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Episode 8: Best Buy Teen Tech Centers with Chheav Em

Growing up in the Echo Park community of Los Angeles to Cambodian immigrant parents, Chheav knows too well the adversity first-generation students face. Discovering her love for education and social services at an early age, Chheav attended Northwest Nazarene University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. The majority of the 20 years Chheav has committed to youth work were spent at Bresee Foundation where she provided over half a million dollars in scholarships, established a robust college access retention program, expanded the workforce development programs available to young people, and supported the build out of Los Angeles’ first Best Buy Teen Tech Center. After dedicating most of her career to supporting young people getting through college, Chheav recognized the need to strengthen pathways outside of higher-ed and joined the Best Buy Social Impact team. Now as Best Buy Los Angeles Community Impact Hub Manager, Chheav thrives to cultivate the relationships needed in Los Angeles County to develop tangible pathways into the creative economy for young people in disinvested communities. 

The following transcript has been redacted and edited for quality and educational purposes.

Nati Rodriguez [02:19] 
The collaboration between the Annenberg Foundation, Best Buy and the Greater LA Fund created this unique opportunity to build out a Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Vermont Slauson Economic Development Corporation (VSEDC). Can you share with the learner audience what the Best Buy Teen Tech Centers are, who they serve, and what the experience is like for members? 

Chheav Em [02:40] 
Teen Tech Centers are afterschool spaces. They’re equipped with cutting-edge technology and are staffed by development professionals who provide these safe and supportive learning environments for teens. Teen Tech Centers provide access to professional-grade tech, like 3D printers and music studios. Those are things you’ll see a lot of times in all of our Teen Tech Centers. They inspire young people through supportive mentors and peer-to-peer collaboration, and they provide opportunities through technical training and college and career guidance. It’s a Teen Tech Center, so they’re built for teens specifically. No young person is ever going to be turned away from a Teen Tech Center, but strategically Teen Tech Centers are a place in disinvested communities. Our hope at Best Buy is to provide access and resources to communities who don’t generally have them. The experiences in a Teen Tech Center are going to look a little different depending on the teens themselves. I think that’s the beauty of a Teen Tech Center. A student would be able to explore coding one day or beat making another day. You can get into this really specific maybe more math-oriented activity. The next day you also tap into the more creative side of yourself and make music, films and things like that. With access to so many things, our hope is that young people would continuously explore and create in the Teen Tech Centers. Of course, there are opportunities for them to have more structured project-based learning, but at the core young people have the freedom to follow their interests. That self-guided learning is one of the elements of a Teen Tech Center. 

Nati Rodriguez [04:09] 
Got it. That sounds really fantastic that they have all this equipment available to them. How is the location of a Center decided? 

Chheav Em [04:18] 
There are a couple of layers in that we have a committee or a group of partners that we work with, Annenberg Foundation being one of them and the Greater Los Angeles Education Foundation being another. Together, we take a look at these priority communities, the Internal Services Department has helped create this really cool map of where some of the biggest needs are. They assess things like poverty levels and access to the internet and technology. Unfortunately, when you look throughout LA County, the map is very red and it just gets redder and redder in certain communities. So that’s one layer of it – where is there an actual need? Another layer is the fact that we are using some American Relief Funds for this. We got every supervisorial district to approve funding to go into these Teen Tech Centers. We will put one in every district so that’s another component. Diving deeper into that, when we launch a request for proposal (RFP), we do a lot of groundwork in talking to members of the community and different community-based organizations. We have a team that assesses all of the proposals that come through to us. We are looking for mission-aligned organizations who are already serving teens. At the forefront, that’s what we’re looking for. We just go through this process of reviewing and doing site visits and having continuous conversations until we land on one organization that we feel would be the best fit. Sometimes it’s an easy decision to make, other times it’s a little harder. There are a lot of great organizations out there doing great work, we’re lucky to be working with some solid people. 

