The Baltimore Mayor’s Office and the Baltimore City Office of Information Technology partnered with local nonprofit, PCs for People, to provide low-income families with refurbished computers. (Courtesy of PCs for People)

By Nadine Matthews
Special to the AFRO

Under the leadership of Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, the city is simultaneously reducing waste and taking concrete steps to bridge the digital divide that threatens to rob scores of  African-Americans of numerous opportunities

Scott told the AFRO that the Mayor’s Office and Baltimore City Office of Information Technology has recently entered into partnership with the nonprofit PCs for People, that allows city agencies to donate computers and electronic devices to low income students and families.

PCs For People was founded over 20 years ago by a Minnesota social worker who saw the dramatic improvement in some of his clients’ lives after receiving computers. It has branches in a number of cities around the country. PCs For People also partners with many other entities, including Johns Hopkins University and Whiting Turner.

PCs For People’s Executive Director Gary Bonner explained, “In Baltimore, there are 75,000 households that do not have desktops, laptops, or internet service.” He further explains that their economic status indicates how much of a hardship it is for them to acquire these devices on their own. “Roughly 40%,” he said, “make less than a living wage.”

Speaking to the real life impacts of lack of access to technology, Scott said, “If you don’t have a functioning device, you can’t do basic things like apply for a job or undergo the training the job may require. Having one device that has to be shared between three or four children means they have to pick and choose who gets to learn that day. Imagine having a medical condition where you have to consistently meet with your doctor and during COVID, can’t do telemedicine.”

Ironically, it was a technological mishap in the city’s municipal agencies last year that led to the initiative. Numerous city agency technological devices were found to have been infiltrated by ransomware.  The issuing of new devices out of an abundance of caution, led to a surplus of older devices. 

Because the city also has a goal of creating “zero waste,” it sought a solution in line with that. Kenya Asli, Business Process Strategist at Baltimore City Office of Information Technology (BCIT) informed the AFRO, “These devices were sitting in what I’d call a computer graveyard, so we streamlined the approval process to donate them.” Scott adds, “By donating the devices, we are extending the life of the raw materials that are used to create them. We’re moving into a future where we’re no longer just burning our trash but reimagining how to reuse and repurpose it.”

In addition to the devices, families need access to the internet itself, a need PCs For People addresses as well. Bonner  explains that they provide internet access to 96,000 families in addition to the 124,000 to whom they provide devices. Scott points out that the Mayor’s Office is working on its own initiative to address access to broadband. “You’ll be hearing from my office in the near future about how we’re thinking about digital equity in its entirety, in a very big way.”

Once the devices are donated, hard drives are wiped clean and the parts are refashioned into new devices. These are then distributed from PCs For People’s retail location at 2901 East Biddle Street . A donation of $30 to $80 from recipients is suggested, but not mandatory. “We suggest the donation,” Bonner states, “as part of the dignity and respect approach to how we serve people and we also want them invested in perpetuating the ability of those who come behind them to get a computer as well.”

Eligibility criteria Bonner explains is “200% of poverty or below or receiving some type of service from the social safety net such as the Food Program, or unemployment. Children must be attending a Title One school.”

In addition to availing themselves of the services of PCs For People, there are other things families and individuals can do to make sure they aren’t left behind in the digital age. “Let your voice be heard,” says Scott, “about why you need access to devices and high speed internet so you can function for your family.” Bonner emphasizes that individuals should also advocate at their schools. “The use of technology and the learning process has to be more than giving the child a Chromebook. The instructional design of how we deliver learning; leveraging digital assets in teaching History, in teaching English, etc. has to become a public policy priority.”