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MONTREAL—A dryer whirs, and a young mother folds her family's laundry. Another woman enters with two school-aged kids, who stand by as she loads the washing machine. Anyone passing by might assume it's just a clean, bright laundromat in a poor Montreal neighbourhood. But for Mohammad Hassan, it's bursting with potential for social change.
The Jobra Solidarity Co-operative is a laundromat with an anti-poverty mission in the north end of Park Extension, an enclaved Montreal neighbourhood of 1.6 square kilometres with 33,000 residents, mainly immigrants.
A poster on one wall reads: “Co-operative members learn from each other, innovate together, and by increasing their control over their livelihoods, build up the sense of dignity that the experience of poverty destroys.” Beside that hang enlarged photos of microcredit workshops held there last spring, along with photocopies of local press coverage, information on how to become a member, and a mock-up of a big $1,000 cheque awarded to Hassan, Jobra's main founder, for being a community organizer who “walks the talk.”
Hassan and a handful of other volunteers, despite numerous and ongoing challenges, have opened this social enterprise where members become owners, and profits (yet to be seen) will be turned back into resources to serve the local community. Hassan said a laundromat was chosen as a space for Jobra's anti-poverty work because laundromats can run without a manager present, they are recession-proof since people won't easily give up clean clothes, and they generally have a 75 per cent rate of return.
“People who stay at home, especially women, can have a place to come to and meet people, they can have a chance to talk to each other, share their ideas, and challenges of daily life,” said Hassan, describing his vision for Jobra. “They can explore their ambitions.”
Jobra will eventually offer entrepreneurial training and micro-loans, says Hassan, to help people escape cycles of poverty.
Hassan first came to Park Extension in 1983 as a refugee from Bangladesh. Though he rarely refers to his own story, Hassan knows first-hand the difficulties of poverty, finding work, living in cramped housing, trying to integrate and raising a family in those circumstances. He hasn't lived in Park Extension since 1989, but since 2004 he has been committed to anti-poverty organizing in the neighbourhood.
“It's an emotional attachment for me,” Hassan said. “When I came to Canada, I had big hopes and dreams.”
“This is one of the richest countries in the world,” he said, noting Park Extension is the second poorest neighbourhood in Canada. “Why does it have to be like this?”
Since opening in March 2010, the co-operative has just been breaking even. Its programming has been scarce, and locals have yet to access any micro-loans.
“It's in a holding pattern. Nothing is working,” Hassan said. “We don't have staff, that's the main challenge.”
Hassan has struggled since 2005 to establish the co-operative. He and others researched, lobbied various local politicians, wrote proposals and attended meetings. They had trouble finding a space and convincing funding bodies that their project was feasible. Once they found a space, getting proper zoning was a barrier. Jobra was eventually awarded start-up money through various local economic development funds. Altogether, it was awarded more than $140,000 to establish the space.
With the structure and physical location now in place, Hassan said, the challenge now is clear.
“We need to build the place. We need more publicity. We need more community support.”
Situated about one kilometre away from the social services concentrated at the south end of Park Extension, the laundromat has high-quality washers and dryers, and two folding tables. On a shelf sit dozens of flyers for social services, and nearby, a chalkboard for kids.
The semi-basement space also has a back room of about 300 square feet, for which Jobra is seeking proper municipal zoning. People would be able to meet more regularly, notes Hassan, if there was a regular co-ordinator to manage the space.
A few groups have tried to use it as meeting space. Last summer, a local resident was using it to help kids fix their bikes—it became a popular with kids, but was unsustainable. A group of seniors and a religious group have also asked to use the meeting room, but were turned down.
“We don't have the capacity right now,” Hassan said, adding there is an urgent need for meeting space in the north end of Park Extension.
Joanne Penhale is a Montreal-based freelance reporter, features-writer, community organizer and urban gardener.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.