July 6, 2006

Building a free software community in a PC Garage

Author: Tina Gasperson

Four Debian enthusiasts in New York City got together in 2003 and created the Community Free Software Group (CFSG), a non-profit entity to promote the use of free software in the local community. Since the group's inception, CFSG members have been busy helping young people in city neighborhoods learn how to install and run Debian Linux on hardware donated by area businesses and individuals.

CFSG is in the middle of its third PC Garage, a program that brings kids and computers together at community centers around New York City. Selso DaSilva, one of the founders of CFSG, says that PC Garage is "an idea that seems obvious when you think about it. [We] help kids put together computers at community technology centers and other community-based organizations using free software as the teaching medium, and in the process the kids learn about technology that respects their freedom while building a computer they can take home."

The current PC Garage, which began in March at the Asian Americans for Equality Community Technology Center, is scheduled to end this month. Normally, the PC Garage sessions run three months, but this workshop is going so well that the Center decided to extend it for an extra month. Eighteen students between the ages of 14 and 18 gather each week to tinker with computers, watch videos, and discuss articles, while DaSilva and his cohorts at CFSG go to great lengths to find hardware donors, collect the equipment, transport it to the community centers, format disks, update BIOS, and make sure each system is in working order for the eager pupils.

Why go to all that trouble? "It's information they don't get from the typical Community Technology Center programs," DaSilva says. "The kids seem to get a lot out of it. The kids in our workshops not only learn about good software, but they learn how to identify and put together hardware. With free software, there is never any impediment to making the equipment useful."

DaSilva says it makes him happy when he hears from previous students who are still using the computers they received at PC Garage. "We had two sisters who took our program," he says, "and one of them recently started coming back to the center. She told me she is taking a Cisco routing class that her high school offers. She said because of our program the hardware stuff she doing is easy, but she is having trouble with the Windows stuff."

But with all the knowledge participants gain about software and computer systems, DaSilva says the bottom-line benefit of the PC Garage workshops is that "participants learn about technology that respects their freedom." And the workshops help more than just the young people who attend them. "We're trying to help out with computer recycling," he says. "New York City has a lot of equipment that gets discarded as trash by residents or donated by large companies looking to upgrade their facilities."

Since CFSG depends on donations to make its programs run, DaSilva says the group is always looking for spare computer systems and RAM. But it also takes manpower to keep CFSG going. "Though we occasionally solicit help from acquaintances, we haven't formally made any public requests for participation," DaSilva says. "CFSG is looking to build solid infrastructure; if someone volunteers their time and supports our mission we'd consider asking them to join our Board of Directors."

The CFSG BoD has grown from the original four to a total of six, with assistance from the "non-profit world, like Elizabeth Wilson of AAFE and local businessmen, like Alex Pilosov of Pilosoft Colocation Services," DaSilva says. "It seems like the idea of helping community service organization offer free software-based programs was just waiting to happen."

CFSG is putting together a program that will help high school students learn programming concepts, and it currently offers a 3-D animation course using Blender3D. "We're [also] putting together graphics workshops featuring the GIMP and Inkscape, as well as an audio editing course with Audacity."

If you're interested in helping CFSG bring free software to the communities of NYC, write to info@cfsg.org.

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