Maven Youth: Supporting LGBTQIA+
Teens as Tech Innovators and Peer Leaders

by Colin Angevine

A Case Study from the Connected Wellbeing Impact Studio

“The parents are kind of floored, saying, ‘That’s my child up there presenting and talking and laughing [and sharing] what they created?!’”

– Monica Arrambide, founder of Maven Youth

Picture the scene: four teenagers stand at the front of a corporate conference room. On the wall is the name of a tech company — one popular enough that you would probably recognize it. On a screen projected behind the teens is the name of another company — but this is one that you’ve never heard of before, because it doesn’t yet exist. With a little bit of nerves and a lot of pride, the teens launch into a presentation to the audience before them (a mix of peers, parents, and mentors) about the new company they’ve spent the last two weeks envisioning.

The final day of summer camp at Maven Youth often includes pitch presentations like this one. Small groups, which refer to themselves as nascent “companies,” present the concepts they have been working on for the company’s first “product,” which usually take the form of an interactive novel video game or mobile app. Each person in the group is responsible for contributing something distinct: programming, visual design, storytelling, and marketing are the most common roles for team members. The presentations feature a demonstration of how their game or story works and an explanation of the rationale for the group’s concept. In the weeks leading up to this moment, campers learn new skills and collaborate with their teammates in workshops and programs led by a mix of near-peer youth leaders and mentors from the tech company that is hosting them.

Pitch presentations, much like the workshops leading up to them, are characterized by the supportive community that fills the room. Behind this support is not only a shared interest in tech, but a shared identity: all of the youth participants and adult mentors identify as LGBTQIA+.

Since 2009, Maven Youth has been leveraging technologies and running programs to empower LGBTQIA+ teens and support their wellbeing. In this case study, we describe the program and organizational model of Maven Youth and discuss its grounding in connected wellbeing approaches.

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:

Principles
  • 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.
Approaches
  • Connecting to people who get you
  • Harnessing tech for equity and inclusion
  • Diversifying and amplifying youth voice

Maven Youth 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 Maven Youth supports youth wellbeing in the digital age.

History and Context

Two youth youth leaders in the front of the room as they lead their Ren’py workshop.

When Monica Arrambide founded Maven Youth, Facebook was only available to college students and Second Life was the cutting edge of what is now referred to in the mainstream as the metaverse. Gay marriage wasn’t federally legal; the US Supreme Court wouldn’t recognize marriage equality for another 6 years. Monica had been a youth worker at LGBTQIA+ centers for years, and they had an idea to use technology to reach queer teens who didn’t feel safe enough to enter the center:

“Time after time of years of working with youth, I would hear that story of how [teens] would do drive-bys or stand outside and look in, but never enter our center because they didn’t know what was behind the door.” The solution? Monica decided to create a replica of their LGBT center in Second Life, a popular virtual world at the time, so teens could peek inside from the safety of their own homes. “I thought, well, maybe that’ll break the barrier, because anybody can create a profile, come in and actually take a tour of the center and a virtual space.”

Group shot of youth leaders and camp participants. They are holding up LGBTQIA signs that express their pride.

A group of 4 camp participants as they present out the project they created over the course of their 2 week experience.

Monica didn’t have any special tech skills or formal training in computer science, but the virtual LGBT center started to get some traction. Pretty quickly, however, Monica knew that something wasn’t quite right with their idea: “I didn’t feel good about creating [the virtual world] without youth. I didn’t want to be the adult creating a program with my vision – [I wanted to] have the youth be the creators of what that could look like.” Monica’s strengths are in youth development, not computer science, and they knew that they wanted youth to participate in the very design of what they were starting. Eventually, Monica set aside the virtual world for the real world.

