In two or three years I plan to move my family back to Brazil. It’s the birth country of my wife and children, and it’s where I served as a missionary for a few years. This time around, though, I intend for things to be different than the first. Then, I went as a missionary solely focused on ecclesial concerns. Marriage and family counseling, along with chemical recovery and other such ministries that could be so helpful in Brazil were not of particular interest to me, let along anything dealing with technology. Oh, how things have changed!
It’s fairly clear to me now that I’m not cut out to be a church planter. It’s clearly not my task, although there are some like my brother-in-law Marcelo who are very good at this type of ministry. I’ve always been more of a teacher, and in recent years I’ve been drawn to what I believe to be God’s core concern for the poor. Further, I’m in the process of mastering Linux administration and Ruby on Rails developing. While church planting isn’t my ministry, I believe starting community tech centers very well could be.
There are many “LAN houses” in Brazilian cities. When I first moved to Uberlândia in 2001 I had to take a bus to the other side of town to use the Internet at one. Only two years later they seemed to be open on nearly every street corner. Young people who don’t have computers or Internet access at home often use them, either to surf the net or play games. The project I’m proposing doesn’t mean to compete with these private businesses. These computers are meant to be used for learning, and the community centers that house them may serve as local libraries and even offer test preparation and job placement services.
The idea, still in the very early stages of formation, is this:
First, taking some cues from Free Geek and Linux Against Poverty, I’ll be looking for donations of used (but serviceable) hardware. Any repair work to be done would be accomplished in classes with people, particularly young people, learning how to repair computers and install GNU/Linux software. The resulting computers would be used first to set up the center’s computer lab, but also each participant would receive a complete system to take home at the end of the class series. This way the students will acquire useful skills while also helping the project along. After the lab is set up the computer repair series could be repeated many times, just without the necessity of using the computers in the lab (except as replacements from time to time). This approach also has the obvious benefit of recycling hardware and keeping it out of the landfills. A means will have to be found to screen out any non-working hardware before it’s received, and also to recycle or dispose of non-serviceable hardware responsibly.
Second, a formal Linux system administration program should be implemented, patterned after the model of Project Cauã. The idea here would be to train people in how to set up a wireless network and computers running a thin-client OS of GNU/Linux, offering to lease the hardware and a monthly subscription to the Internet service to neighbors or even businesses. In this sustainable model, the student once trained would seek to obtain a small business loan from the bank and use it to buy hardware. Since the OS is free, no extra cost there. Money would come in through the aforementioned leasing of equipment and sale of subscriptions. Future employees would me more like apprentices, learning the ropes so that they could in turn start their own small business. Competition? Possibly. Hopefully ways can be found to keep it friendly. I suspect few will train those they think will turn around and compete with them locally anyway.
Third, following the example of Saint Louis ByteWORKS and Ruby Nuby, the fully-functional computer lab would be used to teach everything from basic computing skills to programming and web development. Out of necessity some English classes will likely also be needed, given that the majority of technology and programming information is oriented towards this language.
Fourth, the computer center could conceivably either set up its own collection of books or else work out a partnership with the city library system to offer book lending services. Those needing help preparing resumes or young people seeking assistance with school work could also find what they need with volunteers.
As the title of this post suggests, I’d intend for these to be “tech” centers more than anything else. Not competition against cybercafes or a replacement for the local library, much less a counseling center. However, as needs arise and volunteers are available, there’s no reason why the center couldn’t expand and deepen its work.
There may be resistance, especially to the use of GNU/Linux. I expect to be using the very user-friendly Ubuntu distro of Linux, and the Brazilian government has been very favorable towards open source technology of late, despite efforts on the part of Microsoft to push back. By the time this project is underway the youth of Brazil may already have a notion of Linux from their school experiences. Still, there’s a tendency on the part of many to see anything other than Windows as “second rate,” leading folks to prefer even pirated, insecure copies of Windows over GNU/Linux distros. This may well be part of the battle, persuading young people to reject piracy and instead embrace open source software that is being developed by a global community.
In summary, my dream of community tech centers in Brazil isn’t without foundation or focus. Others are engaged in this type of work already, and from them much can be learned. Their example is encouraging, and the future for any participating in these tech learning programs could be just a bit brighter as a result of the good work being done.
Project Cauã (Igneous Quill)
Internet Access Transforming Slums’ Youth (InfoSurHoy)
Microsoft Trying to Take Over Brazilian Schools (TechRights)
Implantando Telecentros Comunitários em Sua Comunidade (Cidadania Evangélica)
As lan houses podem disseminar a cultura do empreendedorismo (IDG Now)