March 30, 2007

Free Geek Vancouver helps the needy get nerdy

Author: Bruce Byfield

Free Geek is a nonprofit society in Portland, Ore., dedicated to recycling computing equipment and distributing computers loaded with free software to organizations or individuals in need. Since its founding in February 2000, the group has seen sister organizations open in cities throughout North America. One of the most recently established groups is in Vancouver, Canada. We talked to David Repa, the founder and coordinator of Free Geek Vancouver, about the origins of the group and the challenges of organizing it.

A Debian user and community activist employed in the recycling of auto parts, Repa discovered Free Geek while researching the Linux Terminal Server project in order to provide thin clients for people in his apartment building who couldn't afford computers. Since the original organization was in Portland, a city he visits frequently, he visited in October 2006, arriving just in time to take a tour of the facilities. "I was thinking it would be a hole in the wall," he says. "But it was 15,000 square feet. I was looking down aisles of monitors and boxes, and, instantly, I knew that this was what I needed to do. This is exactly like the auto scrap business, but with computers and education. So I got really excited."

Returning home, Repa quit his job and began talking to friends about organizing a Vancouver chapter of Free Geek. After returning to Portland to volunteer in the original Free Geek for a couple of weeks, he set about organizing. By coincidence, Momentum, a bicycling activist site in Vancouver, was running an article on Free Geek, so Repa wrote to the writer to ask for advice about organizing. "It was like a snowball," say Repa, recalling how one contact led to another. By November 1, Free Geek Vancouver was holding its first meeting.

When free software and activists meet

Free Geek Vancouver now has about 50 people on its mailing list, and a core of six or seven dedicated volunteers. About 40% of those involved are women -- an unusually high number for a free software community.

Perhaps because Repa started with Momentum, many of those involved in Free Geek, including some of the core volunteers, are members of the bicycling community. For example, Ifny Lachance, a member of the board of directors whose card reads "geek coordinator," runs a show called Pedal Revolutionary on the local campus radio and organizes an event called Bicycle CARcass at which cyclists engage in mock-combat games. Bicycle enthusiasts are active in the Portland Free Geek community as well.

In fact, Repa suggests that free software and cycling advocates have a natural affinity. Bicycling activists, he says, "have a lot in common with Linux users. It's the whole idea of do-it-yourself. You use your body to get to work, you do repairs yourself. A bicycle is very in-your-face. You can customize them. A car is a bit like Microsoft [operating systems]. You have to take it to somebody to fix it, and you don't really know what's going on."

Even more importantly, free software and cycling enthusiasts share common values. "Most bicyclists are anti-corporate, anti-establishment," Repa says. "They see the value in people helping people, and in developing their own ways, and not just going out and buying a packaged deal."

Repa values the contacts and experience in consensual decision-making that bicycle activists bring to Free Geek. At the same time, he stresses, "I don't want to alienate anyone. There are people from conservative groups in Free Geek as well. When you want to build community, you can't not have people come from all different walks of life. Because then it becomes a clique. It becomes elitist, and Linux has to beat that kind of reputation. A lot of people on the outside think that you have to be really smart to run Linux."

Besides, a large and active community is "like having a million eyes and ears out there," Repa says. Without one, he worries that Free Geek Vancouver might miss possibilities for growth and organization.

To encourage the growth of the community, Free Geek Vancouver, like the Portland chapter, has consensual decision-making written into its bylaws, including so-called safe-space rules designed to ensure that no one is intimidated by other members of the group. "I think when people come to our meetings, it's a new experience for them to understand the consensus process," Repa says. "Most people are used to being told what to do or putting their hands up. That's where the activist volunteers, who have been doing it for years, come in handy."

Building a community

As a new community, Free Geek spends much of its time writing grant applications and looking for funding sources. The group derives some income from donations and selling some of the more recent computers that it refurbishes, but its finances are still unsettled. Repa himself is surviving on "very minimal amounts" from his parents and a friend who wishes to be anonymous. Eventually, he hopes to be paid as the coordinator of Free Geek Vancouver, but for now he says that "I'm putting the facilities and the events before my wages. I really want us to have a facility before I even get a pay cheque."

Currently running out of Repa's apartment and a temporary storage location, Free Geek is most concerned right now with finding a permanent location for its recycling program. "What we really need is space to operate," Repa says, "and preferably space that is donated, so that we don't have to worry about office rents right away." While waiting to hear back from the mayor of Vancouver about whether the city can help, the group has picked out several potential sites for its headquarters.

"Once we have a building as a focus point," Repa is convinced, "I think we're going to see our numbers jump." Between charging nominal amounts for recycling and selling some parts at a thrift store, he envisions Free Geek Vancouver will be self-sustaining "in three to five years."

Yet despite still being in the middle of organizing, Free Geek Vancouver is already active. In addition to its general meetings, the group holds free software clinics it calls Windowless Wednesdays, as well as movie nights featuring material related to its goals.

Members also spend considerable time making presentations to other technology groups, such as the local user groups and organizations like the Vancouver Community Network, a group whose goal is to provide free accessibility to computers and the Internet. The group has already received corporate donations of computers, and is hoping to make more connections in the local business community by attending trade fairs such as the recent Massive Technology Show.

Amidst all this organizational and outreach work, Free Geek Vancouver even finds time for its main purposes, and a trickle of computers loaded with free software has started to go out.

"To see someone get excited and learn something, that's what I do it for," Repa says. "It's not the hardware, or Linux. It's leading someone so that they can turn on someone else themselves."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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