Today, Maven Youth runs annual summer camps for teens who identify as LGBTQIA+ in cities with tech hubs around the country. Partnerships with tech companies in San Francisco, New York, Austin, Chicago, and Boulder have hosted Maven Youth for two-week camp sessions, providing space in their offices, breakfast and lunch for campers, and mentoring support from staff members who also identify as LGBTQIA+. A lean year-round staff works with youth leaders who play important roles: the curriculum was largely designed by youth, and the camp counselors are specially trained youth who run the majority of the program day in and day out. Maven Youth’s summer camps aren’t only a fun summertime experience or a potential onramp to high tech jobs — they are an affirming experience that supports the wellbeing of teens who may otherwise be marginalized because of their identity.

Group shot of youth leaders and camp participants. They are holding up LGBTQIA signs that express their pride.

A group of 4 camp participants as they present out the project they created over the course of their 2 week experience.

Connected Wellbeing in Action

A Youth Leader pointing towards a flow chart paper, where they are explaining Maven Youth’s group agreements.

In the vignettes that follow, we share stories from Maven Youth that describe the program’s approach to supporting teens who identify as LGBTQIA+ through youth leadership opportunities and creative uses of technology.

"Three Months Deep" and "Horizons"

Jump back to the conference room you imagined at the start of this case study: the teens are in the front of the room, the tech company logo is on the wall, and we’re about to hear the concept that the campers have been developing for the last two weeks. What does their pitch actually look like? Consider a few examples:

In their game “Three Months Deep,” four campers tell the story of a queer teenager who writes letters from a juvenile detention center to “the only person who still cares to hear what [they] have to say.” The story is told with art, scripted dialogue, and code that was created by the campers. The teens offer their version of a company’s mission statement that led to this game:

“Here at ARSUNYSE INC., we value authenticity and inclusion over anything else. Like 3 Months Deep, all of our games are dedicated to bringing light to issues faced by marginalized communities. We work to balance enjoyment and education in order to make a truly valuable experience for every player.”

Example slide from a presentation about “Horizons” logo design.

With “Horizons,” another group of teens present an app that provides information and resources to improve the outcomes of LGBTQIA+ teens in the foster care system. In their demo, they show how users can select that they are a government agent, part of a foster family, or a teen in foster care who identifies as LGBTQIA+. The app then provides educational materials for each user to navigate the foster care system and make it a safer place. The presenters go on to describe how the logo for Horizons deliberately evokes an image of a heart and uses calming pastel colors, and they show a mockup of what Horizon’s Instagram feed would look like and provide an overview of a hypothetical social media strategy.

Presentations like these offer a special moment for campers to showcase the work they’ve done and for their peers at camp and the professionals at the host tech company to celebrate their accomplishments. Presentations are also open to parents, who have often responded with delighted surprise at seeing their teens thrive in this context, especially when those same teens may struggle to feel socially connected in other places that don’t affirm their identity. Monica recalls times when “The parents are kind of floored, saying, ‘That’s my child up there presenting and talking and laughing [and sharing] what they created?!’” In moments like these, it is clear that the technology at camp is only a means to an end: the key outcome that drives Maven Youth is about affirming teens and building their connections to a supportive community.

Research background: Positive youth development

Maven Youth embodies a positive youth development (PYD) approach by giving  youth spaces and opportunities to exercise their own agency and voice. PYD takes a holistic approach to youth development that recognizes the importance of healthy relationships, 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.  Youth creative production that embodies a “collegial pedagogy” of reciprocity in adult-youth collaboration is a particularly powerful way of amplifying youth agency and voice.

Five youth leaders up front, introducing themselves to the campers. On the screen are pictures of them and Monica.

Youth in the lead

It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a fleet of trained teens to run a Maven Youth summer camp.

In addition to being co-created directly with young people, Maven Youth has developed an organizational structure that reciprocally trains youth and relies on them for their leadership. For example, after attending Maven Youth as a camper, teens have the opportunity to apply to become a youth leader, which then positions them to help run the camp in future summers. The following image depicts the training program youth leaders follow: an application process, an orientation meeting, multi-day training retreats that are both online and in person, and recurring camp leadership meetings.

Leadership Program (Summer Camps) Overview.

