Bringing Technology to the Poor
by Lynda Carson 7/24/2005
Bringing out-of-reach computer technology to the poor is not an easy task in capitalist America, but efforts to do just that have been the longstanding goal of Jim Lynch. Lynch, a Berkeley resident, has been on a mission to bring older, refurbished computers into the nation's low-income communities for reuse, rather than seeing them buried in landfills, ground up, or dumped in Asia to poison the environment there.
You may have read about Jim Lynch in the Wall Street Journal, or listened to him being interviewed on the Voice of America or on one of the many NPR radio stations that recently profiled his mission to have older-model computers reused, rather than being recycled and destroyed.
It just so happens that I am one of the many people who have had their lives enhanced by the efforts of those who are trying to bring some of these older computers into the nation's low-income communities, before the recyclers get their hands on them and trash them out.
At one time a teacher of philosophy in the hills of Prescott, Arizona, Jim Lynch moved to the Bay Area where he began working with students from Oakland Tech High School. "Some of the best times that I have ever had in the Bay Area were when I was working with students from Oakland Tech," said Lynch.
Since those days of working with students, a huge struggle has been taking place as Lynch pursues his mission to convince the world that present-day computer recycling methods are not beneficial to the environment or society at large.
"It's not been easy to convince society that it's cheaper and easier on the environment to refurbish and reuse older-model computers, rather than to throw them away or even recycle them to recover about $2.00 worth of metal, glass and plastic," said Lynch.
As the senior program manager for computer recycling and reuse at CompuMentor, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco, Lynch has been on the front lines during the past few years in the struggle to bring older-model computers into low-income communities so that poor people would have access to technology that they could not normally afford.
Lynch has been wrestling with the fact that in most parts of the country, it's perfectly legal to throw out computers even though they're full of lead, mercury, arsenic and other poisons. He's trying to encourage corporations to donate their computer equipment to the hundreds of nonprofit refurbishers around the country when these companies upgrade and replace older computer systems. This would open a way so that perfectly good, three-to-five-year-old computers can go to low-income schools, charities, and families that could really use them.
A breakthrough for Lynch and his efforts to accomplish all this came during 2002, when he got the chance to work with Microsoft to create a program called the Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR) Donation Program. The MAR program distributes older Windows operating systems for a low-cost fee of $5 to participating refurbishers across the country and in Canada. Before this happened, refurbishers had to pay about $80 for each copy of Windows, which is necessary to get older computers up and running again.
While most people hate Microsoft, Lynch has nothing but good things to say about them. "They had the guts to do something real about reclaiming a completely wasted resource by making their software available to refurbishers at almost no cost," he said. "No other software company has stepped up to do something like that. They don't make money on this. CompuMentor collects the $5 per license to keep the program going and keep the flow of software happening."
The MAR program has become so popular that the full list of refurbishers participating in the program fills up 186 on-line pages on the CompuMentor website. Lynch says that there are just under 500 schools and charity-based refurbishers now taking advantage of the program.
This innovative program started out about 10 years ago in Berkeley. At the time, Lynch was working with homeless people at Harrison House, a homeless shelter in Berkeley near the freeway that is operated by Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS). BOSS offers many vital services to the homeless and low-income families in the Oakland/Berkeley area, and Lynch's work to add computer labs to their shelters has been beneficial to many of their clients.
"I got my start by trying to reclaim lives at BOSS, and that got me involved in reclaiming equipment through computer recycling and reuse," Lynch recalled. "In those days, we had no budget for computers, and homeless people really liked them. I spent a lot of time trying to convince corporations to donate their older-model computers to our program and that was a big part of our success. The connection between reclaiming lives and older, used computer equipment is the driving force that motivates me.
"I really loved working with the homeless people being served by BOSS when I was there; and it was wonderful to see how fast people were able to step up and use the computers that we collected and refurbished for use in the computer labs that the homeless folks and I set up."
At the program's beginning, computer games and donated pizzas and hamburgers helped persuade homeless people to check out the refurbished computers.
"It was not easy at first to convince many of the homeless to leave the streets and check out the computers we had refurbished for them," he said, "and I loaded them up with numerous game programs that were fun and interesting to the homeless. I was also out there doing street outreach to the homeless to try to get them into my classes; and part of the success was to convince local businesses such as McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell, LaVal's Pizza and others to donate food to our computer classes. The food really helped to bring attention to what we were offering and it brought a lot of people into our classes."
Playing games led to people learning more serious uses for the computers. "We always started people off playing games and having fun with the machines," he said. "After awhile we gradually moved to shift people away from the more fun stuff and eventually many of the homeless people were using the computers to put together resumes to help them go out and find some work, so that they could rebuild their lives."
Boona Cheema, executive director of BOSS, spoke highly of the computer labs started by Jim Lynch for the homeless people served by the organization. "We still carry on his legacy," said Cheema. "Through the years, we have tried to upgrade the computers in an effort to keep the computer labs open and interesting to our clients. All three of our shelters have computer labs set up in them, and we serve around 150 students monthly. Everyone, including the homeless, are attracted to the technology offered by the computers, and many people enjoy using them to write their poetry."
