Half a dozen students sit in a classroom, each behind a monitor and PC, patiently awaiting instruction. But this isn’t an ordinary classroom; it’s nestled in the middle of a warehouse packed with shelves and bins of circuit boards, chips, wires, and stacks upon stacks of laptop computers. And this isn’t an ordinary class; each of the students’ computers used to be in a Multnomah County office, and was donated, wiped clean of data and refurbished by volunteers. At the end of the day’s lesson, each student will take their computer home, for free.
The event is the culmination of more than a year of hard work and leadership by Commissioner Loretta Smith, the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability and Department of County Assets. The goal: to push for more accessibility to computers and the internet in low-income communities and promote sustainability by recycling or refurbishing surplus county computers.
In 2015, the Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution, sponsored by Commissioner Smith, to donate the county’s surplus computers to Free Geek, a Portland-based nonprofit that transforms donated computers and technology into useable resources for communities, organizations and individuals. Wednesday’s event kicks-off the partnership between the county and the nonprofit.
In an increasingly internet-connected world, access to digital technology and the web is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Internet access is key to things like finding a job, locating housing, education, and staying connected to both local and global networks.
“Unfortunately, there is a divide between those who have easy digital access and those who don’t,” explained Commissioner Smith. “And the pace of Americans becoming digitally included is slowing. This disparity has the greatest effect on those with the fewest resources and opportunities.”
According to the Pew Research Center, only 30 percent of households earning less than $30,000 a year have home access to a computer and broadband internet. Those numbers decrease significantly when adding in factors of race, age and ability.
“Too often,” says Commissioner Smith, “low-income residents have to travel somewhere else for even the briefest of internet sessions.”
Commissioner Smith hopes to help bridge that gap.
“This is one program all of us on the Board of Commissioners think will have a huge impact in the community we serve with,” said Commissioner Smith to the gathering of Free Geek staff, local students and Multnomah County employees.
Free Geek’s Director of Public Services Colleen Dixon took the floor, explaining the work that her nonprofit does. Fernando Corona, a student at Kelly Elementary School, listened patiently, sitting behind the monitor of his new PC. He will use his new computer for “homework, practicing guitar, and games.” He’s quick to add: “My grandpa likes to use the computer, so I’ll let him borrow it too.” Fernando is part of Free Geek’s “Plug into Portland,” program, which gives computers to K-12 students in exchange for 24 hours of community service. Fernando volunteered as a safety patrol at his school. This will be the first computer in his household.
Free Geek will receive up to 1,500 computers a year from Multnomah County. They will then be refurbished and given out to communities, organizations, or individuals in need, sold at low cost in Free Geek’s thrift store, or recycled under Free Geek’s high environmental and ethical standards.
“They will not, as so often happens to discarded computers,” said John Wasiutynski, director of the Office of Sustainability, “become hazardous waste in landfill.”
“This is just a win-win situation for all of us,” concludes Commissioner Smith.