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Episode 28: South LA Best Buy Teen Tech Center with Thai Buckman

Thai Buckman, who is the program coordinator at Vermont Slauson Economic Development Center’s South LA Best Buy Teen Tech Center, an affiliate of the Clubhouse Network. She is committed to helping young people discover their unique path to success. She joined the Clubhouse Network as a mentor coordinator at Expo Center, where she quickly flourished in building mentor-mentee relationships, creating content for programming, and establishing new partnerships. When COVID-19 first hit and closures were mandatory, Thai was the spearheading catalyst to move youth programming completely virtual launching the first teen virtual program for Expo Center.  

Now, as an executive officer of Sisters Involved in Linking Knowledge (SIILK), a nonprofit organization, Thai has been instrumental in fundraising initiatives to support annual youth scholarships for minority students. She’s been on the committee for SIILK’s Teen Leadership Conference since its inception in 2017. Thai served as a producer and co-chair of SIILK’s 2020 Teen Leadership Conference Digital Festival. Thai is a graduate of International Black Women’s Public Policy Institute – Dorothy I. Heights Global Leadership Academy, which is a six-month leadership program that prepares young women to be agents of change to challenge the systems that oppress and disenfranchise Black women and girls.  

The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Nati Rodriguez [02:31] 
To start, I’d love for you to tell us about the community you serve and the students you work with.  

Thai Buckman [02:34] 
Sure. Our facility, the South LA Best by Teen Tech Center (SLA BBTTC) is in South Los Angeles. We’re right in the heart of things here and we serve youth between the ages of 10 – 24 years old. Obviously, that kind of goes into the young adults’ section of things, and the students here are amazing. I find that working with these youth, they’re so rich in talent is what I find, but under-resourced, it seems the greatest thing. I’m learning that more and more – the community here, we’re working with neighboring schools and organizations that come and visit us in this facility and use our facility because of that exact reason. So, for me, it feels great to be able to provide a space, a landing pad if you will, for those organizations that really have everything it takes but just don’t have the tools to take it to the next level. I work with a wonderful community.  

Nati Rodriguez [03:31] 
Thank you for sharing about that. What kinds of tools and access are available to students that come to the Teen Tech Center?  

Thai Buckman [03:39] 
We’ve been open now just under a year, and it feels like we’ve been here so long because everything has been moving so fast, but we have computers, high-speed Internet connection -5G. We have a 3D printer we just got, we have a recording studio, we have a green screen, we have a projector with a fantastic screen as well, we have robots, Wacom digital tablets. But what I find the most is that a lot of people really want access to the computers first and foremost with schools because they just don’t have the speed, or they have outdated computers. So that has been really helpful.  

Nati Rodriguez [04:19] 
Got it. When do students come to the Center? What does a typical day look like at the Teen Tech Center?  

Thai Buckman [04:26] 
It’s interesting that. Basically, we do have after-school programming from 2:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., and students can drop-in Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, but we have structured programming as well, which means we have boot camps going on and those happen between 4:00 pm and 6:00 pm – Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, as well. So, they can drop in or sign up for those boot camps, on those days, within those hours.  

What I am finding is also that there’s a homeschool base that those students want to come in as well. I actually do come into the Center earlier, and I’ve had students actually drop by as early as 11:00 a.m. and come by. They just come into the space whether they’re getting help with their homework at the time, or they want to talk, or they want to start to use the resources that we have here.

Nati Rodriguez [05:24] 
It’s great to hear, especially coming out of the pandemic and understanding that teens need a lot of additional support and can use these spaces to connect with others, to connect with adults that they trust. One of the things that I read is that the Teen Tech Center has a particular learning approach grounded in research from education, developmental and social psychology, cognitive science, and youth development – things like learning by design, following your interests, building a community, and fostering respect and trust. How do you cultivate this approach and how does it show up at the South LA Best Buy Teen Tech Center?  

Thai Buckman [06:01] 
I love this approach, and I think that’s probably one of the things that excited me most about being a part of the Clubhouse Network, which is our affiliate. Following a path that you are excited about has always been important to me, always, since I was a little girl. So, this learning model aligns so much with my beliefs. In the book, Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnick, who actually is the foundation of this philosophy at the Teen Tech Centers and the Clubhouse Network, he discussed how studies have shown that people and youth in particular work longer and harder when it’s something they’re interested in. So, I’m constantly getting youth and parent feedback to see what they want in the Tech Center, because then I know if I have those things that they’ll love it and they’ll find their passion and they’ll find their lifeline, really, if you ask me.  

