Bridging the Santa Cruz Digital Divide

Through the Pacific Avenue doors of Santa Cruz’s computer repair and training co-op the Computer Kitchen, visitors find a modest, somewhat shabby space populated by gray Dell towers and clamshell iBooks, like an Island of Misfit Toys for discarded tech. But though these computers have been replaced in the market by sleeker, more powerful models, they’re far from useless. For Santa Cruz residents stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, they present opportunity. Founded in 2009 by former UCSC students Robert Sese and Dan Devorkin, the Computer Kitchen takes a DIY approach to bridging the divide and saving operational equipment from the trash heap.
Inspired in part by the bike repair co-op The Bike Church, with which the Computer Kitchen shares a space, Sese, Devorkin and four volunteers train walk-ins in basic computer skills. During one-on-one sessions, the Computer Kitchen team teaches a wide range of skills, from Microsoft Office basics to swapping out hard drives. “It feels really good when people come in here and are like, ‘Listen, I’m going to lose my job if I can’t figure this out,’ or ‘I can’t get a job because I don’t know how to use a computer,’ and we can help them,” Devorkin says. “Some people come in wanting to learn how to install Angry Birds on their iPhone, and we’re happy to help people with that, but it’s definitely more rewarding when people want to empower themselves and learn new skills that are going to improve their lives.”

The co-op’s newest initiative is to enter classrooms and educate students about the inner workings of computer hardware. During the first Build a Computer workshop in March, Sese and Devorkin went to the Leonard Herman School in San Jose and taught a high school class how to re-assemble and boot a desktop computer. “The students were able to assemble working desktop computers from the parts we brought with the help of our volunteers and the teacher,” Sese says. “We’re currently exploring the idea of holding similar workshops at other schools in the Santa Cruz area.”

Community education is only half of the Computer Kitchen’s charter. With e-waste becoming an increasingly high-profile environmental issue, and cash-strapped non-profits reeling from the recession, the Computer Kitchen also repairs donated computers and grants them to local non-profits, including the Homeless Services Center, Positive Action Community Theater and the Homeless Garden Project. Irreparable donated equipment is recycled through Santa Clara’s ECS Refining.

The education and donation initiatives complement each other. By repurposing old equipment and giving people the tools to operate and repair their own systems, the Computer Kitchen extends the life of hardware while educating the users.

“When we walk people through the process, they may not know exactly what happened,” Devorkin says, “but they pressed all the keys and have made an inch of progress toward being less intimated by the computer.” “What we’re doing is all about reuse and extending the life of technology that’s perfectly good,” Sese adds.

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