Free Geek: doing good deeds in Portland

By July 16, 2007

With its idealistic can-do attitude, it is no wonder that Portland bred the first Free Geek, a volunteer-based project that addresses both the e-waste crisis and the digital divide issue. Other Free Geek centers are now sprouting

around the country. On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, the sprawling building housing FreeGeek in an industrial section of Southeast Portland is teeming with volunteers. Some are dismantling computers and printers, separating the different parts in waiting bins. Others are busy rebuilding new computers from parts that passed a rigorous test. Upfront, the store is open for business and customers are browsing through inexpensive, refurbished computer equipment. You can get a computer for as low as $40 here. Free Geek front store Richard Seymour is one of a handful of paid staff who helps run FreeGeek, an idea launched by Oso Martin in September 2000. “I was at the first volunteer meeting and I was attracted by the fact that Free Geek would address multiple issues by matching the e-waste and the digital divide problems. Later on, the volunteers brought on Linux into the mix,” says Seymour, sitting at his desk in his cramped office. Free Geek Richard Seymour It all starts when a conscientious PC owner drops off his used equipment at Free Geek. Only monitors, which are bulky and hard to handle, have a required $10 fee. For all other equipment, there is a suggested donation which most people gladly pay. Oregon recently passed a law which will add a recycling fee to the purchase price of new computer equipment, a fact that is bound to change the competitive nature of e-recycling in the state.   “On a good day, 25% of the PC we receive can be reused. The rest have to be recycled. We are a collection and a separation point, and then it goes to recyclers who are all local partners we feel confident about. The work we do is usually done by prison inmates or sent to developing countries because it is labor intensive. In our case, volunteers do the work,” explains Seymour.   But volunteers definitely get something out of their hard work through two innovative programs. Through the “Adoption Program”, a volunteer who puts in 24 hours of work at Free Geek gets back a free PC, a class to learn to use it and a year of free support. “We realized that people would get their PC and it would sit in a closet,” says Seymour. The second program dubbed the “Build Program” empowers volunteers to build and repair computers. After learning to sort parts, test them and build a new computer, volunteers get to keep the sixth PC they rebuild. They also get an introduction to Linux, an obvious choice to avoid the costs of proprietary software. Free Geek buil area Some of the 400 volunteers who clock in at Free Geek every month are high-school students earning community credit or community college students in computer science programs. Others might be there by court order or because they are exploring a change in careers. The majority are passionate about the mission of Free Geek to help the “needy get nerdy.”   On average, 10 computers might go out through the “Adoption Program” every week and another 10 through the “Build Program”. Others get sent to non-profit organizations. Another 60 might get sold in the thrift store while miscellaneous parts are sold online on eBay and Craigslist. Free Geek can’t keep up with the demand for laptop computers.   The non-profit, tax-exempt organization is inspiring others around the country and enquiries are even coming from abroad. In Columbus, Chicago, Tennessee, and Arkansas as well as in Vancouver, BC, others have picked up on the idea. “It helps them to be able to show that the idea works. We got our start with some capital from a local ISP founder and later a grant from the Department of Environmental Quality,” says Seymour, a former database programmer and political activist who is clearly convinced that Free Geek is a valuable part of the local economy.   Isabelle Boucq, for Atelier   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at

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