Students design video games and build websites, and some of these digital processes have made an impact on the learner’s ability to solve problems. So ultimately, that’s what it’s about, solving those problems. We’re finding a way to do it creatively. And to me, building a community – it involves relationship building. It’s important that I get to know the youth in space and vice versa, that they get to know me as well. I understand that it takes time to build trust with them, so I don’t push. I just get to know them naturally and engage. And then when opportunities present themselves, we are able to work together on projects. That’s what I find builds the rapport. Building community and fostering respect and trust comes with collaborative work, and that’s the kind of space we have here.  

There’s four words – the four P’s is what it’s called with lifelong learning and this whole philosophy – passion, play, peers, and projects, and that’s what we do here. Everybody finds their passion, and we play actually to figure things out. It feels exciting and fun. It doesn’t feel like your typical learning and peers, having peers in here to learn together. They’re laughing together. They’re learning and helping one another and collaborating together through projects. All of those things are how I bring things together here. All the different boot camps allow them to work together in all of those ways. And so we hit it in every area with that.

Nati Rodriguez [08:35] 
I love this idea of play! I think as we get older, we tend to forget about that. And that’s really how we learn, engage and connect with others and learn about ourselves.  

Thai Buckman [08:47] 
Exactly, that to me, provides this freedom, and that’s what attracted me so much. I started at Expo Center as a mentor coordinator, but it was just the freedom that was in the space. In the model lies freedom. When you say, “Hey. Play, and passion, and project and peers, all that stuff, that’s freedom.” That liberated me personally as even an adult, to try things, to try new things, to explore, to not be so hard on myself, to not be afraid to try.  Because it impacted me that way, I’m able to translate that and relate to the students in the same way.  

Nati Rodriguez [10:10] 
Got it. How do the students hear about the Center?  

Thai Buckman [10:13] 
We have Instagram, social media. We’ve been really pushing that out, showing the work that we do on social media so people can see what we have going on. I try to really make sure that we’re showing diversified experiences. You may see robotics a few times on there; I’m also making sure that you see that we also have storytelling, animation, and scholarships. I really just try to make sure we’re showing all the different things that we offer so that people can understand that it’s a place for them in so many ways and so many things. Through the pandemic, we worked with youth through bootcamps, through the entire thing, and we had that roster of people already and continuing to connect with those people as well.  

 I’m going out to schools, speaking at schools during the parent-teacher meetings and just meeting different teachers and going out to speak and talk about it as much as I can. There is this grassroots thing and other people telling other people. Now people are coming and saying, yeah, because I heard about you guys and yeah, so and so told me about you. It’s just spreading in all those varieties of ways.  

Nati Rodriguez [11:22] 
I’d love to hear about some of the projects you’ve seen the teens create at the Center? 

Thai Buckman [11:27] 
I think one of the most exciting, not most exciting because they all are, but Best Buy and PopSockets had a partnership, and they were looking for 24 students in any of the Tech Centers around the world to be part of this design program. Students were going to create PopSockets; they were creating a design based on the theme Building Brighter Futures. We were fortunate enough to have two students get accepted to the program. They did have to submit their work, and they had to submit a short personal statement and pictures, and two were accepted. So, they created PopSockets! One of them created a PopSocket of a young girl with a hijab. She created that, basically feeling that it’s a marginalized group in terms of the media and things we read and see, and she wanted to touch on that. She created this beautiful artwork of that on her PopSocket. Another one dealt with education and gaining knowledge and growth.  

Those PopSockets are, first of all, they’re beautiful, and then second, they are plant-based, and best of all, they are being sold on I love the work that they did. I love that it had to do with something that was meaningful – it wasn’t like they just created any design – it had to have a purpose and have a meaning and matter, and that meant a lot to me. Those students were paid for their design and a licensing fee. Those students walked away with $2,000.  I think it was beautiful because they got to work with the teams at PopSocket that actually work in the creative department, and they got to experience that mentorship and find out what it takes to put out a product that was something I’m very excited and proud of that my students were a part of.  