Nati Rodriguez [05:59] 
Got it. You’re describing the LA model. Can you talk about what a Community Impact Hub is and how it’s different from other locations that have Teen Tech Centers? My understanding is they’re all across the country, is that right? 

Chheav Em [06:14] 
Yes, there are. Best Buy has been investing in Teen Tech Centers for awhile now. The first Teen Tech Center opened nationwide in 2012. There are 50 currently open with the plan to hit 100 by the end of 2025. 12 of those 100 will be in LA County and that is the Community Impact Hub. Those 12 Teen Tech Centers are going to be a network of Teen Tech Centers that will provide the same types of access, programming, mentorship, and support that all the other Teen Tech Centers provide, but with this added focus on building a career pipeline into the creative economy. LA’s got one of the largest economies in the world and one of the most diverse regions in the world, yet somehow, with a 94% increase in tech jobs in the region and almost 75% of people here identifying as a person of color, representation and diversity in those jobs has remained stagnant since 2007. So that’s the crazy thing, right? We’re looking at like the fact that there are structural and systemic barriers that keep people of color out of these creative jobs. The Community Impact Hub is trying to change those conditions and systems that keep people of color out of the creative economy. We’re doing that by developing these pathways into these jobs. So, we’re identifying the gaps between the learning that happens in the Teen Tech Center and being job-ready by the time a young person ages out of the program. We’re building partnerships with foundations and companies to fill these gaps and to provide mentors who support young people on their journeys. 

Nati Rodriguez [07:46] 
It’s amazing to hear that Best Buy has dedicated so much of these resources and locations to LA specifically. I think we can see why. 

Nati Rodriguez [08:03] 
You mentioned about creating a pathway to jobs, and I assume that some of those will be jobs with Best Buy. What other companies are participating in this work that are committed to creating these pathways for students and teens? 

Chheav Em [08:18] 
Yes, some of these jobs will be with Best Buy. I think that’s a great entry point and there’s a lot of room for growth once someone joins the company. We’re still really early in the process. We have a few Teen Tech Centers open, we have a few more that will be open in another nine months, but we’re really early in the Community Impact Hub. The need to have a very specific commitment from a company right now is not quite there. What we do need to do is start having conversations with companies. We are meeting with the guilds, we are working with the EIF, which is the Entertainment Industry Foundation, to start having conversations with the different guilds to see like where can we start building out the programs and the pipelines to get into those jobs. We are still putting in the groundwork of identifying, starting really early conversations, and then working with foundations to start filling some of those gaps in the tech programming component of things. We are in a place where we’re thinking, can we work with UNAVOC Foundation to start offering programs in our existing Teen Tech Centers so that we can start building out the learning pieces and strengthening those things, while we start exploring the job piece of things? 

Nati Rodriguez [09:40] 
Yes, it makes sense. Just to clarify again for our audience, one of those centers is opening in a week, so it’s very early in this work. We will definitely track and update this information as it develops. Going back to what teens are learning in these centers, can you talk about the learning model and the kind of skills they will come out with after, some touch points in the Teen Tech Center? 

Chheav Em [10:03] 
There is a learning model and there are specific skills. Our learning model is to learn by design, follow your interests, build community, and foster respect and trust. It’s a model that we’ve adopted from our national implementation partner, The Clubhouse Network. That learning framework is important to us because we believe that when you’re actively engaged, you’re going to learn more, when you care about what you’re working on, you’re willing to work longer and harder, which again, leads to learning more. When you collaborate with individuals from different ages, cultures, and genders, you gain new perspectives for understanding the world. When different ideas and opinions are respected, there’s a sense of safety and trust in the environment, and again, allowing young people to take risks and innovate. These are things that are true for teens and adults. I know I learn more when I am allowed the grace to make mistakes. 

