FreeGeek Chicago Rethinks Itself

The following is an internal email written by David Eads to the rest of the people who collaborate on making FreeGeek Chicago what it is.

For the last five years FreeGeek has operated a computer workshop and recycling center that offers classes to anyone who wants to learn more about using or building computers. They are connected to the Free Software movement and try to utilize only free software in their work, such as the Linux operating system. The Logan Square-based organization serves as the local branch of a growing network of FreeGeek groups in cities across the United States. Several days a week people from all over the city can be found in the basement of 3411 W. Diversey Ave. learning and teaching each other how computers work and utilizing a unique “Community Council" to make organizational decisions. Find out more information at freegeekchicago.org—Daniel Tucker

 

———- Forwarded message ———-

From: David Eads XXXXX@XXXXXXXX.com

Date: Fri, Apr 23, 2010 at 12:52 PM

Subject: A long and chewy planning email…

To: freegeekchicago-talk@XXXXXXXXX.com

 

Hey everybody. 

 

What follows is an extra long email/essay/planning document/manifesto thing that I’ve been working on for a while now. 

 

After the first community council meeting, as people were shuffling out, Casanova said to me and several others: “FreeGeek is going to grow if we want to or not." He was right. FreeGeek Chicago is, in many ways, thriving. At the same time, growth is not really a choice for us: I think we’d all like to cast a wider net and build a sturdier foundation for the organization, and it seems like every week more people come to us in need of cheap technology and technology education. We’re providing something useful, and everybody wants a little more of it.

 

The next few months could be among the most dramatic in our five year history. On the one hand, we are potentially within a few weeks of being able to hire, if we want, our first paid staff person. We made a major recycling run. Everything about the space has improved. We’re about to launch educational programming. Community council is going strong. The network is better. The classroom is cleaned out and almost ready to go. Internet service is on its way. Taxes are gonna get done, thankfully.

 

What’s missing is adequate coordination, management, and planning.

 

So where are we going?

 

FreeGeek Chicago is a community, and institution, and a business in a regional economic ecosystem. We are devoted to applying open source values at a practical, social level. We are, in some ways, a service organization, but our model is closer to that of a mutual aid society?or settlement house for the Internet age. We work to gently radicalize the way people think about the information technology they must use in their daily lives, while giving practical, sound advice to people who need it.

 

My long term vision is for a true institution to emerge from FreeGeek’s current state. In the next five to ten years, I’d love to see a FreeGeek that is at the forefront of combining the knowledge of the corner with the knowledge of free software geeks, and to continue to build a powerful and unique combination of perspectives, talents, and tools. And I’d love to see a FreeGeek that is making wise choices for our future that will allow us to survive, to adapt, and to continue to make a difference in the years that follow.

 

Ultimately, this vision of FreeGeek is a deceptively simple one: stability and sustainability on a modest scale, careful growth, and an ability to adapt and evolve over time while affirming and struggling with a core set of humanist, communitarian values. The problem of course, is how you make it happen, day after day.

 

The need for coordination

 

To achieve some version of this vision (or any other we decide on), we desperately need better planning and process. We’ve made some great strides over the past year on this front, which we’ve discussed before, and is evident from some of our successes since last summer.

 

A major obstacle to planning is that information is not flowing as it should through our organization. Recently, both Dee and Taylor had to skip a few days, and came back to find things in new places, new recycling bins, and all sorts of other changes. Nobody really communicated the changes that were made, except to others on the ground at the time. (Note that I’m as a guilty of this as anybody at FreeGeek, if not more.)

 

I believe we are at the point where we need a floor manager whose primary job is to take notes on what happens during a given FreeGeek build day, get reports from various folks, and provide a little update to the community every week or two about what’s going on. At the same time, the floor manager should have a good idea of what everybody should be working on, and what top priorities should be in any given program area. FreeGeek needs people who will shepherd our processes and make the community visible to itself.

 

It is my hope that collecting, synthesizing, and distributing organization-wide information will make FreeGeek more open, participatory, and democratic, because we’ll be able to plan better. When there is data (i.e. “laptop donations are lagging" or “Eads isn’t doing his job very well!"), choices become better defined and more real. And the questions we are now facing will very likely unearth unforeseen frictions and cause some conflicts and frustrations. That’s a good thing, if we handle it well.

 

Roles

 

There’s really no choice: Some of the burden of running the organization is going to need to get spread out because of staffing changes. Because we’re growing quickly these days, we’re going to need to specialize a bit and take on more discrete roles.

 

There are a whole bunch of roles we must consider for FreeGeek.

 

Must-have roles: These are mainly operational and legally specified roles (i.e. laptop room coordinator, board member for tax purposes). There are a few trickier ones lurking in the shadows, as well, like the need for Spanish language capacity—not exactly a role, necessarily, but a major need.

 

The must-have roles and must-do tasks seem to me to be THE fundamental topic of discussion for the FreeGeek retreat that is coming up. We need to be as specific as possible in writing down ALL the important operational roles (from banking to handling the phone to cleaning the bathroom)at FreeGeek, what each job entails, who currently handles these duties, and if the position needs to be filled or transitioned to someone else in the fairly near future.

