As Portland has blossomed into a
tech hub over the last two decades,
civic advocates have brought increased
attention to the issue of just who is
benefiting from all the innovation
taking place in the region.
The concept of digital inclusion – expanding
access to technology in under served communities through education and hands-on learning experience – has taken on more importance as Portland's rapid growth has lifted many parts of the greater metro area up, but threatened to leave others behind.
One Portland nonprofit has been tackling the issue head on for nearly 20 years. And over that time Free Geek's work has evolved to keep it on the front lines of the fight for digital access.
Founded in 2000, Free Geek has collected millions of pounds of electronic waste and diverted more than one million individual electronic products from landfills. It has also enlisted volunteers to help repurpose more than 72,000 used devices and circulate them back into Portland-area communities where access to free and low-cost computer products is most needed.
School-aged children across the region are often the beneficiaries of this volunteer work. And those volunteers get a free education in computer hardware assembly, as well as a free laptop or desktop computer after putting in 24 hours of volunteer work.
"Education has been a part of Free Geek's mission since pretty much when we opened our doors, because what we needed at the time was to have volunteers help us create computers in order to get computers out," said Hilary Shohoney, Development Manager at Free Geek. "Our original mission was
'Helping the needy get nerdy' – which we'd never say
now. But the general idea was originally about
hardware. Yet very soon after we had hardware going out to the community, we realized we had a need for more education."
As the face of computer technology changed in the early 2000's with the rise of laptops, and again with smart phones, Free Geek found itself needing to grow beyond its initial focus on repurposing desktop computers. Though it is still a major focus for the nonprofit, Free Geek has also built a network of offerings like a multi-week course on computer hardware and software troubleshooting, classes on programming and graphic design and competitive internships lasting several months.
"Part of the newer focus has been on, 'Let's make this a much more inclusive organization,'" Shohoney said. "That was how education started to become more a part of what we were thinking about."
Partnerships have also enabled Free Geek to reach thousands of students in recent years, from kindergarten-through-12th-grade children to the roughly 18 percent of class participants it serves who don't have internet access in their homes.