That’s the environment that we want to create in our Teen Tech Centers- very specific skills that young people can learn coming out of a Teen Tech Center – if they’re in a workforce development program, they’re going to learn some workforce development skills, those soft skills that unfortunately aren’t taught to young people in our communities by parents or even in schools. I know I didn’t learn about resume writing, how to conduct myself in an interview, and how to even look for a job. I didn’t learn those things at home or in school. I learned it at an organization. Those are some of the soft skills training that we’re going to teach young people, [and] very specific tech skills. You can take a coding class if you’re interested. A lot of the Teen Tech Centers offer robotics and coding. They might offer photography. How do you work a DSLR camera? How do you edit the camera? All Teen Tech Centers are equipped with the Adobe Creative Suite software on their computers. They have access to that. They can do the editing that they need to do in their pictures, in their films, and things like that. How do you take a picture with just a green screen and how do you change the backdrops so it looks like you’re somewhere else, not in a Teen Tech Center? These are the things we’ve seen in a Teen Tech Center, where kids have done these amazing things that I wish I had access to when I was younger. 

Nati Rodriguez [12:15] 
Can you talk about some of the projects that you’ve seen come out of the Centers that they’ve created there? 

Chheav Em [12:21] 
A standout project for me right now is one that took place at the Legacy LA Teen Tech Center. In partnership with Legacy LA’s Youth Leadership program, these teens conducted research on how many cars produce pollutants into the community by testing the air quality around the Ramona Gardens Development Complex. After researching the air quality, the teens discovered that the pollutants that they found cause illnesses that are often found amongst the residents who live in the housing development. The teens collaborated with one another and they interviewed community members and worked with community leaders. What they actually ended up doing after all of this, they created this documentary about the natural park that was built to be a green buffer to filter the pollutants in the hope that it brings awareness to the need for more natural parks in their community. I’m not really a science-oriented person, but when I hear about projects like that, I think it’s so cool to see how young people are not just engaging with science, but they’re gaining other tech skills and learning how to collaborate and work with other people.  These are all things that they can use in the future, regardless of what career they go into. I think the best thing about it is that they use tech to highlight an issue that they saw in their community. They want to use that to enforce some sort of change. That’s the type of empowerment we want to see in all the Teen Tech Centers. 

Nati Rodriguez [13:44] 
They discover their own agency and are learning in a way that’s authentic to them. That sounds amazing. 

Chheav Em [13:54] 
When young people create in the Teen Tech Center and they’re empowered and they’re allowed to make mistakes and just really dream, they come up with some crazy things. I think I couldn’t do that at 15 or 13, they’re so talented. 

Nati Rodriguez [14:11] 
And to have the space and time to do that freely. When I think about the school environment, in a traditional school, it’s very structured and it’s not interdisciplinary. If you’re in math, you’re doing math. If you’re in English, you’re doing English and this type of project seems like everything gets pulled to the table. 

Chheav Em [14:32] 
To your point about how things are structured in the schools, Teen Tech Centers – the layout is going to differ with every location because of building, room size, and design interests – some of the pieces that are very important to us is to make sure you don’t have a classroom setting. We want to see these clusters. We want to see tables in pods and computers in pods because of that free, collaborative experience we want young people to have. As we start building out the designs of Teen Tech Centers, in partnership with hosting community-based organization, we articulate that early on. We don’t want this to feel like a classroom. That environment is really something we want to make sure we instill in all the Teen Tech Centers. 

Nati Rodriguez [15:19] 
Yeah. Environment makes a big difference to how you experience the world and learning and interacting with others.

Nati Rodriguez [16:08] 
Given your experience, building out the college access retention programs in your previous work, how much exposure do students get to college access versus paths towards vocation or trade school when they go through a Teen Tech Center?  

Chheav Em [16:22] 
It is definitely a part of the conversation. Unfortunately, our Teen Tech Center Coordinators can’t be experts in tech, youth development, college, career. It’s a lot to ask one person to be an expert in all of those things. I’m sure there are people out there, but it’s not easy to come across. I think the important thing that we want to highlight is that the coordinator should be meeting a young person where they are at. If college is what the student wants to explore, that’s the conversation that should be had. If a trade school is what the student wants to explore, that’s the conversation that should be had. If neither one of those options is what the young person wants, then it’s exploring – how do we ensure that we have this pathway into a job, and what does it look like to get there?

