How One Organization Increases Computer Access in Chicago

emilyfederBy Emily Feder

“Where would you go to get a free computer?”

I got this question in December in the course of my job as a community resource specialist at Inspiration Corporation in Chicago, where I work to connect individuals facing homelessness and poverty to necessary and critical resources such as shelter and free health care. I do so by using the computer and relying on Internet access. If my clients were computer literate, then my job would be nearly obsolete; clients would be able to find the resources they need by looking online and networking with their peers. I’ve met hundreds of low-income individuals through my position, and many of them do not know how to use a computer. By becoming more computer literate, they would be more successful at obtaining employment, housing and learning how to avoid scams.

Since I didn’t know the answer, I did some research online and found FreeGeek Chicago. After reading more about the organization, I was so excited that I decided to make the two-bus trek from Lakeview to Logan Square to a windowless basement filled with stacks of computer parts and packed with Chicagoans of all sorts—young, old, first-timers, and old-timers from various neighborhoods and ethnic backgrounds—who were hunched over half-finished computers.

There are only 6 staff members at FreeGeek. Most people here are volunteers; many of whom are drawn to FreeGeek’s Earn-a-Box Program. Volunteer twenty four hours, and you get a $75 credit for a computer, which can actually buy you a basic model.

This is how it works: individuals donate old and used computers to FreeGeek. Volunteers then break down old or broken parts into recyclable materials that are re-sold to responsible recyclers. The reusable parts are assembled into machines and then sold at low-prices in the FreeGeek store. FreeGeek thus helps supply quality-tested, low-cost computers to the community, helping to increase computer access for those who would otherwise not be able to afford a commercially-produced computer. The proceeds are funneled back into the organization’s operating costs. About 60 percent of operational costs come from sales, 30 percent from recycling, and 10 percent from individual donors.

FreeGeek is an elegant model of an organization that does so many things at once: promote environmentalism through responsible recycling, create a friendly, social environment through the participation of its volunteers, advocate the use of open-source software, and, most importantly, educate the public on how computers work, from hardware to software. I heard this point emphasized by staff and volunteers alike. When I asked them why they came to FreeGeek, above all, they spoke of the possibilities for education.

Red, an effervescent middle-aged man, so nicknamed because of his long red beard, told me, “There’s lots of knowledge and wisdom in this room. You can learn how to fix your computer, so you don’t have to pay anyone else to do it. They have classes that you can take. My goal is to be able to work on a laptop.” (Building laptops takes more skill and experience than desktops.)

freegeekChristie, 36, from Chicago’s South Side, was at a job interview when they told her she would need to get more computer experience. She is getting her A+ certification in Information Technology to demonstrate that she has the professional qualifications to get an entry-level job in IT, but comes to FreeGeek to get hands-on experience and practice the skills needed to get her certification. “Since October, I’ve learned how to install hardware and operating systems, how to operate Linux, and troubleshoot—to see why things aren’t working.”

I also talked to Janet, a lovely, well-spoken individual with a brilliant smile who has been at FreeGeek for 6 years as a volunteer and now a staff member. .She says, “I got a lot of knowledge, but I am always seeking knowledge. There is always more to learn.”

Each piece of hardware that comes in provides its own unique challenges, allowing individuals of all skill levels to be challenged and learn something new.  Once you learn how to do something, you teach it to the next person who walks through the doors; you become the expert.

FreeGeek helps make technology accessible to everyone, so that by the time they have earned their computer, volunteers will have not just gotten the machine that they came here for, but they will also leave with a better understanding of how it works. FreeGeek therefore helps create a new generation of computer users who can more confidently navigate the modern technology-driven world. As Taylor, a long-time volunteer in his late twenties says, FreeGeek “debunks the scary-ness of technology. It gives people agency over what they felt before was out of their realm of understanding.”

To learn more, visit www.freegeekchicago.org.

Emily Feder, from Pittsburgh, PA, attended Washington University in St. Louis and is a Housing and Supportive Services Assistant at Inspiration Corporation.

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