Organizational Narrative

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The technology revolution benefits many, but it also creates two serious problems. First, computers manufactured today have a very short life cycle. Large numbers of computers are deemed obsolete within two years and discarded. The National Safety Council reported that during 1997 more than 20 million computers reached obsolescence and only 11% were recycled or reused. At the current rate, by the year 2005, 350 million machines will have become obsolete. Traditional methods of disposal of computer equipment have resulted in releasing dangerous toxins such as lead, chromium and mercury into the environment. In 2000, Oregon generated 46,353 tons of computer and electronic waste (e-waste) but only 1.33% was recovered. In 2002, the Metro region generated 4,597 tons of e-waste and recovered only 16%. Reuse and responsible recycling is the best process for the environment, capable of recovering over 99% of the materials for reuse. Without recycling, this discarded technology of ten ends up in landfills where the resulting accumulation of toxic/hazardous waste will create potentially disastrous results for the environment.

The second problem stemming from advances in computer technology is that many people lack even the most basic computer skills. This can deny them access to everything from getting on the Internet to getting a better job. In 1999 the U.S. Commerce Department reported that households with incomes of $75,000 and higher were twenty times more likely to have access to the Internet than households at the lowest income levels and nine times as likely to have a computer in the home. In 2000, the median income of a family of four in the Portland area was $53,7003, below the national average of $62,228. These technological advances are only going to accelerate in the coming years, resulting in more people being left behind.

The concept behind Free Geek is to use these problems to solve each other. A significant portion of computers bound for the landfills can be refurbished into working starter computers for those who cannot otherwise afford them. Individuals with little or no disposable income can be trained to help process the diverted computers for reuse or recycling, receiving one of the refurbished computers in exchange for their efforts. The result is less computer equipment in the landfills and more equipment being reused. In addition, a wide range of people get access to computers and the Internet that previously could not; a win, win situation for everyone involved, which is summed up in the Free Geek mission statement:

Free Geek recycles used technology to provide computers, education, job skills training and access to the Internet to those in need, in exchange for community service.


Free Geek was founded by Oso Martín in February of 2000. He saw a need in the community for access to no-cost or low-cost computer technology. Oso further learned that the large amounts of electronic waste going into Portland's landfills were becoming an increasing problem, and that much of the computer hardware being tossed away was still usable. He was sure these computers could be set up to perform Internet, word processing, and other basic computing functions. Oso envisioned a non-profit organization that would serve two needs in the community at the same time: recycling electronic waste and helping to bridge the digital divide. And so, Free Geek was born.

Jim Deibele, founding board member and CEO and founder of Teleport, provided financial support to fund an exploratory venture to test the Free Geek concept. A series of workshops were conducted at Portland State University to create the mission statement and bylaws, as well as to recruit board members.

During the summer of 2000 the search began for a facilty that would meet our needs. The FG-CTC would serve as a central location for donated hardware to be dropped off and processed. It also provides a place for volunteers to work together, sharing their knowledge and experience. A 5,000 SF office/warehouse space was located in inner SE Portland. Free Geek moved in and sent out word to the community that we were looking for volunteers. From the very start, computer enthusiasts and others saw the potential of the idea and quickly formed a core volunteer group that would begin to develop the technology needed to run the operation efficiently and at the lowest possible cost.

The Community Technology Center opened in September 2000 and soon after, several articles appeared in the local media and quickly spread the word about Free Geek. Donated hardware began flooding in. So did the volunteers, from all walks of life and with widely varied backgrounds; from computer industry professionals wanting to lend a helping hand, to laid off workers looking to trade their free time for a refurbished computer. People from all over the Portland area were attracted to the program.

In just four years, Free Geek has tripled in physical size, while growing its budget ten-fold. Free Geek has gone from an experiment to a viable organization with a proven track record. Free Geek was recognized as a Founder of a New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest in May of 2003. We are regularly sought out by elected officials, government agencies and recycling advocates asking our advice and guidance on how to deal with the growing problems of electronic waste and bridging the digital divide. Free Geek participates as a non-profit stakeholder on the Oregon State Legislature Electronic Product Stewardship Advisory Committee.

