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The Laundry Lab – creating new possibilities one load of laundry at a time

In the United States, proficiency in the English language is as necessary as having clean clothes, but for many immigrants and refugees access to ESL facilities is limited. At the Laundry Lab launderers become students by harnessing the otherwise forgotten 2 hours of washing/drying and leveraging it as a time for personal growth. This laundromat reminds individuals 'You are valuable. You are capable. You matter.' In the 2-hour washer/dryer cycle, this laundry facility/language lab/coffee shop better equips non-English speakers to accomplish their goals by working through ESL games, reading books, and practicing conversation – all while doing a load of laundry.

Photo of Din Blankenship
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The Laundromat

There will be 26 side loaded, vertically stacked washing machines/dryers in the Laundry Lab.  To accommodate our clients, each machine can be paid for with either cash or credit.  Once you have paid for your laundry, you will be given your unique password for the iPad at your study carrel in the Language Lab.  This will ensure that our clients always have access to study carrels and ESL materials when they come to use the laundry facilities.  There will be a minimum of one (multilingual) laundry facilities manager on staff at all times to assist clients. 

The Language Lab 

The Language Lab will contain 26 study carrels, each with an iPad loaded with a number of ESL apps.  There will also be at least one ESL tutor present throughout all hours of operation to assist and guide the students in their ESL studies.  Once a client has paid for their laundry, they will be provided with the unique password for the corresponding iPad.  After a client has obtained access to their iPad using their unique password, they will be prompted to create a user account and sign in.  This will ensure that each time they come, they can pick up exactly where they left off from the previous session.  The ESL apps that students will have access to are recommended by Edudemic (an organization dedicated to connecting education to technology) and will employ a broad range of teaching techniques and to ensure that each student’s learning needs are met.  Edudemic recommends the following ESL apps:
-My English Coach
-Sentence Builder
-Wordbook XL
-ESL Express
-Intro to Letters
-Preposition Builder

The Café

The café is a vibrant space for students and community members to study, read, and hang out.  The café is the street front portion of the Laundry Lab, activating the street and engaging the neighborhood.  Anyone can enjoy the café and have access to its wifi or purchase coffee, tea or a light snack. Students can practice speaking with other students, families can read together, kids can do homework.  The café is a where strangers become friends and community members come to know, respect, and support one other.

Explain your idea in one sentence.

Come for the laundry, stay for the ESL. At the Laundry Lab launderers become students by harnessing the otherwise forgotten 2 hours of washing/drying and leveraging it as a time for personal growth.

What is the need you are trying to solve?

Everyone needs to do laundry, but who wants to hang out in a laundromat? And what do you do during the 2 hours it takes to wash and dry your clothes? What if the laundromat could be more than a facility in which you wash your clothes? What if the laundromat could be the cultural center of a neighborhood reminding individuals of their agency and capabilities? In the 2-hour washer/dryer cycle, this laundromat transforms lives by better equipping non-English speakers for life in an English-speaking country.

While increased opportunity is one positive impact of the Laundry Lab, most importantly, we want to instill a sense of belonging and self-worth in our launderers/students. A man who is assured in his own value is less likely to disrespect women. A woman who knows her self-worth will be more likely to set goals and strive to reach them. Imagine how different our world would be if men were self-assured enough to build up and encourage the women in their communities, as opposed to harming them. What if these women believed in their own agency enough to seek out and accomplish their goals? Doing laundry can now be more than a chore of necessity; at the Laundry Lab, men, women, boys, and girls can gain a renewed sense of self-worth, resulting in empowered people and safer communities.

We hope that the Laundry Lab will communicate to those wading through struggles of poverty that they matter. We believe that offering a beautiful space that acknowledges and serves someone’s basic needs does just this. It quietly whispers, You deserve a safe and beautiful space in which to live, work, and enjoy because you are valuable. As this renewed sense of self-worth seeps into the pours of a community, individuals will take pride in themselves and their neighborhood. Pride replaces brokenness, hope replaces despair, and support replaces crime. At the Laundry Lab, one load of laundry can go a long way.

Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?

