History of Free Geek

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This is the history of Free Geek.

The early days

  • Free Geek's first public event was an appearance at Earth Day 2000 at Pioneer Square in downtown Portland.
  • We opened our doors on September 1 later that year.
  • The first working group was the ASS group. Their first project was to set up the networking infrastructure for the building. They also determined that Linux would be the operating system to go out on the computers we would be giving away.
  • In the earliest days random technically savvy volunteers built the computers we gave away, which were first disbursed in exchange for 12 hours of volunteer work. There was no standard specification for the computers, nor any systematic quality control.
  • The "community service" in the mission statement was originally conceived to mean volunteer work at Free Geek and/or out in the community at large (i.e. other non-profits). While we soon discovered that we needed all the help we could get at the Free Geek facility, sometimes special arrangements are still made. For example, if a school group has a really hard time getting to Free Geek to do their volunteer hours, we'll occasionally let them do their community service volunteer hours at their school, helping to clean up, tutor other students, etc.
  • The education group was formed to design a class for people who were receiving computers.
  • A very early issue was a larger number of volunteers than computers we were able to process and give away.
  • Volunteers could earn just about any type of gizmo by working hours for it, but this led to no end of bargaining. (How many hours for this hard drive?)
  • We planned an open house for late summer 2000 and kept putting it off, trying to figure out the best way to get local politicians to attend. In the end we settled on a day in November since it was after election day (only that year election day ended up lasting several weeks).
  • In January 2001 the Oregonian ran an article on its Metro section front page that advertised "Free Computers" at Free Geek. The next business day our lobby was filled with people wanting a free computer. We signed up so many volunteers (after explaining they had to volunteer for the free computer) that we needed to start a waiting list to get into the program.

Inception of the Build Program

  • The ASSes took over the building of computers so there would be a standard type of computer we gave away. By that time the official number of hours needed to be volunteered had risen to 18 and then 24.
  • It became clear that a few system administrators couldn't build all the computers needed, so we tried to increase the size of the build volunteer pool by offering a weekend long build class. Richard and Mark concocted this idea over breakfast at the Paradox and recruited Kenny and Smyrf to help teach. George was given the title "Hardware Nazi" at this point, because he was the one whose job it was to dole out the hardware needed for building the systems.
  • The build class was repeated twice before it became apparent that we would need to offer it more often. Richard began offering regular build workshops on Thursday mornings before opening. There was no limit to the number of students who could attend and no prerequisites for starting the program.

Council Begins

  • There were a few working groups that existed before the council.
  • Before the council we had periodic "Big Meetings" where we could talk about the big picture stuff. At one we proposed something called "The Group" (always in quotes), but that never took. Most people wanted to keep working mainly in their work groups, even if they attended more than one.
  • the council really got going after people had differing opinions on weather to start up a store.

Struggling for Survival

  • Never knew when rent would get paid
  • Staff members didn't know if they could cash checks on payday
  • Warehouse acquisition


  • Recycling Coordinator
  • Volunteer Coordinator
  • Collaborative Technologies Coordinator
  • added in shelving for system storage in the warehouse
  • Now we have the whole block (and tenants)

Collab Era

Potatoes and Fromage


A Real Job


The Aftermath


Self Sufficiency


Post eWaste Regulation?