I think that’s the piece that we’re trying to build out more with the Community Impact Hub. It’s understanding that no two teens are going to be the same and it’s meeting that young person where they are, and then having continuous conversations with them so that they’re informed in the decisions that they make for their future. That safety and that freedom to explore all options is important. I think an important thing is to recognize, where is this young person at? What is it that they want to do? How do we have these conversations so that they can make the most informed decision about their own future? So, it’s not this clear-cut dosage. I will say though, the most ideal situation for a Teen Tech Center is to have this built out college access program; to have someone who is an expert in that; it’s to have this separate career pathways program and it’s to have an expert in that. And to all work collectively. I think wraparound services are an important thing in Teen Tech Centers. 

Nati Rodriguez [18:29] 
Do Teen Tech Centers provide wraparound services? 

Chheav Em [18:32] 
Teen Tech Centers in themselves don’t, but oftentimes when you can find an organization that has the additional support, maybe not specifically in the Teen Tech Center, but it might be an organization that has a college program already. If there’s already a built-out college program and you add this piece like a Teen Tech Center, how do those coordinators work together to make sure that a young person has access to both? If you have a work development program already, and sometimes it’s just social services – what emergency assistance can take place? If you can find an organization that can meet some of those other needs and a Teen Tech Center gets layered into that, that means the organization as a whole, the teens that they’re already serving now get this amazing piece of access to technology and these cool programs. It also means the teens that come through that program now have access to the other established teen programs that exist and, in that way, you can explore all the different avenues. One thing that you’ll keep hearing about is collaboration. We want young people to collaborate with each other. We want foundations to collaborate so that we’re building out a Hub. We want the staff to collaborate so the young person is served and supported in the best way possible. I’m sure you’ve heard the term “it takes a village”, and it takes a village and so many things to help young people grow. 

Nati Rodriguez [20:03] 
Yes, and I see, because Teen Tech Centers are not just built from nothing. They’re built-in existing organizations that already have some of these assets and resources for families. 

Chheav Em [20:17] 
Yes. I have tried to explore the thought of building a Teen Tech Center out of nothing. I now understand why that is not a good idea. 

Nati Rodriguez [20:30] 
Yes. I think a lot of the research has shown you have to connect with community partners and trusted partners that are there and not just try to come in. 

Chheav Em [20:41] 
It’s essential to the success of the program.  

Nati Rodriguez [20:43] 
Yes. On that note, can you talk about your own experience with this work and your time at Bresee and how that’s connected to the Best Buy Teen Tech Centers? 

Chheav Em [20:53] 
Yeah. I actually grew up at Bresee when I was in high school. My job training skills – how to conduct myself in an interview, things like that, I learned that at Bresee. I got a scholarship to go to college from Bresee. I fully understand what it means to just grow up in an afterschool environment and having a lot of my learning pieces come from that avenue. Two years after college, I worked somewhere else in between, but I eventually found myself back at Bresee running the high school program. We had a great program, a bare-bones program, but it was good. When Best Buy opened its first RFP in LA, I was in the need for a lot of space. I can’t run multiple programs in this tiny little room on four very old, outdated IMACs. Not like the flat screen IMACs, like those boxy ones that are all colored and things like that, we’re talking back in the day. We had this opportunity to apply for a Teen Tech Center and I was just like, “Yes, let’s do it!”  

