As I See It: Born Again Computers
October 29, 2012 Victor Rozek
Small business start-ups have a notoriously short half-life. And non-profits are even less likely to thrive. With the ascendency of Wall Street-style greed, doing good fell out of fashion, and packing a conscience became regarded as more hindrance than help. But in an era when those most blessed by fortune have backed away from communal responsibility, it is still possible for empathy to bind with hard work and create an enterprise that is both successful and honorable.
One such enterprise not only provides a valuable service but, within its sphere of influence, is also addressing stubborn social challenges and a persistent environmental problem. The woman behind the endeavor is Lorraine Kerwood. Ostensibly, she is in the recycling business, although it can be argued that recycling has become a means to a greater end. Kerwood developed a Main Street solution to a problem that has reached global proportions: what to do with obsolete computer technology.
Hidden away in closets, basements, and garages, are piles of outdated hardware: old computers, retired printers, monitors, modems, disc drives, cables, keyboards and mice. As we all know too well, computer technology has but a fleeting usefulness. Today’s latest and greatest is supplanted by tomorrow’s must have. Even as a new system is being unboxed, a fresh generation of computers is already expanding the playing field.
When Americans finally get around to cleaning out their storage spaces, the disposal of e-waste becomes globalized. The graveyard of obsolete electronic components is not confined to the local landfill, although well over 100 million computer products are buried annually leaching poisons into groundwater. Boatloads of discards are also shipped to places governed by desperation. Accara, Ghana; Lagos, Nigeria; Delhi, India; and Guiyu, China, are the preferred dumping grounds for domestic e-waste. In these distant locations, mountains of hardware are sorted and disassembled for bits of gold, copper, lead, and other reusable materials. The workers are often children, and they toil without safety or environmental regulations. Circuit boards must be heated to free the metals, and the fumes are highly toxic. Leftover plastic is incinerated and the poisons seep into the air and water. Children suffer extremely high levels of lead poisoning, and 82 percent of the kids in Guiyu are considered clinically poisoned. Shantou University, located nearby, reports that the city “has the highest level of cancer-causing dioxins in the world.” And that’s understated. The levels are about 5,000 percent higher than what is considered safe.
Kerwood had a better idea and, paradoxically, it was born of feeling stupid. As a child, Kerwood was not a good student. Her struggles landed her in “special education” classes where all she learned was that others were superior and that she was not smart enough to compete. For 25 years she worked at menial jobs, until a car accident forced her to consider retraining. But that meant going back to school and she was terrified of learning to use a computer. Computers weren’t for her. That’s what “smart people” used.
Serendipitously, at about the same time, Kerwood was diagnosed with Aspergers syndrome. Ordinarily, “serendipitous” would be a peculiar choice of words given the circumstances. But in this instance it was accurate. For most people, such a diagnosis would be crushing, but for Kerwood it was as if the key missing piece of the puzzle suddenly dropped into place. “It was one of the greatest moments in my life,” Kerwood recounts. “It explained the world to me. I discovered my intelligence and capabilities. For that, I am forever grateful.”
Armed with a better understanding of herself and her condition, Kerwood enrolled at the University of Oregon and graduated Magna Cum Laude. She went to work for the Department of Child Welfare determined to help children in circumstances similar to her own. When her first computer died, she discovered an aptitude for fixing hardware. She began scavenging for used systems, refurbishing them, and gifting the computers to children and families who could not afford to buy one. It didn’t take long to discover that the demand far exceeded the supply.
What started as a workshop in her garage in 1999 moved into a warehouse in 2004 and became what is now known as NextStep. Today, Kerwood commands 35,000 square feet of space in two locations, employs 33 people and is supported by a dedicated group of volunteers. Since its inception, NextStep has recycled over 10 million pounds of electronic waste, safely and responsibly. What materials she cannot reuse, are packaged and shipped to R-2 and e-Steward certified disposal centers that use the latest technology including shredders, magnets, and optical lasers to further disassemble components and turn waste into energy and benign byproducts.
Reusable components are refurbished and assembled into functioning systems. NextStep returned nearly 30,000 renovated computers back into the community. “With just a little refurbishing,” says Kerwood, “a laptop’s life can be extended three or four years.” The organization gifts these computers directly to “children and adults living in foster care, persons experiencing disabilities, family members leaving violent relationships, migrant worker families, under-funded schools, and nonprofits.” What remains is sold at extremely affordable prices.
But what Kerwood values most is the opportunity to offer training to some of the more neglected segments of her community. Based on her own experience, she understood that–because of her condition–her potential had been vastly undervalued. She became determined to honor the “brilliance” resident in everyone. Toward that end, NextStep trains low income, disadvantaged, and at risk people. That includes people who were thought to be unemployable, and those who are underemployed or simply new to the job market. Some have physical or mental disabilities, and some come with their own support people. But no one is turned away.
The training programs are tailored to each individual’s goals and abilities. Participants can learn about the inner workings of a computer and participate in dismantling, refurbishing, and rebuilding systems. Achieving computer literacy is perhaps the most valuable component of the training. Jobs requiring information technology skills pay nearly 80 percent more than the average private sector wage. For people who previously had limited access to the benefits of technology, a laptop can become life-transforming. Computers have also proven to be friendly communication tools for autistic people who normally find social situations daunting. So, in recognition for having participated in the program, trainees are gifted a computer.
For her efforts Lorraine Kerwood has earned numerous awards and commendations, and NextStep has become a model for technology recycling both at home and abroad. Currently, she is being honored as one of L’Oreal Paris 2012 Women of Worth: “everyday women making an extraordinary difference.”
Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote: “I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.”
Although Tagore died before Kerwood was born, I think he and Lorraine would have been great friends.