Affirming Culture & Community with Tech

by Colin Angevine

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“It’s that cultural reaffirmation that gives confidence.”
– William “Bill” Izabal, founder of ListoAmerica

A caption on Instagram begins: “LEGOS, VR, MARIACHI!!!” The accompanying video pans across a table littered with LEGO creations in various stages of development, then reveals two musicians who are making music on one side of the table, and on the other side someone is strapped into a VR headset.

This is a pretty typical scene at ListoAmerica, a community and after-school space for teens in Southern California. Culture, creativity, technology — each is abundantly available for the young people who spend their afternoons hanging out, expressing themselves, and pursuing their interests. The only thing that might be unfamiliar for ListoAmerica in this particular Instagram video is the setting: it was filmed in Mexico City. After over a decade running programs in the US, ListoAmerica has opened a new location south of the border.

The vision for ListoAmerica started long ago. For most of his career, Bill Izabal worked in the human resources department of a large aerospace company. One of his primary responsibilities was recruiting new staff to take positions in technology and engineering. He recalls years traveling all over the country to recruit new staff when he sometimes found himself wondering, “Where are the Latino engineers?” Bill felt convinced that the demographic gap he saw would inevitably close, but at some point he noticed that this gap wasn’t closing on its own. He decided “I’m going to spend the rest of my days doing something to improve that,” and so ListoAmerica was eventually born.

In this case study, we share stories from ListoAmerica, the nonprofit that Bill started in retirement, that showcase ways that culture, community, and youth leadership can not only strengthen the STEM education pipeline but also provide a safe, nurturing place that supports youth wellbeing.

About the Connected Wellbeing Initiative

The Connected Wellbeing Initiative brings together researchers, designers, educators, and funders to accelerate youth and community-powered innovations for fostering wellbeing in a digitally connected world. The Initiative’s Impact Studio supports early- to mid-stage innovations that model the core principles and approaches of connected wellbeing:

  • Young people are leaders and sources of strategies, as well as beneficiaries.
  • Caring relationships and communities are tapped as essential supports for wellbeing.
  • Solutions grow from youth identities, interests, lived experience, culture, and communities.
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

ListoAmerica is one of 11 innovations in the Impact Studio that benefits from personalized advising, capacity building opportunities, and cross-sector connections to accelerate impact and build shared purpose. This case study highlights some of the innovative and meaningful ways that ListoAmerica supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

History and Context

Member and Coordinator sharing VR experiences in the ListoAmerica office in Mexico City.

Bill incorporated ListoAmerica as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2010. “Listo” — Spanish for “ready” — is a prompt, an encouragement, an invitation to the bright futures that Bill sees for the Mexican-American youth in his community. “Are you ready?” Bill asks. At the same time, “LISTO” is also an acronym: Latino Infusion into Science and Technology Opportunities.

In ListoAmerica’s early days, the aftershocks of the 2009 financial crash were still reverberating. The Mexican American Opportunity Foundation had leases on buildings and limited options for how to best put them to use. As a board member of the Foundation, Bill had an idea: “Just give us a space and we’ll start the program.” The Foundation agreed, and soon after, the first ListoAmerica program was started in South Central Los Angeles — the same neighborhood where Bill grew up.

“Listo” — Spanish for “ready” — is a prompt, an encouragement, an invitation to the bright futures that Bill sees for the Mexican-American youth in his community.

The VR Clubhouse Village, a digital Clubhouse accessible to all globally across The Clubhouse Network.

ListoAmerica became a member of The Clubhouse Network, an international network of out-of-school programs that create opportunities for teens to explore, experiment, and express themselves with technology. ListoAmerica’s Clubhouse program focuses on “The Four Ps” that are described by Mitch Resnick, Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Labprojects, peers, passion, play. On any given afternoon, teens come to ListoAmerica after school to hang out, talk with friends, and connect with mentors. Some have found a second home in the community at ListoAmerica. They make their own way to working on projects — anything from photo editing to robotics to designing custom t-shirts — without projects ever being pushed on them. 

Everyone at ListoAmerica knows that the Clubhouse is not just a school by another name: it’s a true clubhouse, powered by the interests of its members and not a predetermined plan set by adults. Teens are referred to as “members,” not students, adults are “mentors,” not teachers, and there is deliberately no curriculum that everyone must follow.

