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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Fixit Clinics turn consumers into fixers

a woman and boy work on a repair project at a Fixit Clinic
Mary Catherine O'Connor
Cindy Navarro (left) helps Fixit Clinic attendee Jack Schneider test a battery.

Some people are more inclined than others toward fixing broken things, and the decision to fix something might be informed by cultural mores, or how much a broken item is worth. But, of course, repair is a powerful tool for stemming waste — a huge and growing problem, especially when it comes to things like cell phones or other consumer electronics. By one estimate, Californians collectively toss 1.5 tons of electronic-waste each minute.

If you do want to get something fixed, but you're not a do-it-yourselfer or you're just too intimidated to try – then what? Fixit Clinics, held throughout the Bay Area, are all about empowering people to fix what's broken.

At a recent clinic at the San Mateo Public Library, it’s clear that the first rule of the Fixit Clinic is you don't talk about fixing things -- you do fix things. Or at least, you go down swinging.

As the event starts, people stream into the San Mateo public library with their broken possessions. Like Michael Press and his wonky turntable, and Courtney Owens and her decades-old landline phone that had lost its ring.

A busy Fixit Clinic with many projects in mid-repair
Peter Mui
Fixit Clinics
The San Mateo Library was a hive of activity during this Fixit Clinic in December, 2023

Each attendee gets paired with a “fixit” coach who will guide them through the fix. Tom Feledy, carrying a VCR player in a tote bag, gets paired with a coach, Mark Matteucci, right away.

“Come on, Tom,” he jokes, “Let's go beat on this thing.”

Tom had recently set up the VCR for a friend, but when he tried to play her old vacation tape, it only went in half way. Now, the tape was stuck and the motor is making a troubling sound.

Tom’s main objective is to get the tape out in one piece. There’s no guarantee the player will get fixed. But trying, and learning along the way, is the point.

In fact, it’s this idea that motivated a guy named Peter Mui to start the first Fixit Clinic back in 2009 in the East Bay. On this December morning, he’s running around the library in a Santa hat, giving advice on things like a jammed printer. To date, there have been well over 1000 Fixit Clinics across the country. Peter continually recruits more fix-it coaches. Many of them first came to get things fixed themselves.

Coaches from a Fixit Clinic pose for a group photo.
Peter Mui
Fixit Clinics
Fixit Clinic coaches pose for a group photo before a clinic begins in early December, 2023

“I try to have the coaches act like they're doctors going on grand rounds in a hospital,” Peter explains, as everyone gets to work and the sounds of drilling and hammering fill the room.

Fixit Coach Cindy Navarro guides a young boy named Jack on how to start dismantling his beloved but busted tape measure. She explains how the mechanisms inside work, and how to unscrew the case without losing the screws, which are under tension.

Cindy has been fixing things her whole life. Her grandfather, who worked in the Oakland shipyards, “was of that generation where you fixed everything,” she says. “I used to sit in the garage with him, and he used to take things apart and give them to me to put back together.”

She never lost that curiosity. It carried her through her many careers, which ranged from street artist to nurse to mechanic. She started coming to Fixit Clinics around 2017, drawn by the chance to share her skills.

“We help people be self-sufficient,” she says. It’s her community. Plus, she knows there’s a real need for their volunteerism.

“We've dismantled a system that worked to have tradespeople,” she says.

Enshrining the Right to Repair

These days, it can be cheaper to buy new products, like appliances, than to have them repaired. And with fewer workers entering the trades, it can be hard to even find a repair person.

At the clinics, even the most adept tinkerers struggle to fix things like laptops or cell phones. For a long time, manufacturers have put up barriers to repair. Tactics include making it hard to find spare parts, or gluing components together, which means taking them apart is tricky. But there’s a big policy movement to counteract this waste. Peter, the Fixit Clinic founder, lobbied for a Right-to-Repair law in California that passed in 2023.

The law says manufacturers need to supply repair parts and the diagnostic tools—including service manuals, which can be very hard to come by. And they have to make them available both to repair shops and to consumers, so they can fix their own things.