One of Lynch's star students was Eric Schell. Lynch says of him, "He just has the knack of fixing anything that needs fixing. The guy was better at getting donated computers working than me, and still is."
"My association with BOSS goes back for years," said Schell, "and I recall when Jim Lynch was setting up the computer labs. There were about a dozen computers and the class was full. Thanks to BOSS, my housing situation has been stable since around 1993. I used to reside at the Harrison House years ago where Jim held his computer classes back then. I was very fascinated by the computers, and the whole experience helped me to stabilize my life. I still recall when Jim taught the original class at a computer lab he set up at the Berkeley Adult School, and remember when he left us for CompuMentor, which was a big leap for him at that time."
After his move to CompuMentor, Jim Lynch had a chance to help set up a large computer recycling program for the San Francisco School District. "This was the first big recycling program I got to work. I worked with some brilliant mentors (volunteers) to set up a materials flow system for the school program, which eventually began producing 200 computers per month for the local district students and teachers."
It took Jim Lynch years of being patient and doing other things to get to the point of getting something going with big corporations like Microsoft. During his years at CompuMentor, he got a chance to do many projects to help poor people. One of the efforts he's proudest of was a project to set up computer systems for several charities in the Central Valley so they could provide legal services for farm workers.
In researching this story, I found out that the computer-recycling field is not only confined to those doing good in the world. One major player in this field -- one that Lynch has nothing to do with -- is the prison-based computer-recycling industry that has made the news lately for exposing prison workers to toxic hazards.
A recent system-wide review of the nation's prisons revealed that seven computer-recycling prison enterprises across the nation are exposing both prison staff and inmates to harmful levels of toxic materials. As a result of the findings, Stephen Tussey, top safety official for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, abruptly resigned from his position as National Safety Administrator, effective June 2, 2005. "I'm really glad I did not get caught up into the mess that's happening in the nation's prison industries," said Lynch.
One does not have to go overseas to see who is cutting corners the most when it comes to the safety of workers in the e-waste computer recycling programs. Earlier this past spring, documentation from Atwater Federal Prison, located outside of Merced, California, revealed that inmates using hammers for breaking down computer terminals for recycling are being exposed to particles of heavy metals, such as cadmium, lead, beryllium and barium.
According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Atwater's own prison staff filed a complaint with OSHA, alleging that particles of heavy metals are released when inmates break the glass cathode ray tubes in their computer-recycling worksites.
Since 2002, the nation's federal prison industry authority, known as UNICOR, has been operating Atwater's e-waste computer recycling plant and the operation has been known to be plagued by shutdowns and safety problems since its beginning.
In the Federal Correctional Institution at Elkton, Ohio, reports show that neither the staff nor inmates involved in their e-waste computer-recycling program were warned of the dangers of having direct exposure to the toxic dust that covered their skin, hair and clothing on a daily basis as a result of their recycling work.
The computer-recycling industry as a whole is mostly about crushing and grinding equipment to recover metals. Millions of good, useable computers are being thrown out, or chewed up and broken apart, rather than being refurbished and reused by low-income communities. This is extremely wasteful and not sustainable in the long term.
Jim Lynch recently completed a study entitled, "Islands in the Wastestream, a Baseline Study of Noncommercial Computer Reuse in the United States," which is a comprehensive examination of the way America's largest corporations dispose of their obsolete computers.
The study showed that 46 percent of America's corporations are sending all of their older model computers to the e-waste recyclers and prison industries, rather than having them refurbished and reused by low-income communities. In essence, the study revealed that donating computers to be refurbished for reuse by low-income communities is much more beneficial to society and the environment, than it is to have useable computers trashed and recycled in the e-waste industry.
Despite his having to go against current trends, Jim Lynch has held a steady course in his mission to promote the reuse of older computers. He said, "I love what I am doing in life, and the best part of it is that it has allowed me to provide for my family while doing so."
As an activist's dreams come true, some of these older refurbished computers have managed to be saved from being trashed at the local dumps and have been used on many occasions for campaigns to organize demonstrations, rallies and protests against some of the ills of society.
It was years ago that Jim Lynch stopped by my place with an older Macintosh computer that he had refurbished and reloaded with many useful programs, along with an older Mac printer and a few handy books on how to use them.
He took the time to teach me how to set it up, and pointed out the many programs installed and what could be done with them. Being computer illiterate at that time, it was up to me to figure out how to operate it and use the programs installed that were best suited to my needs as a writer, researcher and low-income tenant activist. In time, I learned what to do with an old computer that no one wanted anymore.
It did not take long for a poor person like me to grasp the concept that I could learn to make the most out of what people would normally throw away; and I was off and running to raise a ruckus whenever possible with this new-found technology. As an activist and journalist, I have truly come to appreciate this incredible resource.
Through the years, Jim Lynch would come by to help maintain the equipment when problems would arise; and I am one of the fortunate ones to have received a good old computer that society would have given up on long ago. I, for one, believe in what Jim Lynch is doing. I see clearly the vital importance of diverting older model computers and technology into the hands of low-income communities that may have been left behind long ago, on the other side of the so-called digital divide.
Find out more about Jim Lynch and CompuMentor's work at http://www.compumentor.org/recycle
Lynda Carson may be reached at; firstname.lastname@example.org