When members explore their interests, mentors support by helping to kindle those interests into projects. Bill shares an example of what happens next: “I always use the example, if a girl or boy is interested in designing car wheels, you know, and he’ll take out a piece of paper and show me car wheels. [He’ll show me] how they look good on an Impala, how they look good on a Corvette. I’ll say, ‘Why don’t you do it on a computer? Why don’t you start learning graphics? How about graphic design?’” And just like that, ListoAmerica’s magic is set in motion. Bill has countless stories of small moments like this precipitating learning and growth that changes young lives.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

ListoAmerica Clubhouse in action at SBX: Youth & Family Services.

The Covid-19 pandemic turned life at the Clubhouse upside down. But just as the turmoil of the 2009 financial crash opened up new opportunities for ListoAmerica, so did the pandemic. Gustavo Madrigal, Director of Creative Tech Learning & Development, led a flurry of new initiatives to adapt to the circumstances. “Clubhouse To Go” brought ListoAmerica to the homes of the members, dropping off creative supplies at doorsteps and hosting events online. A Discord server made it possible to hang out while the Clubhouse was closed. ListoAmerica was finding ways to adapt to the moment and respond to the needs that they saw among their members.

Past research by the Connected Learning Lab describes the ways that the Discord server in particular functioned as a way for members to support one another in a way that most youth did not have while social-distancing during the pandemic. Research has found that youth, and in particular Latino and Latina youth, are often reluctant to engage around issues of wellbeing and mental health, often due to cultural stigmas associated with these topics (Umaña-Taylor & Updegraff, 2007) but these topics surfaced organically on the server in ways that were culturally specific. For example, members used food and discussions around food as a way to reference their feelings while also sharing important cultural touchstones (Pite and Ramirez Luhr, 2020). Especially in the most difficult days of pandemic lockdowns, the staff at ListoAmerica innovated in order to attend to the wellbeing of their members.

That culturally-specific approach to supporting youth wellbeing continues today. In the vignettes that follow, we share a few moments that further illustrate ListoAmerica’s approach to supporting youth wellbeing, and we describe some of the ways that research supports this approach.

ListoAmerica Clubhouse members working on art projects with their mentors.

Cultural affirmation and cultural exchange

The large majority of both the members and mentors at ListoAmerica are Mexican-American, and a strong sense of pride in this identity pervades the program. This common culture is an important asset for the program, as it helps to establish shared understandings of experiences and values among members and staff. ListoAmerica staff have been asked to be godfathers, to attend quinceaneras, to be part of the lives of the members — reinforcing and strengthening the ways that members and staff are already part of the same community. The effect of this cultural connection is profound. As Bill reflects, “I think that once you give people confidence in their culture, rather than being a put down on their culture, then they can deal with others very easily… And I think it’s that cultural reaffirmation that gives confidence.” Bill’s observation is supported by research by the Connected Learning Lab, which documented how youth feel a sense of cultural connection with ListoAmerica staff who are “like family” (LeLay et al., 2022)  and offer a “STEM home place” which promotes “feelings of safety, healing, agency, and critical consciousness” (Tanksley 2022, p. 89).

Because of the potency of cultural affinity, ListoAmerica deliberately integrates it into the life of the Clubhouse. From “Listo” in the name to the mariachi music in the Instagram video, there are countless moments of the Clubhouse celebrating hispanic culture and affirming the strengths of the community. On Dia De Los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), for example, Clubhouse members wove together technology and tradition by 3D printing traditional skull figures and lighting them up with LEDs, and integrating mixed reality technologies into age-old rituals. These creative, tech-enhanced ways to celebrate culture provide important opportunities to affirm members’ identities and support their wellbeing.

Youth feel a sense of cultural connection with ListoAmerica staff who are “like family”  and offer a “STEM home place” which promotes “feelings of safety, healing, agency, and critical consciousness”

Research Background: Culturally sustaining pedagogy

ListoAmerica employs a “culturally sustaining” pedagogical approach that grows from and sustains the cultural knowledge and lived experience of Latino and Latina youth and their communities. Research has documented how the emphasis on community cultural wealth is essential for counteracting negative stereotypes about marginalized communities, and fostering a sense of belonging and safety. These approaches counteract deficit beliefs about Latino culture and youth, and recognize broader systemic barriers and forms of oppression in the dominant culture and institutions. A growing body of research documents the effectiveness of these approaches in supporting positive ethnic identity, belonging, wellbeing, and self-efficacy for marginalized youth.

Youth making LED-powered decorations on 3D printed skull models for Dia de Los Muertos activity.