Nati Rodriguez [13:22] 
That’s fantastic, in addition to coming in and exploring, with all the tech and tools and connections they can make at the Center, they also have opportunities to get money, and do internships, and get jobs. Can you speak a little bit more about that? What’s the vision for that, for students that participate and engage in a Teen Tech Center like yours?  

Thai Buckman [13:44] 
Yeah, I love that part of it, too. I’m like, “Oh, there’s perks, too. You guys there’s perks.” I love it. Best Buy has a partnership with United Negro College Fund (UNCF). While one hand, we have groups of people who are more interested in going into entrepreneurship, which we love, and there’s so much space and support to do that, then you also have those people who are career-oriented, college-oriented, and they want to take that path. They may not be looking at entrepreneurship right away, at least. 

For students who are looking for scholarships, that partnership – United Negro College Fund is giving up to $10,000 a year in a scholarship, with three years renewable. So, we’re talking about up to $40,000 for their time in college to support them. They particularly were looking for high school students, but also open to undergrads.  

I was able to help and support six students completing that process, and I’m super proud of them for getting it done and for putting it out there and going. Two of our students were selected to receive the scholarship, and we just found that out last month, and I’m beyond thrilled about that. Both are going to HBCUs – one is going to Howard University, the other is going to Tuskegee. They got accepted to over seven colleges and they did college tours, and they finally made their decisions on where they would be going. That’s another perk that comes with it – scholarship opportunities.  

We also had a scholarship opportunity last year with Jack in the Box. We had a relationship with them and we were able to give four students $2,000 scholarships each. They were taken on a fancy dinner at Lawry’s Restaurant in a limousine, with their parents, and they were acknowledged, and they had an opportunity to speak, but they were supported through scholarship as well. So, I love that too.  

Nati Rodriguez [15:32] 
That’s incredible. I mean, just the opportunity that’s available by participating in these Centers is great. My next question is going to be how do you measure impact? What will it look like, do you think, in 5-10 years down the line, when these students that have participated in programs like this, and received these scholarships and engaged in this work, how are we measuring that impact?  

Thai Buckman [15:54] 
We measure impact in a few ways like I said, we’re an affiliate of the Clubhouse Network, and so we do an assessment and progress report twice a year with them. This document helps us gather data analytics for the first part of the fiscal year and the last. It assesses demographics, age groups, mentorship programs, and how effective the learning model is. So that’s always very helpful to us and very detailed as well. We also do in-house surveys for students. We do them for instructors and mentors, and we do them for parents as well, and we address the satisfaction of the program. Feedback for me is huge, and I do a lot of verbal feedback, too.  

I know documentation is always important, but I connect all the time with the students, instructors, and parents. I’m always talking to them. I really care about how they feel, I care about what they want and that’s probably my first line of measuring certain things. We also have a Youth Impact Survey that gathers data analytics about their pro-social behavior.   

  • What are we seeing?  
  • Are they happy?  
  • Do they feel safe?  
  • Do they feel cared for?  

We’re covering all the bases, really, in trying to see the whole person, which is also very important to me. It’s also about how you are feeling mentally in your mental health as well. For me, that’s very important.  

Nati Rodriguez [17:17] 
That’s great to hear, given the mental health crisis that youth and adolescents are going through – that this is part of the experience for them when they engage with you and with the Teen Tech Centers is good. It’s good to hear that this is available to them.  

Nati Rodriguez [17:54]  
You’ve had a lot of experience working with youth, in tech, and mentorship, given your time at the current Center and then at Expo before that, what draws you to this work?  

Thai Buckman [18:03] 
To be honest, I would have never imagined this to be my path. I wasn’t planning on this. It just happened; it was destined. I won’t go through the whole process of how, but I landed here, and I couldn’t be more happy and grateful for that.  