The Laundry Lab will directly benefit non-English speaking women, children and men living in low-income American urban areas. It will also indirectly benefit the entire community in which it exists as newly empowered English speakers invest their gained knowledge back into the community. Due to traditional family structure, the primary clients of the Laundry Lab will probably be women, but we hope that men and children will also launder and learn here. We believe that offering this ESL service to both men and women is essential in order to empower women. In many American households (both immigrant and not), women are tasked with most of the domestic responsibilities, while men are responsible for financially supporting the family. Because so many of these women are at home tending to the domestic responsibilities, they are not exposed to English, making them less likely to create new opportunities for themselves. At the Laundry Lab, we hope to see men and women laundering and learning together. Women would be gaining the empowering knowledge of the English language, and men (while also learning English) would be alleviating some of the domestic responsibilities carried by so many women.

We will monitor the success of the Laundry Lab in a variety of ways. Firstly, our goal is for the Laundry Lab to be a self-sustaining initiative, so profitability will be a primary indication of its staying power. Secondly, we would monitor the growth of our students using the ESL facilities. Requiring students to create an account will allow us to track their success rates. We can know how frequently each student is coming and how well they are advancing through the various ESL programs. This data will inform us of the success or failure of our ESL strategies and also whether we should make potential adjustments to these strategies.

Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?

ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN – With the support of the architecture firm I work for, I would be responsible for selecting a property and designing the Laundry Lab.

SOFTWARE DESIGN – We would need a software engineer to create and install the software that would connect the washing machines to the iPads.

LAUNDRY FACILITY MANAGEMENT – We would partner with a local laundromatt operator who would manage the laundry facilities at the Laundry Lab

ESL MANAGEMENT – We would partner with a local ESL program (perhaps students from the adjacent SDSU neighborhood) to manage and staff the Language Lab

CAFÉ MANAGEMENT – We would partner with a local restaurant to provide and manage the food and beverages in the café.

Where should this idea be implemented?

The City Heights Neighborhood of San Diego - San Diego is home to around 135,000 refugees, many of whom reside in the low income community of City Heights. 42% of people living in City Heights were born outside of the United States, and 26% of people living in City Heights do not speak English or do not speak it well. There is an overwhelming need for accessible ESL facilities in City Heights.

How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?

This idea could be prototyped in an existing laundromat by setting up several of the washing machines with the ESL iPads. We could evaluate whether these machines become more popular to use than those without the ESL capabilities. We could also monitor the frequency of use by each customer and their success rates with the apps. By understanding whether or not customers were returning to use the ESL facilities and if their English was improving, we could test the assumptions we have made – that people would like access to ESL learning facilities and that these ESL apps are effective in teaching English.

What might a day in the life of a community member interacting with your idea look like?

Monica has just moved to San Diego as a refugee from the Congo. She has had no exposure to the English language prior to arriving in the United States. Her 3 children have just begun school, where they are struggling to keep up with the new curriculum, but she is unable to help them as the lessons are in English. One day, she strolls into the neighborhood laundromat and quickly learns that the facility accommodates non-English speakers like herself. The laundry manager speaks French with her and helps her to work the machines. He then points her towards her own study carol where she can begin the journey learning English. After her first lessons, Monica feels more hopeful about her new life in the United States. While waiting for her clothes to dry, she meets another woman from the Congo, and the two of them begin to practice their English together. The next time, Monica brings her kids with her so that they can work on their English together. After several months, one of her kids has a question with her homework, and for the first time, Monica is able to help. Weeks after that, Monica's friend from the Laundry Lab tells her that there is a receptionist position opening up at the dentist office where she works, but that the job description requires proficiency in English. Monica confidently applies for the job, nails the interview, and gets the job. As Monica's needs for the ESL facilities decrease, she still launders there to meet new people and help them with their studies. What started as an ordinary day doing laundry, transformed Monica's ability to be an effective mother, an employable woman, and a leader in her neighborhood.


Join the conversation:

Photo of J L

Wow. Amazing Idea!
This is such a great idea helping refugee and migrant communities. I think this idea will definitely work and will derive huge social impact :) Nice job!

