photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

¿Cómo se dice “Please Pass the Fabric Softener”?

Sometimes the solution to a problem pops up in the most unexpected of places.

For customers of the Magic Touch laundry, many of whom are new Spanish-speaking immigrants, even the most mundane of chores can be … a chore.  Trying to understand the various options for wash, rinse and dry, or even just asking for change, they find themselves face to face with a language barrier.

So one of the regulars, Hector Canonge, an artist, decided to hold weekly English classes at the laundromat, where people regularly gather. He called his project the Inwood Laundromat Language Institute, which was conceived initially as a work of public art.

Sitting around folding tables in the middle of the Laundromat, the students first work on vocabulary related to the task at hand: “clothes,” “pants,” “soap.”  Then, using flashcards and the environment as tools, he moves to more advanced aspects of the English language, like possessives and verbs that are difficult to learn from a text book: “my sweater,” “wash the clothes.” The students come away with a real-world vocabulary they can use in their day-to-day lives.

This is a perfect example of thinking and acting anew. Instead of expecting ESL students to show up at a school or library or even a church, this artist used his creativity to conceive of a totally new approach that met people in the stream of their lives.  Would this work in other urban or suburban neighborhoods around the country? Is co-location an idea that can be used to help people gain other skills needed to move from poverty to self-sufficiency?  Artists have a special gift of looking at the world in new and unexpected ways. Should we tap the artists in our communities for more ideas?

Read more about The Inwood Laundromat Language Institute in the Manhattan Times, and let me know what you think.

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I would like to add a note today. Over the next few weeks members of the Catholic Charities network will offer reflections based on the daily Mass readings for the 2011 Advent/Christmas season. Please join me in reading them on the Catholic Charities USA website, and post any reflections of your own here on the blog.