In 1998, the Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) was founded at a conference on labor issues. Two years later, during the Spring/Fall of 2000, SLAC students began working closely with janitorial staff on “Justice for Janitors” and “Code of Conduct” campaigns. In Fall 2001, discussions began surrounding a new idea: a tutoring program for night-shift workers. At the time, day-shift dining hall workers already had classes provided by management. Thus, Habla la Noche was founded with the knowledge that English could help address the power dynamics on campus.
These classes were held at El Centro Chicano y Latino from 10:00 PM to 11:00 PM (during the workers’ breaks). The coaches found that some workers preferred to be in a classroom setting whereas others preferred smaller groups. At the time, most of the volunteer coaches weren’t involved with SLAC; however, later, SLAC members became willing to mobilize. Habla la Noche was really important for creating a sense of community. Because the work of night janitors isolated them so much from each other—one person could clean four or five buildings without seeing a single person—the fact that the program brought them together twice a week helped form a stronger community among the workers themselves.
In Fall 2002, the Leadership Training and Education Fund (LTEF), led by Alison Webber, began providing funding, books, curriculum, teaching materials, and tutor training. This was a unique non-profit collaboration between the janitors’ union, commercial building owners, janitorial employers, client companies, and community leaders.
In Spring 2003, the Habla community was blossoming. Students and workers held soccer games, barbecues, and birthday parties on the weekends. To quote Habla Co-Founder Meghana Reddy, “Students and workers see each other as friends—they go over to each other’s homes, eat meals together, play together, go to their children’s birthday parties. We feel as if we have created an alternative community on campus!” In 2004, one learner named Alejandro was even hired by the Stanford Daily!
During Spring 2004, Habla la Noche initialized a day program, held from 12:00 PM to 1:00 PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays at El Centro. In December of that year, TLEF received a grant from California’s Employment Training Panel (ETP), which sent professional ESL teachers to teach janitors an additional day each week and provide ongoing curriculum support to tutors. These LTEF teachers would continue to tutor workers during winter breaks. Later, an instructor from the Palo Alto Adult School began providing group lessons before the learners broke up into groups.
A lot has changed since then! Habla’s operations are very different now, but one thing has stayed constant: our dedication to providing the best possible ESL instruction.