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AT&T grant to help address pandemic-era digital divide

Mission Ignite staff instructing on device refurbishment processes.

Mission Ignite staff performing device refurbishment. | Courtesy of Mission Ignite

This story has been corrected.

Before COVID-19 hit the U.S., Mission Ignite was providing roughly 100 refurbished computers a month to community members in need. Afterward, the number jumped to about 300.

At the same time, computer donations from corporations nose-dived.

“It was an interesting time, but it also put a floodlight on the need and how much responsibility our corporations have,” said Christine Carr-Barmasse, executive director of Mission Ignite, a nonprofit group based in Buffalo, N.Y.

A $2.5 million grant from AT&T will help Mission Ignite and 10 other nonprofit refurbishers fill the need among low-income K-12 students for free or low-cost computers. The telecommunications giant in January announced the grant to Digitunity, a nationwide nonprofit organization that connects corporate electronics donors with organizations serving people in need.

Digitunity will provide funds from the grant to 11 nonprofit refurbishers, all part of Digitunity’s Alliance for Technology Refurbishing and Reuse (AFTRR). Those refurbishers, located in 10 U.S. cities, are the following: Inspiredu in Atlanta; Mission Ignite in Buffalo; Comp-U-Dopt in Dallas; Digital Bridge in Milwaukee; Electronic Access Foundation and Human I-T, both in New York City; Computer Reach in Pittsburgh; Kramden Institute in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; Computers 2 Kids in San Diego; InterConnection in Seattle; and The Wilderness Technology Alliance in Washington, D.C.

According to the press release, the funding will help provide 20,000 free or low-cost refurbished computers to K-12 students and their families over two years, as well as technology support and digital literacy training. Some of the refurbishers, including InterConnection in Seattle, are already spreading the word in their communities about the funding.

In an interview with E-Scrap News, Carr-Barmasse of Mission Ignite noted that the $100,000 her organization will receive won’t fully fund the 2,000 computers it will provide over two years, but the money will certainly help.

“The idea is to help us spread the word and to offset some costs of these lofty goals of putting 1,000 computers out per year,” she said.

Operating out of a 6,000-square-foot facility, Mission Ignite receives donated computers and conducts refurbishment activities that include wiping data, installing hard drives, upgrading memory, replacing CMOS batteries, cleaning and more. The group also provides digital literacy training.

Carr-Barmasse explained that when COVID-19 skyrocketed the need for computer donations to low-income people, it also meant corporations that had previously donated to Mission Ignite couldn’t fill that need, because they were repurposing their used computers so employees could use them to work from home. As a result, Mission Ignite was forced to buy used computers on secondary markets from recycling and reuse companies.

At the same time, prices for many types of used electronics jumped and have remained higher than before the pandemic.

Students received devices from Mission Ignite to assist with distance learning.

Today, the digital divide remains a persistent problem. Nationwide nonprofit refurbisher PCs for People recently wrote for E-Scrap News about how ITAD providers can benefit from providing computers to nonprofit refurbishers. And on Feb. 10, The Electronics Reuse and Recycling Alliance (TERRA), Digitunity and the mayor of Louisville, Ky.  announced a “digital inclusion partnership.” Through the collaboration, Louisville residents and businesses can donate used computers – either dropping them off or shipping them through TERRA’s mail-in program, Done with IT – and Technology Conservation Group (TCG) will refurbish the devices at its Louisville facility.

In addition to equipment, the need for digital literacy training is particularly high two years into the pandemic, Carr-Barmasse said. And it’s not just the students who need the training; grandparents who are the kids’ caregivers may need digital literacy training to help them with schoolwork. The AT&T funds will also help the nonprofits provide that education.

“The issue before was we needed physical computers,” she said. “Now it is evident that not only do we need to provide equipment and connectivity, but now we have to help people understand why it’s important and how to use it to best help their life.”

This story has been updated with the correct amount of the grant Mission Ignite will receive over two years. 

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