I think being introduced to the Clubhouse Network – I keep saying them – because they’re the introduction of this whole philosophy. Being introduced to the Clubhouse Network through my work with Expo Center, was the beginning of that beautiful discovery. I was able to get up close and personal with technology in ways that I hadn’t before, ways that I hadn’t thought about before, and exposure to the culture of the Clubhouse Network and Expo Center, how they were able to, and even here, how I’m able to work. It’s just changed my world, and it’s just thrilling. It was a place like I mentioned before, where there’s so much freedom, support, and encouragement. I feel strengthened in that kind of a space; I’ve just fallen in love with it unexpectedly.  

As far as mentorship, there’s two sides to being a mentor. I had a lot of freedom to develop relationships, number one, because as a mentor coordinator, I had to meet those people, like “Hey, who can I bring in that can bring something valuable to students, to these youth, meaningful and valuable to them?”  

I learned how to make those connections, and I enjoyed making those matches. I discovered that actually, I had quite a few connections with a lot of people that were skilled and interested in making a difference. I kind of started there. I was interested in going out to seminars and other workshops and just getting out there to meet other people, and just began to strengthen my Rolodex of people who had expertise and were willing to come share.  

And then on the other side of that mentor, I became one, without necessarily looking to be one, because I started engaging with the youth. I just fell in love with them, just because they’re learning, they’re becoming more comfortable, and talking to you, and sharing with you, and they’re creating, and their growth. You see the development of them, their progress from being closed in and shy, to them being confident and flourishing. I kind of fell into this space without really looking for this path.  

Nati Rodriguez [20:20] 
You spoke a little bit about – so there’s the work you do at the Center, but there’s also the network that you have access to with the Clubhouse Network and your own continued growth and learning. Can you speak to that a little bit? What does the support to you look like so that you can then support the youth that come to the Center?  

Thai Buckman [20:39] 
Yeah, I’m so grateful to be in this position. Sometimes you say, “Gosh, this is a paid gig?” Because it feels so good and there’s so much support. Number one, I want to acknowledge Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation, which is the parent company of this Best Buy Teen Tech Center. I am so appreciative of them because they are very supportive in our professional development. We are encouraged to take at least two different professional development courses annually. Currently, I’m in a nonprofit management certification program with the Center of Nonprofit Management, and they encourage it.  

Then I’m supported also with Best Buy Clubhouse Network. In the Clubhouse Network, in their annual conference in September, I went to New Orleans and the conference was there. There were over 250 people from all over the world, and it was amazing. We had workshops in A.I., so we learned how to train the computer how to learn. We did rock, paper, scissors or something, but we trained the computer to acknowledge, and learn that, and know that, and that process was super interesting. Those are things and skills that I can bring back to the Tech Center to be able to share.  

Best Buy, it was the same thing. We just went to a summit just a couple of weeks ago. We also learn things. We learn different things that we can bring into the Tech Center, sometimes it’s about different communities. For instance, we had one workshop with the LGBTQ community; it was very insightful and helpful things like that matter too. It’s not just about gaining technical skills or learning about technology, but as I mentioned, what about different groups and being inclusive? We learn things, and those are things that give us insight to bring back to our Tech Centers.  

Nati Rodriguez [22:33] 
That’s fantastic. I’d love to hear about your experience with the Dorothy I. Height Global Leadership Academy. How has that experience shaped your own leadership in and outside of your work at the SLA BBTTC?  

Thai Buckman [22:48] 
Before I joined that, I didn’t know what to expect, but I was definitely excited. It was interesting because one of the greatest things I learned from that came from one question, and it was, who am I?  

You’re thinking, “Oh, this, that, and all these different things.” but Who am I? has been one consistent thing that has remained embedded in my mind and has challenged me to continually look into that. One of the greatest things you learn is that self-awareness is your biggest gift. To be self-award, because, being a leader – what kind of leader? Leaders come in all shapes, forms, and fashions. What kind of leader do you want to be? What kind of leader are you? What matters to you? What are your values? Who are you? Those things made me look into myself to see those. Things came out like, okay, well, integrity matters to me, and all these things that come out, and that means that’s the kind of leader I want to be. Again, I’m being challenged all the time to keep looking at that, and to keep being self-aware, to be my best self.  

I found that being a leader is not about being a dictator at all, but it is about serving. Leadership is about serving. We discussed policy and allyship, advocating, communication styles. I learned where my strengths lie, and that was also very effective because then I know I can work from what I’m good at rather than what I’m not good at. And you can do better if you develop what you’re good at already.  

