An Interview with Phil Robinson, Community Laundry Coop Executive Director
by Sarah Baxter
Who are the people in our neighbourhood?
This newsletter holds a space every issue for getting to know one of our neighbours a little bit better.
One of the essential services working to adapt and continue throughout the pandemic is our neighbour at the end of the hall, the Community Laundry Co-op (CLC). “In the fall of 2020, the CLC nearly closed for financial reasons.” Says Phil Robinson, Executive Director of the small non-profit. “The CLC has never had ongoing funding, and has relied on a patchwork of grant funding and donations, as well as some earnings from the social enterprise. When the CLC began openly talking about closing, the City of Ottawa, the Ottawa Community Foundation, the Centre for Social Enterprise Development and other organizations stepped up with grant contributions to keep the doors open temporarily. It was at this time the CLC decided it needed to hire an Executive Director to help build the organization – and particularly the social enterprise – to keep it afloat over the long term.” And that’s when Phil joined the team.
I put some questions to Phil about how the CLC has managed through the pandemic, how this small organization creates a sense of community among its members, and how he came to be a part of the family.
UUFO: Can you briefly describe how CLC works for someone who hasn’t heard of a laundry co-op before?
Phil: The CLC performs several roles and is a unique organization. It was created in 1999 after Ottawa residents identified access to affordable laundry services as a need in the community. At the CLC, members can do a load of laundry -including supplies like detergent – for $2 a load. Membership costs $2 per year. In addition to accessing affordable laundry, we offer on-site counselling and can provide referrals and assistance with issues like housing, childcare, language and job training, access to health services, and so forth. We have a diverse membership which includes many new Canadians, single parents, seniors, and people living with physical, development or mental health challenges.
The CLC also operates a social enterprise, which provides wash & fold laundry services to local businesses, non-profits, and households. This operation has recently been given the name Community Impact Laundry. Many members of the CLC have gained employment experience and earned some much-needed income by participating in the social enterprise. We are looking to growing the business in hopes that it will help offset the costs of the services we provide.
UUFO: As someone newer to the organization, what has it felt like stepping into an existing group? Is it similar to previous experiences as ED, or completely different?
Phil: The staff and membership of the CLC – as well as Heartwooders overall have been extremely welcoming. I had a steep learning curve. The CLC is different from other organizations because it has many facets, and it’s an organization that survived as long as it did because staff, members, and its Directors put a lot of time and love into the organization.
UUFO: How does CLC create a feeling of community within the organization?
Phil: By following a co-operative model, members feel a sense of ownership over the CLC as they can participate in the decision-making process. When members come to do their laundry, there is free coffee and it is an opportunity to chat with our counsellor, other members, and volunteers. Our volunteer program has members participating every day by assisting other members and performing daily maintenance routines such as cleaning. Prior to COVID, the CLC would hold regular events to build community and address isolation, such as Bridge and Bingo nights.
UUFO: Laundry was one of the essential services open throughout lockdown, was it hard to adapt to changing rules?
Phil: Operationally, it was initially very difficult to adapt to changing circumstances, although over time, like many organizations, we became better at it. Communicating with our members was difficult, particularly given that we have members who do not have access to modern technology, and language barriers became more pronounced. We are very thankful to have leadership at Heartwood House that provided clear safety measures for the building and were always available to answer any questions we had.
UUFO: Anything I didn’t think to ask about that you’d love to tell? Fun stories or anecdotes?
Phil: I will share a memory from this summer. We had a new member coming to the Co-op who experiences mental health issues. At first the member indicated they didn’t think they could stay to wash their laundry, but they were supported in getting through the task. By the time the laundry was done, the new member repeatedly told me that they were really glad they stayed and looked forward to coming again. To put it frankly, the person who walked out of the Co-op seemed like a different person than the person who walked in. If that can happen over a load of laundry, then anything seems possible.