Photo of Teng Zhang

This is a amazing idea to combine the laundry room, the library, and cafe together. People can study, have coffee and do their laundry at the same time.

Photo of Olga Brahollari

Brilliant idea!!

Photo of Lisa Worthington

Truly amazing! I so hope this vision becomes a reality in City Heights!!!

Photo of Congmin Liang

It is a really nice idea!

Photo of Priyanka Kodikal

This is such an awesome idea, Din! I think this would work really well in urban areas with large refugee populations. Very interested in how your prototypes turn out.

Photo of Bettina Fliegel

Hi Din. Creative idea! To Kealey's point below, have you considered a children's "reading area" and perhaps a staff person who can supervise them? In the low income communities I have worked women in the laundromat often have small children underfoot as they wash and fold. This can be a distraction as the women study with the ipads. The children will also want to play with the ipads. A children's area where there are books and someone to read to them, or age appropriate technology, might be fun for the kids and can free up the women to study. Perhaps the kids
can get "laundry mat library cards" which have directions to the public
library on the back so that the families have another resource.
Great initiative!

Photo of Miller Kreider

Brilliant! Combining two unpleasant tasks (laundry and learning a language) and turning it into something engaging and useful. People with a limited understanding of English must dread doing laundry even more than most. Also, paying by credit card is long overdue.

Photo of Joseph Lawson

What a great idea!

Photo of Hayley Wells

Amazing idea and a great way to make use of time that often goes to waste.

Photo of Philip O

Great, innovative idea for helping people derive additional value out of an activity people perform on a regular basis!

Photo of Kaely McKelway

I love this idea and the graphic makes it seem like quite an inviting place. I wonder if there might be a possibility for a small children's corner, because many of the women you describe would likely have small children with them who are not yet in school, and may need a safe play area (maybe even with some talking toys that teach vocabulary/letters?) while the mothers are learning on iPads.

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Din, interesting post! Any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story with higher impact. You should be able to use the Update Entry button on the right of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. We know occasionally people have issues uploading images so let us know by hitting the Feedback button at the bottom of most pages of our site if you face any problems. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.

And here's some tips on adding visual goodness to your idea:

Photo of Kathryn Newhall

I love this idea and can see it being incredibly successful, not only in City Heights, but all over the country. What a great way to make the most of chore time and to bring people together for support and learning!

Photo of Maria Rosa Galter

Great idea. I spent the past 6 months using a laundromat. What a depressing place to hang out. I love the idea of making a laundromat a vibrant community center.

Photo of Charlotte Bennett

Great idea!

Photo of Rachel Miller

What a wonderful idea and mission! In my laundromat days, I looked forward to the 2 hours of focused time to relax and catch up on reading. To use the time for personal growth and learning is brilliant and could have a real impact on communities in need.

Photo of Daniel Latshaw

Brilliant idea. Hope it comes to fruition

Photo of Blair Matthews

What a FANTASTIC idea! Smart, simple, and most importantly, I think it would actually work!!

Photo of Connie Bakshi

This is a really simple yet super impactful idea! I could easily see this scaling to other diverse urban areas around the US and becoming a socially empowering commercial chain.

Photo of Jon Blankenship

I agree it is a great way to capture time for empowering the individual. I believe in the "hand up", not the "handout"philosophy of helping others. This clearly says to the community members that we believe in you and want to help you with the skills you need to achieve your goals.

Photo of Jon Blankenship

I agree it is a great way to capture time for empowering the individual. I believe in the "hand up", not the "handout"philosophy of helping others. This clearly says to the community members that we believe in you and want to help you with the skills you need to achieve your goals.

Photo of Jes Simson

Hey Din - this is fantastic idea! Such a creative use of lost time.

I haven't researched the apps you've suggested, but it could be good to use a learning platform that can be accessed via the iPads and then logged on in from home (similar to web platform offered by Khan academy: .

That way, the laundromat can act as a hub and catalyst to learn, but the learning can continue at home. It will also be easy to sign up kids who might be at school when laundry is done. It could also mean that the two hours could be used to interact - ask the tutor pressing questions, speak with other women to improve conversational skills - the things that can only be done in person.

