The Wash and Learn Initiative & the Laundry and Literacy Coalition by Allister Chang

A Look Back and a Step Forward

In 2016, LWB launched the Wash and Learn Initiative, known as Wash & Learn or WALI. The program seeks to turn laundromats into branches of the public library, complete with all the resources that a library offers, from storytime to WiFi, computers, and even social services. To date, LWB has helped to transform laundromats into media and community centers in eight states, including Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Texas, California, New York, and North Carolina. These Wash and Learn sites offer so much more than just access to books or computers — they serve as dynamic spaces for early literacy, health education, or digital inclusion.  

Early learning and literacy are critical to the success of the Wash and Learn Initiative, which is why in 2017, LWB co-founded the Laundry and Literacy Coalition together with Too Small to Fail of the Clinton Foundation and the LaundryCares Foundation, the charitable arm of the national Coin Laundry Association. After co-leading two national LaundryCares Literacy Summits in Chicago and working together to envision and coordinate the first independent evaluation on laundromat learning, LWB and its partners created a new framework to enable hundreds, even thousands, of laundromat owners and early childhood organizations across the country to scale similar programs in their communities.

Through Wash and Learn, LWB ensures that the resources and best-practices garnered from the Laundry and Literacy Coalition are not confined to a conference room or a website. The dynamic, impactful programs LWB has launched at laundromats across the country are the realization of this commitment.  Looking ahead, LWB will double down on its promise to train and support libraries, community organizations, and volunteer associations as they transform laundromats into spaces of community development and learning. With deep appreciation for what we have created nationally and a renewed focus on the local goals of Wash and Learn, we are stepping down from our role as a lead coordinator for the annual LaundryCares Literacy Summit. We will continue to support the Laundry and Literacy Coalition as a member organization and as liaisons between national efforts and the local communities where this work is needed most.

LWB aims to transform everyday spaces, like laundromats, into avenues of lifelong learning, where residents have access to books, computers, and curated programs that promote literacy, digital skills, health education, legal information, and other issues critical to our democracy. Like any public library, these everyday spaces have become mainstays in the community, places that foster trust among residents and promote civic engagement. At the same time, the scope is national.  With new programs in cities like Baltimore, San Antonio, and Oakland, LWB is thrilled to continue growing these efforts both near and far and to turning open-source tools and resources into local impact.

Sincerely,

Adam Echelman

Executive Director

Libraries Without Borders


Books for a Better Planet : LWB's Favorite Earth Day Reads by Allister Chang

On April 22nd, 1970 an estimated 20 million people across the United States gathered in elementary schools, universities, community centers, and other public spaces to raise awareness of pollution’s impact on our fragile planet. Although nearly fifty years have passed since the first-ever Earth Day, millions of Americans and people worldwide continue to celebrate this day by advocating for policy changes that promote the well-being of our planet.

In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to share some of our favorite books about sustainability and the environment. We hope these “green reads” equip you with the information that you need to become a steward of planet Earth and advocate for its protection.

Celebrate Earth Day!

Grab a book and then get to work — the time to protect Mother Earth is now.

(Please note: the links below will take you to Amazon, but these titles can also be found at your local bookshop)

  1. Half Earth: Our Planet's Fight for Life by E.O. Wilson

    Wilson urges us to devote half of Earth’s surface to a human-free natural reserve in order to preserve biodiversity. He explains what the biosphere actually is and offers an attainable solution towards preserving Earth.

  2. Hot, Hungry Planet: The Fight to Stop a Global Food Crisis in the Face of Climate Change by Lisa Palmer

    Journalist Lisa Palmer has traveled around the world and shares her findings on innovations of people and organizations that fight the food gap. She shares various stories she’s encountered that deal with two of Earth’s greatest challenges: climate change and global hunger.

  3. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein

    Klein makes a compelling argument that climate crisis cannot be addressed in the current era of neoliberal market fundamentalism. We must instead change our relationship with nature and describes how reducing our greenhouse emission is a main priority we should work towards.

  4. Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility by Dorceta Taylor

    Learn about Environmental Racism and negative impacts it brings onto poor and minority communities of St. Louis, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Oklahoma City. Taylor explores various controversies regarding racially-motivated decisions and residential segregation, zoning, and exposure to environmental hazards.

  5. The Madhouse Effect by Michael Mann and Tom Toles

    This book combines climate-scientist Michael Mann and cartoonist Tom Toles to discuss how science works and address major deniers of climate-change. A few humorous cartoon sketches offer readers ways to respond back at various counter-scientific strategies.