 

Roles based on skills or ability in our community: Work with what you got, as they say. Or, if life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie (if you are good at making pie). We’ve got a lot of people with unique and interesting talents in our community that shape our personality and direction.

 

Revenue generation: The secret sauce

 

A big factor in what makes FreeGeek tick is our trickle of revenue from sales. While it is modest to say the least, it pays the bills. Our revenue stream allows us to sidestep a lot of the thornier questions of accepting outside funding, and our sales program gives us interesting types of influence, like the ability to undercut and ideally push down market prices on used equipment.

 

Part of the power of FreeGeek is that it combines a radical conception of community with a very simple, recognizable small-scale capitalist form—do some work, get something for it, and provide an important commodity to the low end of the market at a very-low-but-economically- sustainable price. I never thought I’d be so enthusiastic about saying this, but it would be pretty cool to make way more money. By way more, I don’t actually mean way more, but I do mean four or five thousand bucks a month. With that much money, we can pay our bills, and pay someone (or someones) a modest wage, commission, stipend, or salary for “full-time" work.

 

How do we increase revenue?

 

  1. Increasing donation stream the old fashioned way, by pounding the pavement
  2. Building more systems
  3. A focus on laptops
  4. Collection days, collection drives
  5. Processing material that can make us money
  6. Advertising and promotions
  7. Events, special events, educational events
  8. New initiatives: Providing data archiving and backup services

 

There are some fundamental obstacles to these ideas. First, as I said, we need far better information about what is coming in and going out. We need a strong feedback loop on revenue generation if we are going to know if are efforts are working as hoped. If we are making and spending more money, we need to be able to know if we are actually sustainable.

 

Part of the FreeGeek ethos from the start has been to consider revenue and direction donations as the funding source of choice and to consider foundation funding and grants as the funding source of last resort (for practical reasons as well as ideological ones: dealing with foundation officers and grant administration is not in the wheelhouse of too many socially conscious geeks). We’re at a point where we can test this proposition more than we ever have before,?assuming we take steps to expand our revenue base and stabilize our cash flow.

 

By the fall or winter, I’d love to see FreeGeek take on the equivalent of a full time staff person. I’m personally very up in the air as to the model we should use, if this should be someone or more than one person, etc. But it seems at least feasible if the summer goes well.

 

Implications of a paid employee

 

As the saying goes “the more money we come across, the more problems we see" can apply in this situation, but it doesn’t have to. Making more money and paying staff mean we need to do some real accounting, have a little higher level of fiscal transparency, and generally have to take on more administrative responsibility and headaches.

 

And the instant we start paying someone, we have a pretty major potential inequality in the organization, with real implications for the space.

 

Because there are real risks associated with using money, and because we’d like to distribute it fairly and intelligently within our community, we are also likely to see more disagreement over FreeGeek’s future direction, strategy, etc.

 

The answer here is, like a lot of things around here, deceptively simple: Be really careful, be really transparent, be fair, and make sure the constitution is being followed and adapted as needed to fit the changing realities.

 

Saying this, of course, is like the Mayor telling Mookie to do the right thing. Fine. But what’s the right thing?

 

I’d also like to promote a principle, which may be a little controversial, but I don’t really know how to sidestep it and I’d also like to think being able to talk about it is what makes FreeGeek special. Basically, the principle is this: If we have to pick between equally qualified paid staff prospects, then that person’s need and commitment to FreeGeek should be major factors in making that decision.

 

To be perfectly blunt, this is a challenge to the white boys (and anybody else with possibilities for serious employment in tech-related fields): I think it should be the role of folks with some privilege and opportunity to really do our best with our skills outside of FreeGeek, and to contribute as advisors and specialists to building an environment where people who stand to gain much more from FreeGeek—and who bring a broad and unique perspective—can directly benefit economically from the organization.

 

And there are other ways that all of us can benefit from the Geek. These days, I personally feel like I work on Drupal and build web sites in part so that I can be more effective at FreeGeek. Happily, it works both ways. I’ve learned a lot about planning in the past year on several projects, and I’d like to apply that know-how and engage a network of allies I met along the way. At the same time, FreeGeek is now a centerpiece of my resume, and something that I can fall back on to impress employers interested in my people skills or resourcefulness.

 

And FreeGeek can start doing more to certify, commend, honor, or otherwise take note of a particular skill or talent within our community. As we bring on paid staff, we need to make other people’s contributions more visible as well. This, again, goes back to roles: We need to cheer on and reward all the folks that keep FreeGeek humming.

 

* * *

 

Ultimately, this all comes down to doing right by our volunteers and buyers, and everyone in our community. FreeGeek exists to mediate the harm from electronic waste and to get computers, Internet access, and practical tech skills and knowledge into the hands of anybody willing to put in an honest effort to learn and to help. I’d like to think that not only can we keep doing that, we can grow in such a way that we do it more and do it better and get to do it for a good long while.