Peter calls the law a positive change. But, what he really wants is for people to rethink their relationship with their stuff. He dislikes the term “consumer.” It gives the impression of disposability. Instead, how about “owner?”

“‘Owner’ implies a sense of custodianship and stewardship of an item,” he says. “And I'm actually thinking of going a step further, to try and use the word ‘guardian.’”

Okay. You might not consider yourself the guardian of your refrigerator. But what about your family heirlooms? What if one of them broke?

Wendy Kwok and coach Don Kletter pose with Wendy's repaired blender.
Mary Catherine O'Connor
Wendy Kwok and coach Don Kletter pose with Wendy's repaired blender.

As he’s working on a project, Fixit coach Don Kletter tells me a story about repairing a 50-year-old reel-to-reel tape player for a man whose father had passed away.

After replacing many parts, he’d gotten it running and started playing the tape that came with it. He heard a voice on the tape, speaking in a foreign language. But when Don asked about it, the man who’d brought it in didn’t respond.

“So I kind of turn around and look at him and he's standing there crying,” Don recalls. Turns out, the man hadn’t heard his father’s voice since he was a boy.

Keeping things in circulation

Our possessions are often embedded with emotions. But can we extend Peter’s idea of guardianship to more mundane possessions? He thinks we can, and should. And he doesn't really see a distinction between things that are precious and things that are utilitarian.

“You have exchanged your life energy through dollars. You brought this item to your life,” Peter says. “In some way, to honor your life energy, you need to keep this thing working.”

The thing that brings Wendy Kwok to the clinic is her Nutribullet blender that no longer spins.

Guardian or not, she's mostly interested in keeping that Nutribullet blender out of a landfill. As she and Don, her fixit coach, disassemble the Nutribullet and diagnose the problem, Wendy says she’s inspired. “I never took anything apart before,” she says. Don replies that the first time fixing something is always the hardest. “After that, it gets easy,” he says.

Indeed, this is hardly the first time Don’s worked on a blender. Before long, it’s ready to be put back in service. And Peter marks this success the way he does for every repair: by calling everyone’s attention and ringing a loud bell. “Bullet, blender, fixed!,” he yells, amid cheers.

On average, he says, about 70% of the items do get fixed.

But do you remember Tom and his VCR recorder?

Tom Feledy and coach Mark Matteucci work on a broken VCR recorder.
Mary Catherine O'Connor
Tom Feledy and coach Mark Matteucci work on a broken VCR recorder.

The clinic is winding down, but Tom and his coach haven’t figured it out yet. They’ve pried the top off the machine, and can see more of his friend’s cassette tape inside. The word Ireland is hand-written on the label, but Tom’s not sure exactly what’s in the recording.

“I'm not sure she remembers either,” he says of his friend. “But that's the whole idea of having it on tape…your memories are, are saved.” 

They then spend nearly half an hour slowly dismantling and deliberating on the best path forward. They identify a broken gear, but still can't liberate the cassette.

By now, another fix-it coach has joined them. He narrows in on one section of the cassette harness, using a screwdriver as a prod. After a few attempts, he manages to free the tape.

It’s a type of success, even if there's no celebratory bell. And this machine is probably headed to the e-waste stream. But the tape, and those memories, have been saved from the dustbin of history.

Want to attend an upcoming Fixit Clinic? Check out the clinic calendar.

This story was made to be heard, click the play button above to listen

This story aired in the January 29, 2024 episode of Crosscurrents.

Originally from Chicago, I’ve lived in San Francisco for the past 20 years and am a veteran reporter and communicator. I was most recently editorial director for Activate, a nonprofit that empowers science entrepreneurs to bring their research to market. Prior to that I spent a dozen years as an independent reporter whose beats included climate, energy, microplastics, technology, and recreation. I’ve written for Outside, The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, and many other publications, and in 2014 co-founded a reader-supported experiment in journalism, called Climate Confidential. I had a brief stint in radio during college and can’t wait to learn the craft of audio storytelling.