Computers with a Cause: Behind the Scenes with Tech Exchange

By: Christopher Jackson
November 15, 2019
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Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes
Seth Hubbert shares some background about Tech Exchange in the volunteer space of their warehouse.
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On November 6, ESAL co-hosted a happy hour with Tech Exchange, a nonprofit in Oakland, California tackling the digital divide. The event included a tour of the Tech Exchange warehouse, where they refurbish electronic equipment for distribution. Subscribe to our newsletter for notifications of future events.

Hidden deep inside a gray, unassuming building in West Oakland, it’s easy to miss Tech Exchange’s warehouse if you’re not looking for it. Unlike their new Tech Hub, a community center in Oakland that provides affordable computers, internet, tech support, and digital skills training, the warehouse is rarely seen by the public. Tech Exchange recently opened their doors to ESAL and local community members for an in-depth look at how their work gets done.

The first thing that strikes you upon entering the warehouse are the towering shelves that fill the space, neatly filled and organized with desktop computers, laptops, monitors, and accessories. This inventory is at the core of Tech Exchange’s mission to address the digital divide in the Bay Area, where over 20% of residents don’t have computers and 30% don’t have broadband Internet access at home. Given the proximity to Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world, “it’s disturbing that we let these numbers happen in our own backyard,” emphasizes Executive Director Seth Hubbert. Tech Exchange offers a full spectrum of support by providing computers, signing people up for Internet, hosting classes and workshops on digital skills, and acting as a trusted tech support partner in the community. To do this, they go to wherever the need is, hosting events in communities throughout California while still providing a full slate of services at their Tech Hub.

The warehouse serves not only as a space for computer storage and refurbishing, but also as a home to Tech Exchange’s workforce development programs. “The community benefit is baked into every aspect of our model,” explains Hubbert. Surrounded by boxes of equipment, the warehouse is where their volunteers, interns, and staff transform donated equipment into quality, high-performing computers for distribution. Volunteers help sort and clean equipment when donations come in, and can earn their own computers for 10-30 hours of service. Next, all computers get an update, adding memory, software, and transforming them into functioning, high quality devices - for this work, Tech Exchange hires interns, giving them valuable technical training that has led to employment at companies like Apple, Ubisoft, and Tech Exchange itself.

Finally, the refurbished computers go out, distributed through community events and the Tech Hub, and sold to outside groups such as businesses and school districts. Through a  combination of grants and profits from sales, Tech Exchange is then able to subsidize free computers for those who can’t afford them. Since they were founded almost 25 years ago, Tech Exchange has given away around 7,000 computers. Beyond the benefits of technology, this model has prevented the emission of tens of thousands of metric tons of pollutants thanks to the reuse of materials, reduction of environmental toxins, and energy savings from manufacturing. “Every dollar that comes in gives back to our planet $1.33 in environmental benefit”, explains Hubbert.

Walking around the Tech Exchange warehouse, it’s amazing how such a relatively small team has used their technical knowledge and community organizing to build such an impressive program in their local community. If you’re located in the Bay Area, they are always looking for donations and volunteers to help them continue this work! No matter where you live, you can find groups like Tech Exchange through ESAL’s Local STEM Database to help you take that first step and get engaged in your local community.

You can find Seth Hubbert's presentation on digital access in Oakland and Tech Exchange's work here. For more information on Tech Exchange, please read our interview with Hubbert from our Local STEM series.

Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 11/15/19
Updated: 03/27/23
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