Street Smart Chicago

411: Community-Aided Design

Green, Logan Square Add comments

Danarvis Mitchell doesn’t own a computer. Actually, she doesn’t really know how to use computers either. Here’s what Mitchell can’t do: touch-type, email, or look for a job online. Here’s what she can do: test your hard drive to make sure it works, use Linux to wipe your hard drive, and navigate the maze of computer innards at Free Geek. Free Geek is a nonprofit in a basement in Logan Square that provides free, refurbished desktops to people willing to donate twenty-four hours of their time. Walking down the steep stairs of Free Geek is like descending into the insides of a computer: hard drives, motherboards and wires reach out from every shelf. Mitchell says her friend Donica Lyles dragged her here, all the way up from Gary, Indiana, to learn how to use a computer and build one she can keep. Mitchell says she got along fine without a computer in the past, but since she and Lyles got laid off from the casino they worked at, she realized she needs to learn computer skills so she can file for unemployment benefits online and search for jobs. At an OpenBuild session, Mitchell and Lyles chat and test hard drives, getting help from “super-volunteers”—people who continue helping out at Free Geek even after building their own computers. At first, Lyles says, she was nervous about working on computers alongside experts. Many of them are computer whizzes who want to learn more, help out others, and maybe add something to their resume. But, Lyles says, “If you don’t know [about computers], they don’t have any problems with that.” Free Geek describes itself as a “democratically run organization that uses consensus for decision-making,” and it’s hard to tell the super-volunteers apart from the Luddites. They’re all there to gain a better understanding of computers, whether it’s learning how to turn them on or program them. (Ella Christoph)

Donate old computers and equipment, buy a PC for $40, or earn a computer, and vast computer knowledge, by committing to twenty-four hours of volunteer time. Free Geek, 3411 West Diversey, (773)451-7130,

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