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The Goon Squad: Geeks Out to Save the World!

‘Gatekeepers’ for the information age.


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It is hard to consider our individual lives devoid of computers. Without one, you would not be ‘in touch’ with your daily tasks, your work, your news, weather or finances. You would not be ‘talking’ to your friends, getting your entertainment, purchasing from your vendors or reading this! We can safely say that computers are ubiquitous. They are the ‘gatekeepers’ for the information age and the Internet. Not having access to the Internet moves you into a sub-class of citizen that is completely out of touch.

If you’re not on-line due to your financial situation, your chances of being able to pull yourself out of that situation are greatly impeded. Many job application processes are only available on-line. Unable to connect with the educated, informed, empowered world, you would be barred from involvement at all levels. According to the Ann E Casey Foundation, in the state of Georgia alone, 45% – 57% of the households have no access to internet nor a computer in the home. Of the people living at or below poverty in Savannah, GA, 78% are ‘not connected’ other than by access at school or in the public library.

Shocking statistics you might think, but let me add another disconcerting fact; in this technology-driven society, we have been driven to constantly upgrade our computers with such veracity that in the US  alone, according to a recent Gartner Research paper, we throw out 133,000 PCs EVERY DAY! In many instances, these are 4 – 6 year old computers with plenty of usable life in them along with keyboards, monitors and mice. Hold on!  We are throwing something away that is in complete shortage just down the street? A simple oversight you may think, or maybe it’s just way too complicated?

Well it’s not that complicated. The PCs just need to be cleaned, their hard drives wiped of all data and licensed software, to a Department of Defense or HIPPA standard and some fresh, new empowering operating systems and software installed. Labor intensive you might say…and it is.

So let me introduce you again to All Walks of Life Inc., a Savannah organization that uses education to expose at-risk youth to a new world of possibilities, while keeping them out of trouble during the hours they are most vulnerable. AWOL’s mission is . . .to promote and provide self-awareness through the use of Poetry, Hip Hop, and Life. This mission is accomplished by providing youth with safe and free arts and technology based educational programs. The organization’s main goal is to successfully develop youth in an environment that encourages respect, education, creativity and most of all non-violence.

AWOL powers the whole effort with Savannah’s at-risk youth, with referrals from organizations such as Juvenile Justice programs and others. They are bright, eager and darned interested in computers. They get to learn about showing up on time, how to field-strip a typical PC, hardware assembly and testing, fault finding and software installation and configuration as well as the less glorious hard kraft of collecting and delivering. These kids can be on their way to a job servicing PCs and beyond as we move the program towards accreditation with a local technical college early next year .

We have three points on a sustainable triangle here… 1) something that nobody wants – a horrible bi-product of our technology age, 2) a huge digital divide that drives a wedge between those that can and those that can’t and 3) a remarkable labor force and resource that wants to pull themselves up, learn some new skills and contribute. This is AWOL’s Reboot-Re-Use program, better known as The Goon Squad.

Our process of triage is in two main phases. We first determine the computers usefulness simply by its specification. It’s entered into our database and after the hard drive is removed, it is either destined for refurbishment or recycling. Our recycling partner is GoodWill Industries who provide us with a responsible, domestic recycling option. If the machine is to be refurbished it enters a workflow of cleaning, preparation and configuration and is matched up with a hard drive from our software install and duplication process. We provide RAM if needed and then install zero-cost open source Linux Ubuntu Operating systems, complete with a super-friendly, easy-to-use windowed desktop environment. The machine is then tested, tagged and ready to go.

We provide all the tools that computer users need including: a full suite of Open Office word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software. A collection of media programs for CD/DVD playing and creating. Over a dozen games. Firefox internet browser, an email client and even an instant messenger and Twitter client. PLUS direct access from a menu to a Software Store where you can download over 2,000 software programs for free and install or uninstall them with a single click. We provide every user with a awolmail.com email address and set them up with a google docs account connected to their email. For the icing on the cake, 2 Gigabytes of storage space per user in the Ubuntu One Cloud. To this we add a couple of hours of hands-on training and access to an active forum to get any future questions answered and they are off!

Our original ambitions of 20 computers per week has far been exceeded. We are now in a relationship with the local Board of Education to receive their old PCs, some 13,000 over 4 years. We have received over 500 machines to-date and deployed machines in people’s homes, in churches and community centers. Our initial test program was supported by Cricket Wireless who generously provided us with 25 USB wireless cards for internet access and we are now providing machines to customers with AT&T Bell South DSL and Comcast high-speed internet. Both services offer an affordable entry-level service. We are also providing machines for the City’s WiFi program to be deployed along the Martin Luther King corridor in conjunction with SDRA and Seimitsu and funded by a grant from the Georgia Technology Authority.

It is an ongoing program growing in leaps and bounds with the help of volunteers and local businesses that have provided us with financial support to purchase RAM and disk duplication equipment. The systems are in place with a defined number of operational procedures and processes and we are looking forward to the program growing in exponentially in the coming year.

This program is exciting at so many levels. It’s helping redirect e-waste reducing the load on our landfills, it’s closing a shameful divide that exits in our information-based society and most important of all, it’s providing an opportunity for at-risk youth to keep themselves out of the social landfill.

Hip Hop!

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Hopefully by now you’ve noticed (and supported!) the 2K Strong Campaign. The Goon Squad is one of the programs that will be funded by those donations. If you’ve not already done so, please consider donating to this great cause and invite your friends to do the same.
Tax break + Sustainability + Social Responsibility = 2K Strong
– Susan Isaacs

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