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Interview: Oso Martin on how Free Geek redirects 500 tons of computers from landfills to humans each year

,    /   Aug 12th, 2010Interviews, Tech

Oso Martin, founder of the Portland, OR-based recycling collective Free Geek, combines three problems and comes up with a solution. “Some people have too many computers; others don’t have enough,” he told us. “And there is a glut of computers going to landfills. Mash those together, and the solution is Free Geek.”

Every year Free Geek receives over 500 tons of used computers, which might otherwise end up leaching toxins into landfills. Instead, Free Geek recruits hundreds of volunteers to fix the computers that are salvageable and recycle the ones that are not. Refurbished computers are donated, sold at the Free Geek thrift shop, or gifted to volunteers. The model has already inspired nine replications across the U.S. and Canada.

Dowser: How did you come up with the idea for Free Geek?
Martin: In 2000, I was volunteering for an organization called City Repair and realized something could be done with all of the junky, old computers people had donated to them.

At the time, we were working on an Earth Day Coalition project with several different organizations, and while we were having a meeting, I made this off-hand comment that I was going to take those computers, fix them up, and give them to activists so they can have access to the Internet.

Just an innocent off-hand comment, huh?
Well, the next morning the campaign director of Green House Network called me and said, ‘I told the executive director about your idea. He wants to give you a check for $250 to file for your 501(c)(3) status, and we have 50 computers at Lewis and Clark College that you can have.’

I literally ran out the door that morning and sat down with a friend to brainstorm the entire premise of using volunteer energy and cast-off computers to give people computers and keep them out of the landfill.

So, you had the idea; how did you get the ball rolling with funding?
I came up with the name ‘Free Geek’ in a mad rush of coffee and immediately went online and bought the domain name ‘freegeek.org.’

I had a website up a few days later and, in two weeks time, I got an email from somebody saying, ‘I’ve seen your website and was thinking about starting something very similar. Why don’t you come down to my office this week and we’ll chat.’ Long story short, at the end of that meeting I had $35,000 worth of start-up funding.

So far it sounds like you got caught in a whirlwind of serendipity. What happened next?
It didn’t take very long for things to take off. At the end of January I had the idea, by February I had received funding, and by the middle of August we’d signed a lease on a space.

I was lucky because it was the right thing at the right time. Nobody was doing computer refurbishing on such a large scale and using open-source software, and being in Portland made it a lot easier to use a community-based approach.

And the rest is history?
It’s really funny to look at where we are now. In six years, we went from a $72,000 budget to an organization with a $75,000 surplus. That’s phenomenal growth for an organization that relies almost exclusively on self-generated funds.

You volunteered in many capacities before starting Free Geek. How has that experience helped you run your own nonprofit?
Most of the lessons I learned volunteering were applied to Free Geek, like the idea that you don’t need a lot of resources. If people are excited about an idea, all of the other things will take care of themselves.

We had a situation where we didn’t have any money, so we used a whiteboard to write our needs on—cleaning supplies, fluorescent light bulbs, food, whatever—and stuff would just get donated by the community or volunteers who wanted to see this thing succeed.

Free Geek uses a consensus decision-making process. Have you faced challenges using this structure?
When we started, we taught each volunteer group the concept of consensus. We realized, however, that sometimes people were deciding things that didn’t make any sense for them to be deciding.

After a tumultuous internal conflict, we split the responsibilities into three smaller, consensus-based groups: the staff doing operations, the board handling legal and financial responsibilities, and the council being a bridge between all of those things and the larger community.

How did the organization become a worker collective?
It came about because there were no resources. One day some full-time volunteers who had started when we were just six months old came to me and said, ‘We can’t do this anymore. We’ve got to go back to work.’

At that point, there was a little bit of money from grants we had from start-up, so I said, ‘Here is what we can do. I am going to hire you guys on and we can split the money we’ve got here three ways.’ That came out to $900 a month. Everyone was putting in at least a 40-hour work week, but we had complete autonomy and were the decision-making group.

Are you still making $900 a month?
As the staff expanded, wages went up a little. It’s not much over $11 an hour at this point, but it comes with full health care. Ultimately, being your own boss is very appealing. People are willing to take less money in exchange for their day not feeling so frustrating.

Learn More:

What advice would you give to someone who finds your work inspiring?
Give stuff away without knowing how you’re going to get paid back, and have faith that doing good work for the sake of doing good work will pay off.

You don’t necessarily need to come up with a business plan that solves the bottom line. You have to be cognizant of that, but it’s more about finding something that will cause people to want to give their energy in exchange for whatever you are giving them. It won’t be without its struggles, but Free Geek has been a really amazing experience, and it makes me extremely happy to be a part of this organization.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Julie Furbush for Dowser

One Response

  1. Clay says:

    Great place, great program, great computers. I dropped off two computers and bought a rebuilt computer to learn Ubuntu operating system.

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