We never stop growing and we never stop learning—yet, the older we get, the less joy we find in being wobbly neophytes. In May 2019, Vancouver-based Amanda Kao founded The Bad Academy: a series of workshops for self-identifying women (or womxn, as written on her site) who want to learn new skills in a space where being bad at something is encouraged, if not mandatory.
Just don’t expect wreath-making or flower-crown workshops (although she stresses that there is nothing wrong with people who like those things). The Bad Academy launched with car maintenance lessons led by Leah Gillanders, the owner and operator of Leah’s Automotive repair shop in North Vancouver. “How crazy is it that women commute every day and don’t know how to fix their car or change a flat tire?” Kao says. “It’s always: ‘Call your husband, call a dude, call your boyfriend.’ We should know these things to be safe, at the very least.” She has since run workshops on skillsets including skateboarding, sex re-education, indoor climbing, and knife-sharpening—all of which sold out in hours.
Kao and I meet at AnnaLena, a fairly fancy restaurant in Vancouver’s beachy Kitsilano neighbourhood. She pierces a chunk of grilled squid with her fork and waves it near her mouth. “I don’t give a fuck what other people think,” she says in response to my question: who are you? She tells me where she went to school (North Carolina), where she moved after for work (New York), why she moved to Vancouver (love), and how, at 31 years old, The Bad Academy feels like a reflection of her truest self.
“When I moved to Vancouver, there wasn’t a great way to meet new people,” Kao admits, “so I kept going to these workshops like weaving, needlepoint…” She trails off, but in place of her words is a look of disdain that says enough. “I didn’t give a shit about any of those things. I just wanted to be around women, having fun and trying new things that weren’t about serving men or society. I was attracted to the feeling that it gave me,” she continues. The thought followed: where was a safe place in Vancouver—or the world, really—where women could go to admit that they’re terrible at something and revel in the process of learning? After a year of letting the idea percolate, she woke up on a Saturday morning in May and, with her husband still asleep, decided to make The Bad Academy a reality.
Kao’s demeanor is wizardly, as if The Bad Academy burst from a smoke bomb; one second it didn’t exist and the next it did, which of course, mystifies the process of rolling out a new business. Much like the site’s homepage image of a middle finger in the air, its very conception was a rebellious act against the daunting checklist that often holds us back from following through. She gave herself permission not to be perfect and wants more women to feel that same way. “It’s magical what happens when women gather. That’s why they have kept us away from one another for so long and told us it’s a competition. The game is rigged,” she says, smirking. Even her sentences are inside jokes with women-only admittance. We both nod.
As a woman of colour, she has been affected by toxic social norms and extreme racism (even “in recent days!” she says, aghast). It only serves as fuel for new workshops that put power in the hands of women to live free from dependency and the limiting parameters of pink jobs and blue jobs. “The look on a woman’s face when she stands on a skateboard for the first time is pure joy,” she says. That feeling should be accessible regardless of gender. “Whatever it takes to get to the point where you love yourself and know who you are, that’s the ticket,” Kao asserts. “That’s where you’re going to find your purpose.”
I ask her about another quiet moment, much like the one on that brave Saturday morning when she launched The Bad Academy. After a workshop is over, when everyone has gone home and it’s just her in the room, what is she thinking? “I’m proud of myself for once,” she says. “And there is no greater purpose in my life than to make sure other people are proud of themselves, too.”