  6. EcoBeauty: Scrubs, Rubs, Masks, Rinses, and Bath Bombs for You and Your Friends by Lauren Cox and Janice Cox

    Interested in homemade beauty products? This book pleasantly gives recipes on various economic and environmental friendly beauty products you can make at home!


The Laundry & Literacy Coalition on PBS Newshour by Allister Chang

The first five years of a child’s life are critical for language exposure, but studies suggest children in lower-income families often don’t experience the rich literary environment wealthier kids do. A New York City initiative trying to close that gap encourages reading in a spot families visit every week -- but don't usually consider educational……For more information, check out: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/when-a-laundromat-becomes-a-library

Availability vs. Accessibility by Allister Chang

By Allister Chang and Brian Wallace

In 2016, Libraries Without Borders established the Wash and Learn Initiative (WALI) to expand the access and accessibility of information to families waiting for their clothes to wash and dry in laundromats. This article discusses the private-public partnerships between small, mom-and-pop laundromat businesses and library branches that have made this work possible.

Originally, the idea to build library programs inside laundromats came about when Libraries Without Borders experienced record engagement in our literacy and digital literacy programs on the day we set up one of our pop-up Ideas Box library programs near a laundromat.

We went inside the laundromat and asked if we could build out a more formal partnership with them to facilitate workshops inside the laundromat more regularly. The staff there told us that we ought to speak to the manager, and to come back on Saturday at 11AM. We came back at Saturday at 11AM – no manager. We waited at the store all day, and all day the following two Saturdays. Still no luck.

The timing just happened to align with the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in 2016. Libraries Without Borders Executive Director Allister Chang was sharing this story with Jane Park Woo, the Deputy Director of Too Small to Fail. I told her that I thought we had come across a great idea but would have a hard time executing this properly (let alone scale this program nationwide) without the buy-in and engagement of laundromat staff. Serendipitously, Brian Wallace, the CEO of the Coin Laundry Association was standing behind Jane at the time. Jane introduced me to Brian, and, with the Coin Laundry Association’s support, we have successfully built out WALI programs in 7 states.

Unlike many other countries, the US library system is not managed by a central, federal government agency. Like libraries, laundromats are also relatively de-centralized: there are no laundromat chains operating across the country.  While this presents the challenge of not being able to adopt a program on a large scale all at once, the opportunity is the ability to customize a program for local needs. Libraries Without Borders’ focus is building out the technological tools and creating best-practice guides to lower the risk and increase the capacity for our library partners. That way they can build out their own “hyper-local” partnerships with laundromat owners.

For our library partners, we have heard that laundromats provide them with a more cost-effective means to engage with new audiences. In Detroit, for example, Coinless Laundromat is only a couple blocks from the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library, but the vast majority of laundromat clients did not have a library card when we first launched WALI. By implementing programs during the laundromat’s busiest hours, some of our library partners have been able to consistently facilitate workshops for over 120 families in just four hours.

For our laundromat partners, we have heard that WALI libraries provide them with a direct means to give back to their communities. It also helps that librarians have been able to help laundromat staff keep the kids from running around and jumping into laundry carts! Some laundromat owners have also told us that WALI has increased the number of returning clients.

In 2006, the Coin Laundry Association created a 501c3 called the LaundryCares Foundation. At first, the LaundryCares Foundation focused on expanding access to high-quality laundry services to families in low-income communities and in post-disaster contexts. It is with Libraries Without Borders and Too Small to Fail that the Coin Laundry Association has come to understand the unique opportunity we have to also provide critical educational services inside laundromats.

Whereas many public-private partnerships (PPPs) happen at a relatively macro level (e.g. between federal agencies and multi-national companies), we believe there is great potential to better understand PPPs when they occur at the hyper-local level (e.g. between mom-and-pop shops and library branches). These hyper-local PPPs are more dynamic and build upon existing local-knowledge that is critical for the successful customization of any educational or professional development program.

Different laundromats, for example, are busy at different times of the week. One laundromat we’ve worked with has clients who are almost exclusively Spanish native-speakers in the mornings, and then almost exclusively Somali native-speakers in the evenings. A top-down program that curated content for this laundromat in just one language would be quite ineffective. Hyper-local PPPs allow for content, curriculum, scheduling, and every aspect of WALI to be customized and iterated weekly, if not daily or hourly.  

As heads of national organizations, we believe that it is critical to equip individual library branches and individual laundromat owners with the tools, case studies, template contracts, and general best-practices to build out their own hyper-local, public-private partnership. It is in this way that we believe WALI will scale to every laundromat in the country, offering every laundromat client with opportunities to learn new skills while they wait for their laundry to wash and dry.