RFF Shout Out: Tech Exchange

28 Oct, 2021

RFF Shout Out: Tech Exchange

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Tech Exchange’s humble beginning started 25 years ago as a project in the basement of Oakland Technical High School, where founder Bruce Buckelew volunteered working with students to learn to refurbish old computers donated by IBM. Bucklew had the foresight that technology would revolutionize, but simultaneously widen gaps in education. Technology has continued to advance exponentially faster than the community’s access to it. He and a team of student interns saw the opportunity to create access to technology by recommissioning computers and giving them a second life after the corporate world. These second lives, whether as a computer in the first ever computer lab at Oakland Technical High School or as a machine that students could take home, have played essential roles in bridging the digital divide that has afflicted Oakland’s students and families.

Logo courtesy of Tech Exchange.

Tech Exchange has since morphed into a robust organization driven to create a digitally literate and proficient community with access to technology. This means that all community members have access to a computer, internet, and the technology skills necessary to advance and enhance their lives. Tech Exchange’s services improve the accessibility of online education, health, financial, and civic services to the community. 

Staying true to its roots, the organization continues to offer the internship program, providing students with hands-on experience in problem-solving, tech support, and building and refurbishing computer hardware. Tech Exchange’s events, Tech Nights, and Tech Fairs have become staples to the community. At these events, Tech Exchange offers digital skills workshops, free computers, and technical support, as well as support with signing up for affordable internet. 

Image courtesy of Tech Exchange

Tech Exchange’s agility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is incredible. When Oakland students shifted to distance learning, the realities of the digital divide became glaringly undeniable. Working relentlessly in partnership with OUSD, the City of Oakland, the Oakland Public Education Fund, and Oakland Promise, Tech Exchange sprang into action to form like Voltron to defend digital access with the #OaklandUndivided project – a coalition working to ensure every Oakland public school student has the tools necessary to support online learning in their home. Together they provided access to computers, reliable internet connection, and ongoing tech support to Oakland students and their families. #OaklandUndivided has distributed over 34,000 computers since the beginning of the pandemic, and through the Tech Check Survey, have confirmed that 98% of Oakland public school students now have a device and internet access – a drastic increase from 12% before the pandemic.

When asked about the best part of working at Tech Exchange, Director of Development Amy Himes says “We’re on the frontline making sure people have the tools they need, and we work with a team of passionate talented people. It feels like there are tons of possibilities with Tech Exchange.” Executive Director Seth Hubbert agreed that the Tech Exchange team is not only talented, but also reflective of the community they work in. “We have our internship and workforce development program where we get folks plugged into this work to build their skills, and then we hire from that group as well. The elegance of this operation sets itself up so that we bring in people who are passionate, dedicated, diverse, speak a variety of languages, and understand the impact that we can have with a small but mighty crew.”

If Tech Exchange could have 3 wishes granted today, Hubbert and Himes said the organization would wish:

  • Companies would view their off-cycle technology equipment as part of the solution to close the digital divide in our community. Instead of throwing out laptops, they could be donated and repurposed.
  • Internet would be treated as a utility, with the burden lifted off of families and instead put on the private and public industry to make sure internet options are robust, easy to understand, and cost-effective. 
  • Everyone who works in or around technology would have a full understanding of the depth of the digital divide issue. As Himes said, “The digital divide is an issue that has a lot of tendrils and complicated causes.”

Image courtesy of Tech Exchange.

As Tech Exchange looks to the future, the organization will continue to support #OaklandUndivided in Phase II of their plan. This second phase focuses on digital sustainability, providing devices to students who are new to Oakland, and tech support and repairs to devices for existing students. Himes and Hubbert are excited about the organization’s rapid growth, the chance to build new partnerships and systems, and expand to support digital needs in new locations in the Bay Area. Recently Tech Exchange partnered with Closing The Divide (CTD), an organization created by high school students in San Jose, providing them with 10 high quality refurbished computers to give to local students, and receiving computers donated to CTD during a tech drive. Himes says of the partnership, It’s a pleasure to collaborate with this bright new organization as we work together to close the digital divide, throughout the Bay Area.” 

To learn more about Tech Exchange’s work over the past year, check out the 2020 Impact ReportInterested in supporting Tech Exchange and their mission? Tech Exchange accepts financial and tech donations. Individuals can drop off items at the Tech Hub, located at 2530 International Blvd. in Oakland, CA. Tech Exchange will also pick up donations of 20+ items, and provide donation receipts if you request a pickup.

Follow Tech Exchange on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and sign up for their newsletter at the bottom of their homepage.

Written and edited by Bonnie Look and Kate Ray.

Kate Ray joined the RFF team in 2019. Prior to joining the Foundation, Kate spent two years as a middle-school science teacher, first in Fort Worth, Texas, and most recently in Oakland with Aspire Public Schools. Kate’s favorite childhood book was Matilda by Roald Dahl. Her hope for Oakland students is that each will be provided with the tools and support they need to develop and pursue their passions.
Bonnie Look joined the RFF team in 2017. She designs and coordinates the implementation of the Foundation’s strategic communications, program operations, grants management and evaluation. Bonnie’s favorite childhood book was The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Her hope for Oakland students if for each to realize their potential, to feel valued and loved, and have a hunger for continuous learning in school and beyond.