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MSW Student Advocates for Digital Justice

Joel Izlar

Joel Izlar leads a training for high school students at FreeIT Athens.

Posted Jan. 17, 2012
Reported by Emily Williams

Joel Izlar, a second year MSW student focusing on community empowerment and program development, has carved out an interesting niche for himself—taking on the cause of digital justice in the Athens community and beyond. A graduate of history and English from Georgia Southern University, Izlar is a self-taught computer whiz.

Now vice president of FreeIT Athens, Izlar helps citizens in the community gain access to computers and the training necessary to use the new technology. He also advocates for digital justice—the right for people to have access to computers, technology and the internet.

“It’s the 21st century, it’s part of our extended selves and it is a necessity for everyday life,” Izlar said. “People not having computers or access to technology is a social justice issue and people that are good with computers or tech savvy are socially obligated to contribute to society by helping people who don’t know anything about computers.”

At FreeIT Athens, Izlar helps get low-cost computers to people in the community. But, many in the community who can’t afford a computer also can’t afford internet access.
“That’s a big problem in Athens,” he said. It also is a problem the United Nations (U.N.) has noticed. Izlar pointed to a report released this summer by the U.N., which discusses internet access as a human right.  

FreeIT Athens is a nonprofit organization that serves the Athens-Clarke County community by providing low-cost computer equipment and computer-related services to people and organizations. The organization also recycles unusable computer equipment and accessories. Izlar began volunteering there in 2009 when he moved to Athens.
“That’s what pushed me into getting my MSW Volunteering with them and volunteering with other nonprofits in the Athens area, I realized there were some things I could learn from a macro social work perspective,” he said. 

“Seeing people get a computer for the first time is a very humbling and exciting experience. Just seeing the look on their face and how excited they are. They are going to have the opportunity to get online and see this completely different world,” he added.

Free IT Athens volunteers teach new computer owners how to use their computer once they receive it. Volunteers also train other participants so they can go out into the community and teach community members and organizations to use their new technology. 

“I had one individual who came in and could hardly use a mouse. We put him through our refurbishing program where he learned how to build a computer from all the parts to fixing it and getting it working and now he's over in his community applying the skills he learned. It’s definitely something that can empower individuals. It builds skills and confidence.”

Izlar and his colleagues at Free IT Athens stress the importance of using free or open source software because unlike commercial software which requires paid upgrades, free software can be upgraded for free for years to come, allowing people to continue to use their computers longer.

Izlar recently presented on digital justice at the Southeast LinuxFest, bringing the issue to the forefront at a major gathering of advocates for free and open source software. He submitted his idea to conference organizers and they selected him to lead a session on digital justice.

“My intention was to get them thinking about people who don’t have access to computers,” Izlar explained. “I’m taking what I learned in terms of macro and community social work theories and practices and perspectives on social justice and discussing how we can take these ideas into their communities and try to make an impact even if they aren’t social workers. If they have computer skills then they can help other people with that and not just clock into a 9-5 job. There is a social aspect to it.”

Izlar also talked about how a free and open source framework and community maintained wireless networks can help communities. He integrated the basics of social justice and society’s obligation to help through volunteering and respecting the environment by responsibly recycling technology.

“Those that don’t have access to technology are being left out and I think that is socially unjust.”

Free IT Athens celebrated its sixth anniversary and has served nearly 900 individuals, recycled 17,800 pounds of unusable equipment, and had over 280 volunteers contribute 2,500 hours of community service so far this year.