Bridging the Digital Divide with Free Geek Toronto

This Labour Day, we’re shining the spotlight on a special social enterprise that helps bridge the digital divide in Toronto.

Free Geek is a network of organizations that promotes social and economic justice by providing technical skills and recycled computers to people who wouldn’t have access to such tools otherwise. Free Geek originated in Portland, Oregon, in 2000, and it has grown to encompass several locations across North America; the Toronto branch opened in 2009.

Donating e-waste

“We all operate as individual organizations, but share the same foundation of what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Yiorgos Boudouris, general manager of Free Geek Toronto. “We get e-waste donations from individuals, and people across Toronto donate hardware of all ages.” Free Geek also often receives donations from businesses that upgrade their entire staff with new computers. “We look at all of the e-waste that comes in and decide what can we refurbish to sell to low-income families and individuals.”

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Complimentary computer access

In addition to providing affordable hardware and software training, Free Geek Toronto provides complimentary computer and Wi-Fi access in their drop-in centre. Users from a range of backgrounds come into the centre, from seniors to teenagers. “When we talk about the digital divide, it does affect everyone who comes from a low-income background,” explains Yiorgos. “High-school kids are being told to bring their own devices to school, but if you’re from a low-income family then you probably don’t have your own device at home.” Similarly, he says, “If you are a senior, then you haven’t grown up using computers on the daily level that’s really required now.”

Training for the community

This fall, Free Geek Toronto is launching community workshops that are open to 100 people with low digital literacy. The workshops will run for a year and help participants become familiar with using the internet and software programs, such as Microsoft Word, and staying safe online. “We’ll teach them all of the necessary skills to help them in their everyday lives, especially if they are online looking for jobs,” says Yiorgos.

Working with Square

Free Geek Toronto also works with people who have faced barriers to employment in the past, such as mental or physical disabilities. Over the course of the year, these 13 team members join various parts of the organization, including helping with sales at the front desk. “One of the benefits [of] using Square for our point-of-sale system is that it’s very easy to explain,” says Yiorgos. “When we have someone helping us process a purchase who hasn’t worked in a retail space before, we don’t have to worry. Square makes it very easy.”

Spreading the message

Free Geek Toronto’s individual supporters enjoy knowing that their recycled e-waste gets passed along to those in need. Now, the team wants to partner with more local businesses to work on larger-scale e-waste donations, while highlighting the environmental importance of recycling. “Being a non-profit means we are always concerned with being sustainable and making sure we’re doing enough both for the community and to generate sales to keep us going,” says Yiorgos. “We want share the message that it’s important to recycle your e-waste, while looking for outreach opportunities.”

To donate your e-waste or find out more about Free Geek Toronto, visit them at freegeektoronto.org.

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