In the past few years, several nascent organizations around the country have been inquiring about how they can build on the work we have started. To that end, fellow Free Geeks organizations have sprung up. See this link for a current family tree: Free Geek Startups


Computer Recycling

Free Geek's central location is a convenient place for individuals, organizations and small businesses to recycle computer equipment. By accepting all computer equipment, in any condition, we make the choice of where to go to dispose of computers a simple one. Everyone who drops off computers for recycling is offered a guided tour of the facility and is shown how the program works and what happens to the donated equipment. We then ask for a voluntary cash donation to support our program. Approximately two-thirds of our customers need to dispose of monitors. Free Geek charges a $10 disposal fee for any and all monitors dropped off at our facility. In addition to the required monitor fees, over half of all recycling customers make a voluntary financial contribution in appreciation for the work they see being done to protect the environment and to help others. Computer donations are the exclusive source of computer hardware for both Free Geek's infrastructure and the equipmen t provided back to the community. As part of the recycling process, non-repairable and obsolete equipment is broken down into its base materials such as steel, aluminum, and copper. These commodities are then sold on the open market through our recycling partners. Sale of recycled materials provides a significant income stream to support operations.

Computer Adoption

Free Geek's flagship program, the Adoption program, enables individuals to exchange work in our recycling operation for a starter computer system of their very own. During their time at Free Geek, volunteers are exposed to computers on several different levels. volunteers work in three basic areas, receiving, recycling and testing. In receiving they learn to identify hardware and become familiar with the use of the mouse and keyboard. In recycling, volunteers learn about how the various pieces fit together and come apart. Testing teaches the volunteers how to insert and remove various components from the computer and how to run diagnostic software. After completing 24 hours of work, volunteers receive their computer and a introductory class on how to set it up and use it.

Computer Building

One of the more technically demanding programs, the Build program creates all the computers needed for our other programs. Volunteers are taught how to build computers working exclusively with used parts. The tested hardware is assembled into standardized desktop computers that are then loaded with an operating system and applications software. Each system passes a quality control test before it released to an adopter. Volunteers agree to complete six computer systems in exchange for the training in how to do it. After completing six systems, volunteers are welcome to keep the sixth computer for themselves. The remaining five computers are distributed into the community through our Adoption and Computers for Kids and Hardware Grants programs.

Computer Education

The education program began with the notion that "If we give someone their first computer, we need to teach them how to use it." The introductory classes are the core of a curriculum that has been expanded to include computer building, Linux command line basics and advanced software usage. Volunteer teachers work together to organize classes, as well as documenting all of Free Geek's procedures to help train volunteers and volunteers working in any area. Education is ongoing for volunteers and volunteers from the moment they enter Free Geek, to long after they receive their computers and have it set up in their homes. We believe that everyone has something to learn and everyone has something to teach. The education program focuses that energy to provide the latest in computer skills development for an extremely low cost. Volunteering time, taking classes and the hands on experience with computers are also excellent resume builders for computer professionals looking to increase their chances for employment.

Computer Thrift Store

Free Geek receives more equipment than can be refurbished efficiently. In addition, the equipment donated does not arrive in equal amounts (i.e. approximately 10 good keyboards are donated for every usable computer). This surplus equipment and other donations that have some retail value but do not meet other program requirements, are sold through the Free Geek Computer Thrift Store. Monitors, printers, keyboards, cables and speakers are among the many items available in the store. This ensures that working, usable equipment gets back into circulation, rather than being broken down for raw materials recovery. Free Geek also sells various products such as t-shirts, stickers and crafts made from recycled computer parts. The thrift store is a vital part of Free Geek's financial self-sufficiency.


Non-profit Hardware Grants

Non-profit organizations can receive computer equipment for free. We generally focus on local organizations and are granting about 50 requests a month. Free Geek has provided computer equipment for shipment to schools around the world to help bridge the global technology divide. We have helped send computer systems to Ecuador and Ghana.

Geek Access Points (GAP)

Free Geek provides the hardware and technical support for several free Internet access terminals in Southeast Portland. Free Geek offers this service to community minded organizations and businesses that provide free public access to the computer and the Internet.


