Chicago Free Geek and other volunteering thoughts

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Tue 26 February 2008

I've been feeling a lot lately that I haven't been making enough of a social contribution as of late. I'd like to give back in ways that I feel best use my talents, and I've been thinking a lot about open source and all the good that comes with software freedom.

So this last Sunday I took a trip along with a friend of mine to the Chicago Free Geek (which is just one of a larger family of Free Geek groups). The Free Geek movement is one with a quite noble cause; volunteers there take donated old computers and construct working computers out of the old parts, salvaging what works and recycling what doesn't. The new computers they build from the old parts are then installed with the Xubuntu GNU/Linux distribution. (Xubuntu is really just Ubuntu with XFCE as its default desktop. XFCE's a bit faster and leaner than GNOME, the otherwise default Ubuntu desktop). These computers then make their way mostly to people who couldn't otherwise afford them, either by being sold for ultra-cheap (the money then goes toward recycling the unusable parts and upkeep) or through a program where individuals can earn computers by helping with the recycling and building for a number of hours.

In short, it's a damn cool group, and I really enjoyed being there. The location's a bit grungier than I expected (even though I expected grungy). It's in the middle of a bit of a basement, and it was a bit cramped, but it seems that it wasn't always that way; if I understand what I was being told, the gate surrounding the work area was only recently put up by the landlord (I wasn't told why... funding?). Not all the computer parts were moved into the gate yet, and I'm not quite sure how they were going to get it all in. One of the volunteer staff pointed to a large pile of parts, informing me that, once they recycled those, they'd be able to fit more within the space, but they needed to raise more money before they could do so.

Despite things being a bit cramped an grungy, I really did enjoy the work. It was very much so hardware related. That's not outside my area of knowledge... I was a datacenter monkey at my previous job... but I must admit that I much prefer the area in which I currently work, that of software development. I'll probably be coming back for some more volunteering, but I can't help but feel that my skills are better suited for a much more software-oriented approach to activism. I really do believe in the empowerment that free software brings, and I'd like to spread that empowerment to more people. I've been thinking quite a bit that the bringing free software to education is probably the most important and useful route I could follow.

I am considering contacting some of the more underfunded schools in the area to see how I can help. Not too long ago, some other volunteering led to discussions with a principal who seemed interested in taking this route. I am going to try to contact him, and see where that takes me. When more happens, I will write about it here.

In the meanwhile, that friend of mine has been volunteering at a local community computer center, and has begun to install Linux there. Perhaps I will visit there and continue to volunteer at the local Free Geek chapter as I continue to figure out this education thread.