This nonprofit creates pop-up learning spaces inside laundromats
The nonprofit Libraries Without Borders brings storytime and other learning opportunities to kids in underserved communities.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time at laundromats. One of my earliest memories is of helping my parents fold mountains of freshly cleaned clothes on Saturday mornings. As a little kid, taking part in this weekly ritual made me feel useful and grown-up. But once I was finished adding quarters to the washing machine and had loaded all of our clothes into the dryer (if I could reach the door!), I had very little else to do. I remember feeling bored out of my mind as I struggled to find ways to pass the time. As soon as I was old enough to stay home alone, I stopped going to the local laundromat altogether.
Fast forward two decades, I began my work at Libraries Without Borders (LWB), a nonprofit committed to expanding access to information and bridging the digital divide. Although I hadn’t stepped foot into a laundromat since I was a child, my new role had me visiting laundromat after laundromat every other day. You see, a big part of expanding access to information involves quite literally meeting people where they are—whether that’s at a bus stop, senior center, or laundromat.
In this spirit, LWB launched the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI) in 2015. This program creates pop-up libraries and learning spaces inside laundromats, giving patrons the opportunity to access tools and training opportunities while they wait for their clothes to wash and dry. In some cases, this means creating a reading nook where toddlers can participate in story time. In others, it means setting up a computer lab where adults can put together resumes and job applications, or learn digital literacy skills. Because the needs of communities can be so different, no two WALI sites ever look exactly alike.
[ Read more: 10 books teachers think their students should read ]
Beyond transforming laundromats into libraries, WALI has also galvanized communities into taking action and fighting for change.
Earlier this year, our WALI site in Oakland, California, experienced an unfathomable tragedy. As they were leaving Family Laundry, six-year-old Angel Garcia-Vasquez, his mother Alma Vazquez, and his uncle Jaime Garcia were struck by a hit-and-run driver. Although paramedics tried to resuscitate the family, Angel and Alma died. Jaime is still in a coma. In the wake of this horrific event, Family Laundry became an epicenter for community activism and healing.
In November, community members gathered at Family Laundry for a vigil honoring the memory of Angel and Alma. This event also gave residents a chance to hold their representatives to account, and compel the Department of Transportation to construct a new traffic signal at the intersection where the family was killed. The vigil ended with a service dedicating the WALI reading room at Family Laundry to Angel and Alma. Today, this room serves an educational space where children can participate in story time led by the Oakland Public Library, and adults can take ESL classes.
This is the power of programs like the Wash and Learn Initiative. They create a space of empowerment that allows community members to reclaim their time, maximize each moment, and create a day that is both efficient and enjoyable.
At times I imagine how some of my childhood memories might be different if I’d had access to a Wash and Learn program at my neighborhood laundromat. Maybe I would have discovered a new passion, developed an untapped skill, or felt more a part of my community. The possibilities are endless!