In addition to ListoAmerica’s emphasis on affirming a sense of pride in their members’ culture, their recent international expansion provides an opportunity for cultural exchange. The newest ListoAmerica Clubhouse is located in a building dedicated to arts and culture in downtown Mexico City and builds on the success the nonprofit has had in Southern California. Now with locations in both the US and Mexico, the staff sees exciting opportunities for new relationships that connect youth to other perspectives while also deepening their sense of identity and pride in the place that they’re from.

“Like many Mexican American youth, [many of our members] have never been to Mexico. And I find it interesting that the Mexican youth population in Mexico at our Clubhouse are very interested in the United States. So it’s like two entities saying they want to meet with, be with one another.”

The staff is still in the early stages of connecting the two locations — someday they envision cultural exchange trips, for example — but the opportunities they see for supporting healthy identity development are now expanding along with the reach of their programs.

Staff member Gustavo and alumnus “M” testing their STEM Without Borders VR app.

STEM Sin Fronteras

One promising new initiative that stems from ListoAmerica’s international expansion is driven by a former member. Metztli, the Clubhouse alum, is pioneering a tech-enabled way to bridge a connection between the communities in LA and Mexico City. While she was in middle and high school, Metztli routinely spent her afternoons at ListoAmerica. Staff remember that at first, she spoke very little. Bill explains, “She would be one of those people that would walk in, not say a word, not look up at you, you know, just head down. Very much involved in a project, so quiet that sometimes you say, ‘Does she talk?’” Despite her shy demeanor, Metztli worked on project after project while attending the Clubhouse — anything from virtual reality to graphic design to robotics. As she grew more involved in the Clubhouse her shyness melted away, and by the end of high school she was a leader in the community. In the last year, Metztli graduated from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Psychology. She is still connected to ListoAmerica and still finding opportunities to transform her interests into compelling new projects.

Research Background: Positive youth development

ListoAmerica employs a positive youth development (PYD) approach that is centered on the assets, agency, and contributions of youth. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, physical safety, and emotional support in addition to skill and knowledge development. Research in this tradition has documented the powerful individual and collective outcomes of supporting youth leadership, agency, and voice.

She heard about the new Clubhouse in Mexico City, and pitched an idea: a VR blog. Inspired by video bloggers to document and share their world travels, Metztli suggested to the ListoAmerica staff that she do something similar but in virtual reality for her upcoming trip to visit Mexico City. As Gustavo recalls her first mentioning the idea:

“What if someone puts on a headset and they get to experience what I experienced in Mexico?”
The idea took root and ListoAmerica later announced the project as part of their celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The goal: to create an immersive cultural VR experience to connect youth in LA and Mexico City.

VR tech meeting with mentor and Clubhouse member.

The project is now growing with the support of staff and Clubhouse members in both locations. As Gustavo describes it: “Right now we’re building that project up with a few different technologies like LiDAR scanning of places we’re going to visit, bringing in those models into [VR]. [Metztli is] going to design an experience based on this trip. And then there’s a group of youth helping in both countries. So, she’s working with youth, preparing the TVg TV tú  project here, youth in Mexico are going to help out.” One idea from an alum is now blossoming into a multicultural, intergenerational collaboration, using tech to bring people together. That’s why the team refers to this project as “STEM Sin Fronteras” — Tech without Borders.


Interview with Metztli.

ListoAmerica has been a valuable place in the community for teens for over a decade. And in recent years, it has been expanding to reach new communities: in Mexico City, as described above, and in Riverside County through a strategic partnership with SBX Youth & Family Services that began during the pandemic. This latest partnership is a joint effort at SBX’s Moreno Valley Youth Village, a 4-acre haven dedicated to providing comprehensive housing services for young people and their families. The Clubhouse brings their approach to technology, mentorship, and youth engagement to the youth and families at the Village, and together they work on cultivating an environment that is characterized by personal growth, technological education, and a sense of belonging. With additional partnerships on the horizon, ListoAmerica hopes to continue growing its impact.

And in the stories above, we can see more of what that impact really looks like. At first glance, it is easy to see teens getting to use cutting-edge tech. But taking a closer look, we can see how ListoAmerica is using tech deliberately: to support youth leadership and creativity, to engage with culture that affirms and uplifts their members, to build supportive peer-to-peer connections, and more. As a result, the Clubhouse isn’t just a tech resource for teens — it is a community that buttresses their wellbeing.

This case study was produced in partnership with ListoAmerica and the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, with the support of Brian Cross, research consultant; Mimi Ito, Connected Learning Lab Director at UC Irvine; and Krithika Jagannath, postdoctoral scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. We also thank the communications and web team at the Connected Learning Alliance for their work on layout and design.