Anything is an improvement; I have zero resources. We were doing homework help, SAT classes, and internship programs all from that. It was chaos. Essentially, we got granted the funding for a Teen Tech Center and we were able to convert an underutilized rec room into what is now the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, and moved all of our programs there. It was great to be able to have the space to allow kids to explore tech, but to also have enough room and computers where young people can apply for college, or do their FAFSA forms, or have workshops. It was amazing, but we did spend a lot of time upping our college access programs. To the point we talked about before, that wasn’t the only avenue that kids wanted to go into, but it was such a huge part of the conversation at the time. When I think about what my experiences were like in high school, we didn’t talk a lot about going to college. I went to college because growing up in an Asian-American family, that was my expectation. It was just what happened after high school; making an informed decision about college and what that meant, wasn’t a thing. By the time I graduated from college, it was a huge part of the conversation. How do we strengthen these college programs, not so much STEAM. Fast forward a few years later, STEAM is becoming a huge part of the conversation. 

I was lucky enough to be able, with that trajectory, [to] spend so much time strengthening the college access component. What I did see was so many young kids saying, “Well, I don’t want to go to college.” 

We would just say, “Well, that’s what’s going to help you. That’s what’s going to help your family.” 

The more we did that year after year, it was like, no. It’s not a guarantee; that degree isn’t a guarantee. It helps, in most cases, but it’s not a guarantee that a cycle of poverty will be broken because someone went to college; nor is it fair to tell a young person that is the only choice that they have for their future. What I love about this opportunity is Best Buy then came in with all of these resources. It start[ed] to open my eyes to this other world, the other world of STEAM, and playing that, I didn’t really pay attention to or value. I was just like wow, there’s this other opportunity. If a young girl comes to me and says, “I want to go into film.” and I say, “Okay, go study film at Cal State LA.” Is that the only way into the film industry? – to go to school, to have to take your pre-recs, to have to do all of these other things? Or can we build out a way to say, how do we get you into the film industry without saying go pick a university that has a film program?  The film program can work, but there’s got to be another alternative. I think that’s the beautiful thing about the Community Impact Hub. What is that alternative and can we then build both of those things out? And say okay, well, what would you prefer? What makes more sense for you – to have to go the university route or can we nudge you in a different direction that seems to fit you more? Cause what happens if a student doesn’t do well in the classroom? [Is that] the only choice you have? I think that’s an unfortunate thing. The beautiful thing is that I’ve been able to see Bresee getting the first Teen Tech Center here and that being the envy of all the other organizations right, and I still hear it. People are like when Bresee got that Teen Tech Center back in 2016, I was like, I want that. Now we have one at Legacy LA and we will have one at VSEDC. We will have three others in Watts, Boyle Heights, and Antelope Valley. 

This thing that seemed to be such a dream to people – like wow, what would happen if we had that? – now is a reality for so many organizations, specifically 12, and it’s such a great thing to see happen out here. I think the cooler thing is that, if we can do this right, if we succeed in this, can we replicate this somewhere else? Can we do it in another city? I think that vision of what’s possible, I didn’t see that before and I see it now. 

Nati Rodriguez [27:02] 
That’s great. A couple of things, one is how do you measure the impact? Two, is there a city [or] another location in mind to create a Community Impact Hub?   

Chheav Em [27:13] 
I’ll answer the second one without fully answering it. I know Best Buy is exploring doing another Community Impact Hub. I don’t know where yet. We’ve eliminated a couple of options. We’re exploring a couple of others. That is as much as I will say on that, but we’re testing it out in LA because we are the trendsetters, right? If we can make it happen in LA, then we can make it happen anywhere else.  

