Jefferson Awards for Public ServiceBy Sharon Chin

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — An Oakland man leading a technology nonprofit had a big part in helping close the digital divide among the city’s students during the pandemic switch to virtual learning.

Oakland Technology Exchange refurbishes used computers to give away at free to low cost to underserved folks who can’t afford desktops, laptops or tablets.

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Executive director Seth Hubbert grew the nonprofit in six years from serving fewer than 1,000 Oakland families to 34,000 families in the Bay Area last year.

“Living in the Bay Area, heart of technology for the world, this should not be an issue that underserved community struggles with,” Hubbert said of the digital divide.

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The pandemic switch to online learning exposed the depth of the digital gap.

“When the pandemic started, less than 25 percent of families in Oakland had all the tools, the number of Chromebooks for the number of students, the internet access they needed,” Hubbert said.

Today, he said, 98 percent have what they need.

“I’m thrilled, excited, but I don’t want to lose the potential of sustaining this,” said Hubbert.

He and his team closed the huge gap through Oakland Undivided, a partnership with the city, school district, Oakland Education Fund and Oakland Promise.

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With $13 million dollars in funding – $10 million of that from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — the program connected folks to the internet and distributed more than 28,000 computers, thousands of them refurbished by Oakland Technology Exchange.

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Alicia Huerta brought home a free computer years ago. She and her son Juan recently got a free tablet.

“Tablets and computers can get very, very expensive, especially when you have three kids at home doing online learning,” Huerta said.

“If we’re sharing one, it’s going to be hard for us to share and if we have multiples, it’s going to be easier,” Juan added.

The 26-year-old nonprofit, which used to be known as OTX West, also offers free tech support. It’s answered more than 10,000 requests for help last year by text, email, phone, or at its store on International Boulevard at 24th Street.

Technician Marquece Whitley, a former intern, says Hubbert’s leadership makes all the difference.

“Every time I see him I get a smile on my face,” Whitley said. “He’s one of the reasons why I come to work every day, ’cause he makes me feel like I’m part of the team.”

Because of the pandemic, corporate donations dropped 60 percent last year. Hubbert is looking for more corporations to donate their used computers when they purchase new ones.

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The nonprofit is also getting ready to resume computer training sessions at public housing complexes.