Oakland students give old computers a new home
on September 10, 2009
On a hot day in West Oakland, children and parents sat at rows of desks in a warehouse classroom. It was dark, the fan hummed and people chattered in low voices. A sense of expectation filled the room.
In three hours, every child would get a voucher for a free computer.
“Okay, ground rules,” said a voice from the back of the class. “Although these computers are free, you pay with your attention. No iPods or text messaging. No internet or games until the appropriate time.”
The voice belonged to 32-year-old instructor Naomi Jimenez, who runs a tight ship. She was there to teach everyone how to use the computer and the software that comes with it. The noise tapered off, and Jimenez launched into a demonstration. The countdown to a new computer had begun.
Jimenez works for Oakland Technology Exchange West, an organization with a simple mission: get unwanted computers, fix them and give them to every middle and high school student in the Oakland Unified School District.
The district doesn’t track how many of its students own computers, but most are considered low income—69 percent qualify for free or reduced school lunches. These students live in a city that threw away 1,047 tons—or 2,094,000 pounds—of e-waste last year, according to StopWaste.org, an Alameda County waste reduction organization.
E-waste includes computer monitors, flat screens, CPUs and other electronics such as portable DVD players, TVs and cell phones. E-waste contains a number of toxic materials, such as lead, which is found in cathode ray tubes from computer monitors, and mercury, which is used in flat screens, so keeping it out of the waste stream benefits the environment.
“Just turning computers into consumables that we throw away is so incredibly destructive to the planet,” said Oakland Technology Exchange West Founder Bruce Buckelew. “There couldn’t be a better synergy between two problems, e-waste and [the] digital divide. It’s like a perfect match.”
Buckelew, who is 66, is a retired IBM engineer. After volunteering to fix computers in the basement of Oakland Technical High School, he founded Oakland Technology Exchange West in 1995. Over the years, the center has grown to employ a staff of eleven, some of whom were students and clients before they graduated to working there.
The center gives away about 1,500 computers to Oakland students every year and sends another 1,000 to community groups and schools, preventing about 100 tons of e-waste annually.
This is accomplished by sorting and repairing a huge volume of donated machines. In the back of the warehouse, 6-foot-tall stacks of computers line the walls. Towering columns of monitors and CPUS divide the main room, leaving narrow walkways.
The donations arrive on the loading dock, where the light shines through a few bullet holes in a metal door. From there, they go to the volunteer area, and on an average day about 25 people sit at long tables cleaning computers, monitors and keyboards. They also test mice and speakers and remove useful parts from older computers that will be recycled.
Many of the donated computers come from local companies, which purge old machines and replace them with new ones every few years. Other computers are dropped off on donation days by people who don’t want them anymore.
“We get a lot of amazing computers that have viruses,” said Buckelew. “You know when you have a lot of money, the easier thing to do when your computer starts acting weird is buy a new one.”
The staff makes repairs in a back area full of open machines, some of which are up and running with the circuitry exposed. Every surface is littered with components, cords, wires and parts. A rack holds plastic bins of circuit boards. In some cases, Post-it notes indicate the state of the various fix-it jobs. “Done, put back together” read one note.
This is the domain of technical support specialist Dan Huynh, who started working on computers with Buckelew in 1994 when he was in 10th grade. Huynh and other staff members take the computers apart, replace whatever needs replacing, erase the hard disks to remove old files and viruses, and install the software that the center provides.
Many of the center’s clients come from West Oakland, but any 6th to 12th grade student in the district can participate. To alert families, the staff sends flyers and emails to Oakland middle and high schools at the start of the school year, and they bring a booth to registration days.
To get a computer, students must take the three-hour class, offered in English or Spanish, and bring a parent. Then they receive a PC with a Pentium III processor, a monitor, a mouse and a keyboard. If they want a faster machine with a bigger hard drive, they can volunteer to earn “service bucks,” which can be used like cash at the center’s “Tech Store.” Parents and community members can also volunteer to earn computers.
Back in the classroom, Robert Malone, a 28-year-old counselor, was sitting in a corner with three shy teenage boys from an Oakland group home. “Whenever we get new residents, I like to bring them here so that they can have computers,” he said. “Being computer literate is important. We want to make sure that they will be well-versed in as many skills as possible.”
17-year-old Adrian, a young man with slicked-back hair and a soft voice, was looking forward to using his machine for games, email, and homework. Ra’sheed, a round-faced 14-year-old, wanted to use his computer to loop beats and make music with Audacity, the audio editing program that the center offers.
Next to Ra’sheed sat Tim, a 17-year-old with the hint of a mustache on his upper lip. He was polite but wary.
“I like to type,” he said, without making eye contact.
Did he mean he liked to write?
What kind of thing did like to write?
“Poems,” he said, looking up and holding his gaze steady.
About an hour later, Jimenez led Tim and the other students through a word processing demonstration using Open Office, a free office software suite. She directed the students to open a new document and type their name and why they had come to the class.
Tim typed: “I am here to get a new computer for school.”
From the back of the class, Jimenez explained how to change the font.
Tim changed his text to cursive. He made his name blue and his text red. He hit delete and tapped a few keys. A small smile crossed his face.
His screen now read, “I am here to get a new computer for writing.”
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