The other one is measuring impact. The kids tell us. Impact is measured in a few different ways. From an organization standpoint, the assessment and planning reports that CBOs have to do. They do it mid-year and they do it at the end of year. It’s designed to support site hosts in a reflection process. What are we doing well? What are we not doing well? What do we want to change? It’s a tool for improving quality and setting future goals for programs. That’s structured in a way for the individual organization, right? Do some self-reflecting on what you’ve done and where you want to go and like certain components. Do we grade these organizations? No. We really just want to guide and support in that conversation of where do you see yourself and where do you want to improve? The bigger tool that we use to measure impact really comes from our youth impact surveys. Those are conducted in all the Teen Tech Centers. Youth at every Clubhouse are invited to participate in a survey that assesses their feelings towards school, their interest in STEM, their interest in their communities, tech, and social skills that they’ve learned, the environment, the relationships with mentors, and caring adults, things like that. Some of the things that we’ve been able to see and learn from the reports of the youth impact surveys are that 91% of the teens feel that the Teen Tech Centers are a safe space for them, a safe space with trusted adults, and 93% of them are confident that they’ll achieve their career goals. That’s the biggest way we measure success, is to really hear it from the young people. I’ll say the last thing – we are working with a third-party company, Informing Change, to conduct a more longitudinal study about the effectiveness of our career pathways program. We are still really early in that process. But that is another avenue that we’re looking at for measuring impact. 

Nati Rodriguez [30:02] 
How long have you been with Best Buy’s Social Impact team? 

Chheav Em [30:06] 
Seven months. 

Nati Rodriguez [30:08] 
Awesome. Congratulations, that’s a big accomplishment. I’m sure all of your experiences are coming to the forefront in building out this Community Impact Hub here. 

Chheav Em [30:22] 
I hope so. I’ve definitely learned a lot from all my colleagues. 

Nati Rodriguez [30:28] 
What are you reading, watching, or listening to these days? 

Chheav Em [30:32] 
I’m always listening to Taylor Swift. I might take a couple of days off and then I’ll just be right back at it. I don’t know if you’re a Taylor Swift fan. She has an album or a song for every mood. Are you wanting happy fairies? Listen to one of the earlier albums. If you’re wanting revenge, listen to one of the newer ones. She’s got a mood for everything. It’s great.  

Nati Rodriguez [30:52] 
I just had a visual of the feelings wheel, the thing for kids, I wonder if there’s a feelings wheel that points to Taylor Swift songs. If not, we should make one. 

Chheav Em [31:08] 
I think you’re onto something and that’s probably something that I will Google afterwards. That would be amazing. Oh my goodness. I can’t stop thinking about that now. What am I watching? I just started watching The Staircase and it’s really sad because then I also have caught up to The Staircase on HBO Max. To be fair, there’s only, I think six episodes of The Staircase. 

Nati Rodriguez [31:32] 
I don’t know what it is. I’m going to Google it after this. 

Chheav Em [31:35] 
I have feelings about it. I’m just like the protagonist, he’s not a likable person, but I’m hooked. I’m reading a book that my best friend gave me about enneagram sixes. I’m an enneagram 6. It’s all a lot of reflecting on myself. I did just start a book called, The Body Keeps the Score, that one’s all about trauma. If I have downtime during the workday, which sadly not a whole lot of these days, I’m reading the Field Guide to Human-Centered Design, which sounds like such a nerdy thing, but it’s actually really interesting. It really just shapes the way we think about programs and implementation as we look at all of our work, whether it’s Community Impact Hub or something else on the innovation team. If you haven’t read it, I mean, I haven’t finished it, but as I read it, I’m just like, “Oh, that’s very interesting.” 

Nati Rodriguez [32:28] 
Is there anything else that you would like to share with the Learner audience? 

Chheav Em [32:31] 
I would just say that learning isn’t black and white. The traditional model of learning in the classroom is great. I did well enough in school, but that just wasn’t my way. I didn’t love school. The traditional model is great, but it doesn’t work for a lot of people. It does for a lot, but it’s not everyone. I want to point out there are different ways to learn and we need to acknowledge that; we need to value it and we need to strengthen those learning models. Also, that learning shouldn’t ever stop, myself included. I should embrace learning a lot more and I feel we should all embrace learning a lot more and we should constantly challenge what we think and what we believe, and invite dialogue with people from different perspectives. Because I think if we modeled this for our young people more, we just all would be in a better place. 

Nati Rodriguez [32:18] 
Yes. I agree. Well, thank you, Chheav. I really appreciate you taking this time and I’m excited to follow this build out of the Community Impact Hub and your leadership in creating this.