Interview with Lauren Smyth on Working with Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology

Smyth Interview

Interview with Lauren Smyth on Working with Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology

December 2, 2022

Lauren Smyth is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology. Her research focuses on Muslim physical and digital spaces and community belonging in the United States. As an IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellow, Smyth worked with Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology (AZ StRUT).

Tell us about your community partner and why you were interested in working with them.

When I began to think about doing a Fellow-Designed Project for my practicum, I sought to work with a digital access organization, since digital access is a vital and pressing issue—whether dealing with the “digital divide” of broadband internet access or material access to technologies like computers. Arizona Students Recycling Used Technology (AZ StRUT) is a nonprofit focused on technology education and recycling based in Mesa, AZ. StRUT processes about 7.6 tons of e-waste recycling per week, about 3.1 tons of which becomes converted to reused materials—tech like computers and laptops that are often refurbished and distributed to Arizona schools, libraries, nonprofits, and other low-income or marginalized communities. Working with StRUT meant getting to learn about how recycling and refurbishment are mobilized, as well as learning more about the networks of nonprofits trying to address tech accessibility.

I also wanted to work with StRUT because my supervisor at StRUT, Maryanna Milton, had been excited about the project, and she helped to champion the work in Arizona while I worked remotely. Her excitement and enthusiasm were a constant support throughout the six month internship. Thanks, Maryanna!

What were the goals of your project, how did you design it, and how did the work unfold?

The best part about doing my practicum as a Fellow-Designed Project meant that StRUT and I knew I would be conducting a research project from the get-go, and we could design the survey and follow-up interviews around StRUT’s needs. The primary goal of the research was essentially to see what happens to StRUT’s refurbished technologies after they’ve been distributed, and how StRUT could better support its partner organizations and recipient stakeholders. When StRUT and I were developing the project, a gap that the organization identified was that they had limited understanding of whether the distributed technologies met the needs of their recipients. This led to focusing the research on questions like what organizations used their refurbished tech for, who received or used the tech, and if the information they received about the distribution was helpful.

Since I worked remotely, we designed the survey using Google Forms and used email and phone calls for distribution. I conducted follow-up interviews with a mix of educational and nonprofit organizations. We originally focused on the organizations who participated in tech distributions in 2021, but we eventually expanded our scope to the last three years. Some of this expansion was to compare different perspectives from throughout or even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was also to reach as many potential stakeholders as possible. While my project ended up with a much smaller scope than we had initially hoped for, we ended up laying a lot of groundwork for future projects at StRUT. For one thing, I worked with my supervisor and a volunteer at StRUT to develop concrete spreadsheets of potential stakeholders specifically related to particular initiatives, cleaning up pre-existing data sets or creating them outright—it’s a lot easier to conduct research on recipients’ opinions when you know you’re reaching the right people, and the new material will hopefully help with future surveys as well as the distribution process more generally.

How did your training and skills as a graduate student in Anthropology serve your work? What skills did you develop that you didn’t have?

In anthropology and also in the public humanities, I think that it’s vital to develop projects based on the needs and perspectives of the communities we work with, and this perspective helped to guide the development of the project with StRUT. The research project incorporated both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, including the survey itself and formal interviews to expand further on the survey responses. The process of conveying information about the project to potential participants as well as to StRUT gave me a great deal of experience in applying my academic training in evaluation and analysis to public-facing contexts.

The project with StRUT also allowed me to develop my skills around networking remotely. I learned a lot about the networks of nonprofits that go into digital accessibility, ranging from material refurbishment and distribution like StRUT, to schools and education nonprofits seeking to teach their users, to public policy organizations who seek to better our overall infrastructure.

The Public Humanities Graduate Fellows Program provides opportunities for graduate students to use their humanities skills to empower communities and advance civic agency. In what ways did your work with AZ StRUT enable you to experience and recognize your potential as a public humanist?

If there is one thing that I have learned with AZ StRUT, it is that digital accessibility is inherently collaborative. There is the material side of recycling and refurbishment, the digital side of providing and maintaining affordable broadband internet, the educational side, the policy side—sides that overlap but are no less significant to supporting the whole. I think of public humanities much in the same way. As an academic, I can provide analysis or research experience to aid and support, but I do not have the knowledge and experience of people in other nonprofits, or those who live and work in the communities served. But that does not diminish the impact that I can have. This project helped me realize that I could successfully work as a researcher in non-academic positions, and has been an incredibly positive experience overall. While my Public Humanities project has ended, I plan on continuing to volunteer with AZ StRUT, to continue learning and helping through collaboration.

Click here to learn more about the IHC Public Humanities Graduate Fellows Program.