as the Dunedin WEA.

Mary Geary, the President, remembers how they got started again.

“After meeting at the Dunedin Art Show in November 2020, a group of us formed a committee and established ourselves as Dunedin Workers’ Educational Association Te Wāhi Ākoranga o Ōtepoti Incorporated. We (Ron Esplin, Sue Cheer, Nancy McLennan-Hughes, Nick Orbell, Lesley du Mez and I) were all wondering how it would go and whether there was an appetite in Dunedin for adult education classes. An enthusiastic group of supporters encouraged us to give it a go with their $1.00 membership fee (the fee has now been dropped altogether) and we took the plunge and started offering classes in drawing, watercolour, art journaling and patchwork and quilting at the South Dunedin Community Network rooms, guided by Lesley du Mez who is the Manager of Southland Education, Invercargill’s WEA.”

Lesley du Mez did the work needed to establish an incorporated society and helped them get bank accounts and funding. First supporters were the Dunedin City Council with Creative Communities and Arts Grants funding. COGS also supported the programme with operational grants along with grants from Lotteries and the Otago Community Trust. That meant they could employ Nicola Pye as the coordinator for 10 hours a week. With rooms in the South Dunedin Community Network, they had spaces for their classes for a koha. “All the classes were full for the first two years,” says Lesley, “It was just amazing really. Our funders gave us everything we asked for.”

They set the organisation up online and marketed it online, using social media. In response to people’s suggestions and tutors who came forward they soon added Learn to Knit, Te Reo Māori, Raranga – and Greg Parsons, a young WEA supporter offered a course called Elemental Web, for people wishing to design a website.

Because the Community Network rooms are in South Dunedin, they wanted all the classes to be financially accessible, so fees were kept to a minimum and they offered a 50 percent discount for community card holders.

“When people enrol, they start off learning to do something,” says Lesley, “but it is much more than that. They become engaged in the community and make friendships. There are a lot of lonely people out there. Social cohesion is what it is all about. Dunedin used to have three strong school ACE programmes and they all closed down because of funding cuts. Massive programmes have gone. The WEA is starting to fill the gap.”

Nancy McLennan-Hughes is the Secretary for the new governance committee and says that the support of Southland WEA, in particular, Director Lesley du Mez, has been invaluable and a driving force, “She has been very influential. She has gathered us together and shown us the way forward, the process to go through. How to progress in stages.

Nancy is, herself, an example of the power of ACE. “Night classes started me off as a working artist. I went to night classes at a high school and then I went on to a polytechnic where I completed a degree at the School of Arts. I graduated in 2019. The night classes were pivotal. Polytechnic courses are wonderful but can be expensive for the wider community.

“At night classes you can learn skills in things like cooking, te reo, gardening, computer skills. These classes are often very important for those who are working and want something different. They can be a way to relax, a way to meet people. For many it becomes the big thing in their week. In my class, by the end of week six, I find that we have turned into a tight little group, talking about our families and things like what we’ve been watching on tv. It’s lovely to be part of that.”

Lesley has remained the Treasurer since DWEA’s inception but will soon pass the job on to Nicola Pye.

The Dunedin WEA is of course a member of the Federation of WEA and their establishment has bumped the national number of WEA up to eight. They are all different, but they support each other. Recently the Canterbury WEA, which had been the recipient of a bequest, gave all the other WEA $10,000. This was a huge boost for DWEA, which started with literally no money.

Federation President Jim Sullivan says that he is a big fan of WEA, because they provide opportunities for lifelong learning – and their courses are affordable and accessible to people on lower incomes. He also likes their kaupapa. “We have a strong focus on social and environmental justice, so we take a progressive view and support things that are good for people and good for the planet. We are so proud of what Lesley and the Dunedin people have achieved. They have created something that is again part of the establishment in Dunedin."