35, Executive Director at Free Geek
2023 Prize Winner
Juan Muro Jr. has a history of giving his all to whatever he is involved with. He spent a dozen years in the Bay Area in the employ of Starbucks, starting as a barista and working his way up to a position as district manager with 20 stores under his umbrella. Since moving to Portland around seven years ago, Muro has gone all in with Free Geek, the nonprofit started in 2000 as a resource to safely recycle computers and electronics, and to help volunteers get hands-on experience building their own computers. He joined the organization at first simply to serve as a sales manager for their brick-and-mortar retail store in spite of having, he says, “no nonprofit experience and no tech experience.”
“But I was really wanting to do a passion project,” Muro continues. “I applied an hour before the application expired on Craigslist. They called me within a couple of days. I believe I was only the second external leadership hire.”
Muro has since helped Free Geek through an internal reckoning of inequity within the organization and pushed the nonprofit to shift its focus toward bridging the digital divide, the wide gap between socioeconomic and demographic groups regarding access to computers and the internet.
Under the guidance of Free Geek’s previous executive director, Hilary Shohoney, Muro was instrumental in starting classes at Multnomah County Library locations and at Free Geek to introduce the basics of computing to new users. He developed a partnership with the SNAP program to help 1,000 recipients of those benefits get access to computers and support to do schoolwork and apply for jobs. And Muro has secured funding to bring low-cost broadband internet and computer skills training to individuals and families most affected by the digital divide.
All of it, Muro says, was part of a long-term vision started by Shohoney to “be intentional in the way that we provided services to the community. Talking with folks impacted by this digital divide and learning what their actual needs were, and figuring out how we can adapt our programs and our organization to meet those needs.”
What Muro has found in doing this work is a true sense of purpose. When he moved to Portland, he was somewhat adrift, knowing he needed a major shift in his life but entirely unsure what that looked like. Through connecting to Free Geek and, with their help, bringing new possibilities to underserved communities, Muro has achieved what he called “justice.”
“I really saw a vision and I wanted to see it through,” Muro said. “Part of that was selfish. I wanted to find some justice for myself through this work, but being able to connect with people who are going through similar experiences and extending an arm out for work and opportunity, I get to do that every day. For me, that’s the kind of justice I always wanted.” - Robert Ham
Skidmore Prizes are sponsored by Comcast