Cultivating an Environment for Creative and Confident Youth Leaders

16 years ago, in 2002, I arrived in Boston for the very first Clubhouse Network Teen Summit. I was 14, and nervous about traveling so far without my family. My Clubhouse Coordinator, Luversa Sullivan, reassured me I would have the time of my life. My friend Siana, who was more like a big sister, told me we have to make the most of our trip by having fun and learning all we can. What they didn’t tell me is that it would be a life-changing experience. Before this Teen Summit, I had been a member of the Tacoma Clubhouse for about a year and a half. I was aware that the opportunities I had at home were different than those of my peers because of the Clubhouse, but I didn’t realize the impact of this program around the world. The Clubhouse Network was created in collboration with the MIT Media Lab. It’s a community of more than 100 Clubhouses in 19 different countries that provide youth with a free, creative, and safe learning space to explore their own ideas, develop new skills, and build confidence through the use of technology. TTeen summit is a biennial event that brings together teens from each of the Clubhouses to work together on a week-long project that explore relevant issues.


14 years ago, in 2004, I had the opportunity to go back and this time as an ambassador. The Clubhouse Network chose 5 participants to come back and I was lucky enough to be one of the Clubhouse members chosen. This time, I was the one doing the reassuring as I excitedly told Jomiah and Ashley, the other members from my Clubhouse, how much fun we would have in Boston. I remember long conversations with Natashka Jones, a Clubhouse Coordinator from Los Angeles, who was genuinely interested in hearing about what I was interested in. She listened intently, as I talked about how much I hated school, but loved web design and video production. Although this wasn’t my first Teen Summit, I remember being in awe learning about all the projects going on at the Media Lab. I was amazed that, similar to the Clubhouse, students were able to work on projects they were interested in. This was completely different from my experience in school, and gave me a new perspective on college. I left Teen Summit knowing that one day I wanted to attend MIT.

Jomiah and me at Teen Summit 2004

4 years ago, in 2014, I returned to Boston, this time as a Clubhouse Coordinator, with two members, Jade and Alliyah. As a Coordinator I was responsible for the day to day operations of the Clubhouse, as well as being a cahperone for Teen Summit. I had taken youth on field trips at the Clubhouse many times in the past, but never across the country. It was Alliyah’s first time on an airplane, she was nervous about flying, and about leaving her baby girl behind. By the end of Teen Summit, she created a network of new friends that she didn’t want to leave. Jade took note of all the opportunities around her. I watched her engage with representatives at the Clubhouse 2 College/Career (C2C) fair. I watched her eyes light up as she talked to one university recruiter who talked to her about combining her passion for psychology with her interest in technology.

Alliyah and Jade visiting the MIT Media Lab at Teen Summit 2014

At the 2014 Teen Summit I co-led a Track with another Clubhouse alum turned Coordinator, Alicia. Our group focused on education, and used LilyPad’s and LilyTiny’s as our technology. I remember Clara and Kasandra, from Framingham, MA both being nervous about making mistakes. They laughed when I called them “my little struggle bugs”, and embraced their failures. They persevered, and became experts by the time Teen Summit came to an end. As guests came to see their projects at the final showcase they didn’t hesitate to talk about their process, in addition to the final result.

Kasandra and me at Teen Summit 2014

2 years ago, in 2016, I arrived in Boston, again as a Coordinator, with two Tacoma Clubhouse members, Manny and Robert. I watched them both flourish, technically and socially. I was amazed by the 3D models Robert had produced throughout the week. Our Clubhouse didn’t have a 3D printer — these were all skills he acquired in his Track. Manny was in the Mobile App Development Track, and he didn’t hesitate to live out our Clubhouse motto: “Each one, teach One; lifting as we climb”. I watched him teach others in his group how to use Android Studio, so that together they could create an academic planning app. At one point, Manny found me and said “the adults here are so cool!” He had a long conversation with Anna, a Coordinator from Lawrence, MA, about identity and culture. He felt heard, he felt seen, and he felt valued. This led to several more conversations with other Clubhouse Coordinators and Network Staff about his skills and future projects he wanted to work on.

Manny, me, and Robert at Teen Summit 2016

1 year ago, in 2017, I arrived in Boston as a new graduate student in the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab. The first Clubhouse was established in 1993, as a collaboration between the Lifelong Kindergarten group and The Computer Museum (now part of the Boston Museum of Science). My dream as a 16-year-old had come true — I was joining the group that created a program that changed my life. I decided immediately that whatever I did, it needed to include the Clubhouse. Teen Summit had a huge impact on my life, and I watched the impact it had on teens I worked with, so it was natural for me to help with organizing it. This year I was able to use my community organizing skills to dvelop activities for youth to begin thinking about issues they encounter before arriving to Teen Summit. They did a community mapping activity to take a deeper look into the assets and issues in their communities, a visual poetry activity to reflect on who they are, and an ethnography activity to learn more about the people in their communities.

The cake Manny made for me when he found out I got into MIT.

This week, I have the opportunity to welcome 200+ teens and Clubhouse Coordinators to Boston for Teen Summit. I’ve spent many hours working with Clubhouse Network Staff on planning this experience, checking in with Clubhouse Coordinators, and getting to know participants through their projects, but I know that so much more work has gone into making this experience what it is.

LThe Clubhouse Network was built on four principles: learning by designing, following one’s interests, building a community, and fostering respect and trust. These four principles are present in every Clubhouse, and when more than 100 Clubhouses convene at Teen Summit, the principles are present more than ever. Looking back at each of my Clubhouse expereinces, I see how these principles play an active role in the experience. Robert was able to learn by doing, and quickly mastered 3D printing. Kasandra and Clara quickly got over their fear of failing by jumping in and learning how to sew circuits that would secure the Lily Pad’s in place. Jade discovered that she was not limited to following one interest, which lead to her attending a 7-week Girls Who Code program the next year at Microsoft. Alliyah quickly connected with youth from around the world, and built a community of friends that helped her feel at ease about being so far away from home. An environment of respect and trust lead to a pivotal moment for both Manny and Anna that allowed Manny to feel like he could be himself, and helped Anna with having future conversations with the teens she works with.


For many teens this will be their first time being far away from their family. For some, it will be their first time working with peers from around the world. For many Coordinators, this will be their first time traveling with teens across the country. And for some Coordinators, this will be their first time leading a group of teens from around the world in a week-long project that will address an issue in their respective communities. All of this, I can relate to. The theme for this year is “Stand Up. Speak Out. Change the World.” I can’t wait to see how participants will live out this theme at the 2018 Teen Summit.