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Stephanie Charbine on the Digital Divide, Sustainable Tech and the truth about MacBooks

Stephanie Charbine on the Digital Divide, Sustainable Tech and the truth about MacBooks

Jess Redman • Community Editor

from Innerworks • 28 May 2024 • 2 min read

I spoke with Stephanie Charbine, Partnerships & Engagement Manager at Community TechAid, a London-based charity tackling the digital divide through device distribution and workshops.

Working in technology, we get the internet. Something so basic as submitting an online form might seem like second nature. We use forms to get instant access to career-boosting resources, whiz through job applications or request prescriptions in minutes. But what would daily life be like if technology felt alien to you? What if you didn't own a tech device? Or have internet access? It's hard to imagine.

To put things into perspective and to learn more about the digital divide, I chatted with Stephanie Charbine, Partnerships & Engagement Manager at Community TechAid. This London-based grassroots charity seeks to end the digital divide one device and workshop at a time.

Stephanie's passion and knowledge and the charity's mission are truly inspiring; I hope you enjoy reading.

About Community TechAid

Jess: Hey Stephanie! Could you start by telling me about your organisation?.

Stephanie: Sure. So we’re CommunityTechAid.

We started in March 2020 as a group of volunteers. Lockdown had just begun, and everything switched from in-person to online. Our founder, Linda Heiden, had the idea that COVID was the push that our local community needed to get on board with the concept of CommunityTechAid. Linda started a community group on WhatsApp that essentially said, "Does anyone have any technical skills or devices? This is what I'm planning to do?" It grew from there.

In 2021, Community TechAid registered as a charitable organisation. By then, we'd gained a good reputation in Brixton, and by November 2021, we had expanded to Southwark because the need was so incredibly high!

We have a waiting list of about 150 people daily (it never goes down).

These numbers testify to our outreach work and impact on the community but also reveal how big the digital divide is. Close to 12m people do not have the digital skills needed for everyday life in the UK.

Jess: We don't talk about it enough; perhaps we take it for granted? I'm used to the message "put your phone down", you know, "digital well-being", and this is an important message, but on the other hand, in the UK, we have to book an appointment online for the NHS nowadays; vital stuff!

Stephanie: Yeah, exactly. We've always been proud not to discriminate against those we support.

As long as you are a resident of Lambeth and Southwark and you've had a referral to our service, you can get support;  we don't say someone is more worthy of a device if, for example, they are finding a job over someone else using it to improve mental well-being.

All the reasons are so important. And as you say, it's everyday life. I received a cheque the other day, and all the high street banks are closed in Brixton. Luckily, I have a smartphone with a banking app. But that's only true for a few people.

Joining Community TechAid

Jess: So, what inspired you to join CommunityTechAid in 2021?

Stephanie: Well, solving digital exclusion and ending the digital divide will always be why we exist. But it's about sustainability, too. Everyone always associates the airline industry as the biggest pollutant; that's always used as a benchmark. You know "how many flights is that"?

However, the tech industry is producing more CO2 than the airline industry! It's not something people think about.

About 250 million laptops are produced annually worldwide, using finite resources and mined in terrible conditions. 

The recycling element of always striving to use, repair and reuse is something we're proud of, and it's a reason I got into this. It's also why a lot of businesses engage with us too. And whilst there are so many important causes, it's also great if people can turn to their doorsteps.  And that's what CommunityTechAid was for me. 

In fact, before I volunteered, I donated my laptop!

A photo of the Community TechAid team receiving an award


Community TechAid values

Jess: Do you guys have a set of values that keep you doing what you do?

Stephanie: Great question.
We have a set of values; the ones that always stand out the most to me are collaboration and openness. Our name is communityTechAid; the word "community" means we're proud of being local. But we are local because we don't want to ignore our community's needs.

Through listening to our community, we know what people need, whether a course or something else. 

Without openness and collaboration, the word "partnership" would be meaningless. Our open conversations and willingness to listen allow us to partner with children's centres, refugee centres and local food banks.

I don't know what north London's community is like; I certainly don't know what Manchester's is like or Cornwall's, so we pride ourselves on the fact that you know and love your community and, therefore, you're going to do your utmost to create the right environment for everyone. 

Community TechAid Services

Jess: I read from the WHO that 6 billion people don't have access to the internet right now. As well as internet access, can you summarise all the services you offer to solve the digital divide?

Stephanie: Access to the internet is something people don't think about at all. I have a mobile phone with data. I even get it on the tube these days. It is really easy to access it if you have the means. However, access is in the hands of the internet providers, and there's not much else we can do about it.

People get locked into contracts; they can only get contracts if they have a fixed address or, for example, their credit rating is good.

We are currently partnering with an organisation called Promising Trouble to try to tackle the issue of access to the internet. We're still looking into whether community-led internet is available. 

