Jonathan Fischer hopes to be a ‘light to the nations’ through nonprofit work
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Tikkun OlamBuilding a network of service one cell tower at a time

Jonathan Fischer hopes to be a ‘light to the nations’ through nonprofit work

“We are building internet, we’re putting up towers on top of donated rooftops in cities,” Fischer said.

Headshot provided by Jonathan Fischer.
Headshot provided by Jonathan Fischer.

Jonathan Fischer wasn’t necessarily looking for a new role when he first heard of an opportunity with the nonprofit PCs for People.

As he tells it though, “I couldn’t not think of it. Anything that’s making a national impact, which is what this position does, is something I’m always interested in.”

The Jewish South Hills resident accepted the position of vice president of technology with PCs for People a little more than a month ago. The social enterprise provides low-cost quality computers, internet access and digital literacy to the homes of low-income individuals, families and nonprofits.

“We’re in nine states,” Fischer said. “We have a four-hour radius where our trucks can come that includes Pittsburgh. Our closest retail store, where you can go in and purchase one of these computers, is Cleveland.”

While the company does have physical storefronts, it also can be accessed online.

Fischer said the cost of the computers ranges from free to $100. Customers must meet certain income criteria, he said.
“But if you’re receiving any kind of government assistance, there’s a good chance you can apply,” he said.

Easing the entryway for companies that might be interested in donating computers, Fischer said that PCs for People is certified by the National Association of Information Destruction. It’s a fancy way of saying PCs for People can pick up used computers and feel certain that no information will be left on the devices when they find a new home.

“It’s very high level,” he said. “Cameras are all over the facilities. Everyone has FBI background checks. The data is very secure. We have a full inventory. It’s a win-win-win.”

PCs for People has distributed close to 200,000 computers in all 50 states, according to Fischer.

The nonprofit, he added, has helped 77,000 people connect to the internet, half of which were never before online. It’s also eliminated 9 million pounds of waste from landfills.

“It’s digital inclusion, it’s e-waste and it’s a service to our communities to bring people out of poverty,” he said.

For businesses, the name might be a bit of a misnomer. Fischer said that when they are contacted by a company, the organization sends a box that can be filled with anything technology-adjacent, which means they can include not just PCs but mice and keyboards as well. A technician inventories the equipment, and the company signs off, so everyone knows what has been donated.

PCs for People has bigger designs than simply providing the technology for people to get online: It also is creating a network for people to access the internet.

During the pandemic, Fischer said, some families would sit in the parking lot of libraries using that as a hot spot so their children could do homework or they could look for jobs online. People for PCs is aiming to make that a thing of the past by becoming an internet service provider.

“We are building internet, we’re putting up towers on top of donated rooftops in cities,” Fischer said. “We just got a $20 million grant from Cuyahoga County. Half of that was from the governor’s office, the other half was from the county, to connect 25,000 people.”

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, has one of the lowest internet penetration rates, Fischer said — close to 40% don’t have reliable internet access. In Pittsburgh, roughly 22% of households don’t have internet access.

Fischer believes access to the internet and a computer — not simply a phone or tablet — is essential to help lift people out of poverty.

“Could you have gotten the job you have now without a computer?” he asked.

While it builds its network nationally, the nonprofit is working with T-Mobile to provide hotspots to ensure internet access. The price for the hotspots ranges from nothing to $15 a month.

Fischer is equally proud of the work the nonprofit does to help teach digital literacy to families.

He said in the physical stores there’s a spot that teaches families how to connect their PC, and they have a national call center to help guide families through the process. They also partner with a program called Kidstek that helps teach children how to use computers.

Before working with PCs for People, Fischer was the director of information technology for another nonprofit, ARMS Institute, which increases U.S. manufacturing through technology, workforce education and building an ecosystem of robotics.

Although he hadn’t planned on working in the nonprofit sector, Fischer said his Jewish values have helped shape his career trajectory.

“What I found was that it had to have a big impact starting at a community level and hopefully spreading nationwide,” he said. “It’s the whole tikkun olam thing. I’m not a doctor, nurse or first responder, but I do have these technical and digital skills that I can apply and affect people and their families.

“That goes back to being a light amongst the nations,” he added. “I know that’s really esoteric but I think there’s an obligation to give as much back as we can.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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