So it was very immersive. The professional women involved were incredibly dynamic and we were able to work in groups to present different things. We each had a specific target and focus, and we worked together in groups to put together a presentation. Our commencement was supposed to happen at Harvard, which we were super excited about, but the pandemic happened, and so we didn’t get to do that, but it culminated in a trip to Ghana. It was an amazing program that really changed my life.  

Nati Rodriguez [24:58] 
I just want to dig in here a little bit, if it’s okay, with the question of who am I? Do you find that the answer is dynamic and changing, or is there something about that question that stays the same?  

Thai Buckman [25:12] 
I think that it’s about fluidity. I’m learning that, too. And I’m learning that nothing is static in life on your journey. Who I am right now is not who maybe I’ll be in five years. Now, the core of who I am, I think those basic things are there. I am these certain core of me – what I value per se, that’s something that I think will be stable. In terms of how I shape out, and how I shape up, I think it changes over time, because experiences are going to give you an insight. They’re going to sometimes challenge you, and you find out strengths that you have that you didn’t know you had, and that also begins to elevate you. So, I think it’s ever changing. 

Nati Rodriguez [26:07] 
Well, thank you. I appreciate you sharing a bit about your journey. The next question I ask everybody. I would love to hear about what your own K-12 educational experience was like? 

Thai Buckman [32:19] 
Well, okay, I guess if I say as a leader, I want to be honest and have integrity, then I have to do that. Honestly, I always loved school, I did, I always loved school. I was an excited learner, and a lot of teachers made me feel seen, and I felt smart. They let me feel smart and they told me areas that I was good at. I feel good about that, but I think part of my journey – I was social, very social. I think that there were points in my life where I made that more important than anything. I don’t think that I focused like I should have, or if I could go back in time, like I would have back then, because I always was capable of more, but I didn’t always apply it.  

So, it took me to get a little older, even have my first child, my son, to be able to really appreciate the opportunities in front of me in education. Of course, when I went back to school and everything, I was able to succeed and be very successful and ace everything. I brought back the focus that I should have always given myself. I think I’d say it was an interesting journey. It was not a perfect journey, and it could have been because of the interests, it could have been because the people, a lot of different things impact how we approach education. I was distracted a lot until I got older and said, “You know, no. I’m going to take control of my life and my destiny and I’m going to put forth my A game.” 

I read books like The Four Agreements that taught me – don’t take things personal, don’t assume. One of the things, the reason I attach it to this is because he said something to the impact like, what you do and how you show up, that’s your signature. That’s your signature. Always do excellent. Always be excellent. I wasn’t always excellent through my K-12, but I did learn later to be excellent. So, I like to bring, not perfection, but excellence to the things that I do.  

Nati Rodriguez [28:52] 
Another question that I ask every guest. What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days?  

Thai Buckman [28:58] 
Yeah, I’m doing all of those things. I’m doing something in all of those areas. Right now, I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer. I think intentionality is critical and I’m trying to be more intentional about every single thing I do. I still have work to do, I’m still growing in that area – reading that and taking those principles into my life. Also, when I come into work, and at home too, before I start, before everybody gets into the workspace or when I’m alone at home, I play a lot on YouTube. Having a smart TV, I love that, I’m able to listen to Master Your Emotions, No Excuses,  The Art of Discipline. Those books I’m listening to by audio and I’m actually physically reading the book about intention, and then I’m listening to those other things.  

Nati Rodriguez [29:48] 
Thai, is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience before we sign off?  

Thai Buckman [29:55] 
Yes, I do. I’m going to repeat this again. If you’re listening and you have kids, students or know any organizations that want to learn about technology, and just thrive in a safe, incredible space, please visit [email protected] and you can also follow us on IG @southlatech. 

I just want to encourage everybody to no matter where you are, if you are the brightest star, if you are not, there’s a place for you. I encourage everybody to just keep learning and striving to be your best and trust that what is destined for you will meet you. 

Nati Rodriguez [30:30] 
That’s a wonderful way to end and I just want to acknowledge you for the wonderful space that you create every day for teens and youth at the Center. It’s been an honor to hear a little bit about your journey that I don’t get to hear when we work together. So, this has been amazing for me as well.