Day to day, our services centre around:

  • Gathering donated digital devices and repairing them. (That's laptops, smartphones and tablets, sometimes desktops, but rarely people have space for those)

  • Skill-building sessions for the local community

We offer a foundational QuickStart session. It's for people who either a) never had a device in their life before or b) have used a computer years and years ago and are unsure or nervous. Once you can go online, you can find the next set of upskilling for digital skills.

We also offer a six-week course in partnership with a London-based social enterprise, Clear Community Web. They come in every Friday to provide digital skills training sessions. It's a six-week course that covers topics like staying safe online and more specific courses like the ones for Canva! 

We can also offer SIM cards. Vodafone provides us with many SIM cards (around 300). These are great because they can give people a starting point, as they come with 40 gigabytes of data and unlimited UK calls and texts for six months, but this solution is just a band-aid.

The problem with e-waste

Jess: You mentioned that e-waste is a massive issue. Can you talk more about that and how it impacts the technology we use?

Stephanie: Yeah, sure.

The UK ranks number two for e-waste production after Norway!

Norway gives off entirely sustainable vibes, but we are soon catching up in the UK! The problem with e-waste stems from the cheap production of new phones and new laptops being constantly made, and our consumerist attitude fuels the problem. Unfortunately, it's not improving; people just want the latest thing. A lot of the tech that is produced is not that repairable.

A MacBook is sleek, thin, and looks lovely. But if a part breaks, it's basically impossible to repair because everything is glued and soldered in.

A Lenovo ThinkPad or a Dell business-grade computer is easily repairable. It's easy to replace the screen or upgrade if I need more memory or RAM. 

I totally understand businesses need to change their tech every few years, but it's helpful to think about where we're buying from as a first step. If organisations like ours get a device that isn't repairable, unfortunately, it's going straight to recycling rather than making a difference in a community member's life.

Jess: Of course, Apple (and many others) make everything more challenging (and more expensive) to upgrade! Considering what device you use within your company sounds like a significant first step and an easy thing people can do! 

Stephanie: Definitely. I also often recommend IFixIt if you need immediate repair work for your current devices (not just for laptops, but for anything). iFixit is a huge online repair community. Plus, they generate repairability scores. I think the Lenovo ThinkPad I've mentioned gets a 9 out of 10, sometimes a 10 out of 10!

Apple Macs, you're looking at a 1 out of 10, sometimes a zero! 

Jess: As an Apple user, I think that is some serious food for thought.

Impact on people

Jess: So, let's talk about the impact you have on people. I read on your website that 90% of your recipients report that their device has significantly impacted their lives. Those are impressive stats. Can you share some stories that have helped people feel and live better?

Stephanie: Our project in 2021 with a local children's centre was interesting.

You assume that if a child has access to digital devices and the internet, the parent does, too. What we found is that the parents had given all their resources to their children, and they're just making do.

That leads parents to work their own digital tasks around their kids' school work, which takes priority. This is tricky if the parent is trying to find a job and manage the bills, so having device independence is essential for the family. We've run a project like this three times and hope to get funding for a fourth.

The other story I always think of is Judith's. She came to us from a women's refuge, and we gave her a laptop. She initially wanted just to fill out a form that her social worker from the Women's Refuge had sent her. And the form was so she could get a free bicycle. 

Once she learned how to navigate the form. She got her bike, which enabled her to get outside and exercise. From listening to her needs, we took her through Google Maps so she could explore the world around her more! She left a lovely quote saying her laptop had become her best friend, which honestly melted our hearts. We helped her for about four weeks. And yeah, it was just fantastic feedback.

That's the kind of stuff we do daily, and getting that feedback is incredible.

What can we all do to help?

Jess: These are really inspiring stories to hear. So, how can we help you? As enterprises, companies, and individuals, how can people get involved to help you achieve your critical mission?

Stephanie: Okay, so first, we always need more tech. We always need repairable laptops, smartphones and tablets; that's the kind of stuff that's most useful to us! While recycling is a massive element of what we do, we aren't recyclers (and we're a small team), so as generous as it is, a storeroom of 50 old PCs isn't helpful for us. 

Donating time, tech, money, whatever it might be, can help companies reach the ESGs they want to reach as Community Tech Aid hits both the sustainable and environmental side naturally (which is something I'm super proud to say)!

As a charity, we strive to keep our services free and accessible to everyone in the community! It's through individuals' and organisations' generosity that we can make such a difference, and we're incredibly grateful.

Company volunteer days bring such a wonderful spirit of teamwork and community, but it's important to remember that these days do take up our time and resources, so we often ask for a voluntary donation too to help us keep doing what we do. 

I used to feel guilty about saying this, as although the organisation's time is valuable, the reality is that meaningful monetary or tech donations help us provide the community with immediate support and grow and sustain our efforts now and in the future.

If youre interested in getting involved please send me an email at [email protected].

Community tech aid

Innerworks and Cogworks are proud to partner with Community TechAid who aim to enable sustainable access to technology and skills needed to ensure digital inclusion for all. Any support you can give is hugely appreciated.