Photo of Jes Simson

I also live in a city with a large immigrant ad refugee population - this could really well here. I can't wait to see how your prototypes go.

Photo of Bonnie Rush

Amazing idea, Din! This is a powerful idea but the best part's SO practical and I could easily see this becoming a reality! What a great resource for the people of City Heights! Yay!

Photo of Berkeley Bagwell

This innovative idea is creative, fun, realistic, and honestly could help and empower women and girls in City Heights in a very tangible way. As an ESL teacher in City Heights myself, I think this is an amazing idea that needs to become a reality soon! :)

Photo of Katie Hart

WOW- this is one of the coolest ideas I've seen in a long time. What an incredible way to provide practical access to ESL! I think City Heights would benefit tremendously from this!!

Photo of Anna LaRochelle

We love this idea! City Heights can use many more safe places to be, learn, create community and get things done like laundry! Rooting for you Din!

Photo of Lauren Howard

din this is amazing!! such a practical and innovative way to serve and help the refugee community in city heights and other refugee/immigrant communities. absolutely love this!! as an ESL teacher in city heights, we encounter so many women who don't know any english due to staying at home with their children most of the time. they are suffering horribly and feel very isolated in our society so this is an incredible way to empower them! REALLY hope this wins and can be implemented in city heights! i'd love to teach ESL here :)

Photo of Lauren Bailey

Being bored at the laundromat is the worst, especially if you're as neurotic with your laundry as I am and have to sort multiple loads. Combining a menial but necessary chore with giving back to the community is a brilliant idea. And would be so special for City Heights. Love this!

Photo of Grace Ng

This is a very innovative and practical project. It enhances the already existing structures people engage with and promotes the well being of communities directly. I love it! Hope this becomes a reality!

Photo of Bianca Moreno

I love that this provides a mechanism for women to easily access basic tools that will empower them to make an impact on their confidence, households, and the community.

Photo of Collis Hancock

Great idea! Solving several issues - women's safety, education, laundry lag time!

Photo of Cristina Malone

This is such a great idea! I love the name, "Laundry Lab"... it sounds safe, fun, and inviting!

Photo of Ross Blankenship

Such a cool idea! I love that the way this concept infuses the potential for empowerment and productivity into an otherwise latent waiting period.

Photo of Kara Davis

Hi Din, this is a thoughtful idea which combines a relatable need for all and a safe space for women to collaborate with , educate and support each other's personal development. I agree with the other commenters that the key to a successful implementation is simplicity. I believe you have found it with this concept. Well done!

Photo of Cynthia Cheung

I live in City Heights and do not have access to in-home laundry, so I've visited quite a number of laundromats in the area. There are very few laundry facilities here that are pleasant to visit, let alone spend hours at , during the wash/dry cycle. Investment in a beautiful Laundry Lab and ESL space would be really beneficial for the community and facilitate safe interactions between neighbors who may otherwise be uncomfortable meeting other ESL learners. Wish I could 'applaud' this idea multiple times!

Photo of Bradford Phelan

This idea gives me visions of a more beautiful City Heights. I can see people being empowered and relationships being built across barriers that normally divide, which brings a joyous smile to my face!

Photo of Michelle Meyer

I love simple ideas that make you wonder, "why hasn't this been done yet?" hopefully we can see this project get implemented in many neighborhoods that would greatly benefit from it. great idea.

Photo of Kaitlin Flynn

Sounds amazing!!! City Heights could really use this!

Photo of Kaitlin Flynn

(I live in City Heights and would love to see this!)

Photo of Mary Stuart Iverson

What a great idea... combining mundane every day tasks with something more exciting. This idea would help not only the immediate communities but the entire city as it provides better communication and support all around.

Photo of Ila Broyles

I love that this takes a necessary part of life- and offers much more value to that part of the day!

Photo of Will Brown

I live in City Heights, and this proposal combines one of the greatest challenges/opportunities (communication) of the residents coupled with one of the most common weekly activities that necessitates idle time (waiting on clothes to wash and dry). If implemented correctly, I could see these combined needs and demands creating a flurry of activity in the 'Laundry Lab' and throughout the community. Great idea!