Board of Directors

Oso Martin, Director
Founder, original incorporator of Free Geek. Former member of staff collective, as Outreach Coordinator.
second term, ends October 2009
Interim Chairperson, July 2007 - October 2007
Marie Deatherage, Director
Director, Communication & Learning, Meyer Memorial Trust; current volunteer.
Marie (aka Maria Deathstar) aspires to be a geek, but she's only a wannabe at this point. However, she loves Free Geek with all her heart so we pretend like we think she's a geek. A journalist, a geography professor, and a disability rights advocate in former lives, Marie is especially interested in helping Free Geek become better known among people who have the capacity to give money to geeks. Marie wants to be a documentary filmmaker when she grows up.
First term, October 2005 - October 2006 (One year term)
Secretary, October 2005 - October 2006
second term, ends October, 2008
Laurel Hoyt, Secretary
Former Free Geek Education Coordinator; current volunteer. Researcher, Post-Carbon Institute.
First term, October 2005 - October 2006 (One year term)
Chairperson, October 2005 - October 2006
Secretary, October 2006 - Present
second term, ends October 2008
Seamus Campbell, Chair
Current volunteer. Programmer. Xymurgist. Former Free Geek Education-Coordinator Coordinator.
second term, ends October 2009
Treasurer, October 2005 - October 2007
Chair, October 2007 - Present
Jon Van Oast, Director
Current volunteer. Programmer, code-mercenary.
In order to avoid having to fix bugs in the DOS-based SMTP gateway he wrote for a Novell network, coupled with the fact that perl4 in DOS was frustrating him, Jon built his first linux box in 1992. It ran for 2 years hidden above the acoustic ceiling tiles in sub-basement level B of the university medical center where Jon worked. It ran for 4 more years there after he left, until he showed up in the middle of the night on a trip back home and took it with him back to Portland. Now you know how he and linux fell in love.
first term, ends October 2008
Tim Collier, Treasurer
CPA and itinerant bean counter
Tim also brings another "outside the volunteer pool" perspective to keep Marie company and we held a special mid term election to get him on board (January 2007).
first term, ends October 2008
Treasurer, October 2007 - Present
Curt Pederson, Director
Curt Pederson comes to us from the OSU Open Source Labs and is the CIO for the Oregon University system.
first term, ends October 2009

Staff Collective

Free Geek employs 14 staff members. The staff functions as a democratic and non-hierarchical collective, using a modified consensus model for decision making. All staff are paid the same hourly wage. Staff working over 17.5 hrs/week are eligible for participation in the health care plan and Individual Retirement Account.

Other Staff

Internships funded by Free Geek - Free Geek funds 4 short term interns (6 months), targeting individuals that have barriers to employment that could be helped by having some real job experience. Free Geek hopes that working an internship at the Community Technology Center will provide a opportunity for personal growth and experience.

Internships paid for by outside programs - Free Geek works with local organizations and schools to provide interesting opportunities for individuals and students to fulfill job training, educational and community service requirements. Free Geek has many active interns from outside programs at any given time.


The following groups are the major groups that have regular meetings or perform defined tasks:

Adopters - are volunteers who come to Free Geek to earn a computer for themselves. Adopters perform 24 hours of community service, helping Free Geek by performing data entry, testing and recycling tasks. In exchange, participants receive a Freekbox computer and an orientation class.

Builders - come to Free Geek to learn the ins and outs of computer assembly and trouble shooting. The program is free and is open to anyone at any skill level. Many builders stay on after they complete the program and help out as volunteer instructors or assistants. Volunteers provide Tier II technical support on Freek Box Computer systems. Participants in the build program feel a sense of accomplishment as each computer system they create goes to a person or organization in need.

Council - Made up of board members, staff and volunteers, the Council provides a forum for individuals to participate in guiding Free Geek as the organization continues to grow and evolve. Membership is open to all and all decisions are made using a consensus process.

Hardware Grants - Made up of staff and volunteers, the Hardware Grants group allocates resources to fulfill hardware grant requests for non-profits. Membership is open to those individuals that wish to help guide projects through the system.


In 2007, Free Geek received the Mayor's Spirit of Portland Award and the (international) APC Chris Nichol FOSS Prize.

In 2006, the Association of Oregon Recyclers selected Free Geek as Recycler of the Year.

In November of 2003, Free Geek received Honorable Mention for the Peter F. Drucker Award for Non-Profit Innovation.

In November of 2002, Free Geek was named a Founder of the New Northwest by Sustainable Northwest. They recognize leadership in sustainable business and economic practices in the northwestern United States. Free Geek was profiled in a book published by Sustainable Northwest in May 2003. Free Geek received the award at the 2003 Sustainability Forum awards banquet.

In June of 2001, Free Geek's Administrative Coordinator, Oso Martín, was presented an E-chievment Award from the National Public Radio program, E-Town, in recognition of his work to make "a positive difference in his community and beyond".