As youth leaders, these teens don’t just facilitate the program, they help to design and redesign it too. Most of the curriculum has been created by youth leaders, and every year it evolves in different ways. It was never Monica’s intention to be the adult who built the summer program on their own — instead, it was to build the youth leadership structure that would allow teens to build the program for their peers.

The result has led to success stories like Horizons and Three Months Deep, and meaningful experiences described by the youth leaders themselves. Sam Gonzalez, once a camper, then a youth leader, then an intern, and now a full time program coordinator for Maven Youth, is clear that the nonprofit “definitely helped shape me for who I am today.” Sam even describes some of his proudest moments coming from his time with Maven Youth. Positive experiences like Sam’s don’t come easy — it’s hard work, and teens put in long days to ensure the success of the programs they’re helping to lead. But the effort is deeply rewarding for teens, who grow as leaders and build lasting connections with other queer teens from different walks of life. As a recent intern reflected on “how impactful this experience was in both building my confidence in entering the professional world but also getting to experience the talent and creativity of LGBTQ+ youth. […] I come out of this experience feeling inspired and empowered to best meet the needs of LGBTQ+ youth around the country. […] I am in awe from the passion and collaboration that was fostered by the amazing youth that participated in our summer programming.”

Youth leadership stories like this one create a virtuous cycle for Maven Youth: leaders create memorable experiences for campers, then campers in turn grow into leaders themselves.

Two youth leaders presenting in the front of the room, leading a workshop on character design. The participants in the photo all have drawing tablets and an art program open.

Research background: Youth leadership and voice

A growing body of evidence indicates how centering programs on  youth leadership and voice is an effective way of engaging youth and spreading new programs and behaviors. Asset and action based approaches that tap the unique power that young people have in making change and mobilizing their peers are particularly well suited to the strengths of youth from marginalized communities. Research has documented many cases where limited stakeholder input meant innovations intended to broaden access resulted in more benefits to already privileged groups. Youth-adult co-design and  participatory action research have resulted in solutions that reflect the genuine needs and culture of diverse groups of young people. Maven Youth’s leadership program reflects these research-backed approaches to co-design and mobilizing youth for change-making, including youth participatory action research, youth organizing, and transformative student voice.

A group shot of the youth leaders, camp participants, and Maven Staff in front of a drone. This photo was taken at Zipline.

Hearing it from a peer

In addition to the benefits experienced by youth leaders, this peer-to-peer and near-peer mentorship structure has positive effects on all campers. While adults in professional roles at tech companies do play important roles as mentors, many teens find that support and affirmation from their peers and near-peers is even more powerful than from adults. Monica describes the impact of the authenticity that comes from strong peer relationships: “It’s that youth-to-youth peer education and leadership that would go light years ahead of any tech professional going up to [a camper] and saying, ‘Oh, you would be good at digital art.’ You can hear that, but sometimes there’s a level of, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I really believe that.’”

“It’s that youth-to-youth peer education and leadership that would go light years ahead of any tech professional going up to [a camper] and saying, ‘Oh, you would be good at digital art.’ You can hear that, but sometimes there’s a level of, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I really believe that.” – Monica Arrambide, founder of Maven Youth

Research background: Peer support for wellbeing

Research by the Trevor Project shines a spotlight on the harassment and mental health risks that LGBTQ youth face, and the important role of safe and supportive spaces in times of crisis. Research shows that peer support plays an important role in fostering  mental health and is particularly important during adolescence. By facilitating youth-led social support and authentic peer-to-peer relationships, Maven Youth offers a strong foundation for nurturing youth wellbeing.

Maven Youth is committed to creating a context for peer-to-peer trust and dialogue to happen. This same peer-to-peer context helps spur a growth mindset among campers that helps constructive feedback (and not just positive affirmations) feel authentic and valuable too. Sam thinks back to early experiences feeling intimidated as a youth leader: “It was a bit nerve wracking. I was like, ‘Oh my God, what if I do it wrong?’” But later found reassurance that, even when things do go wrong, “…It just helps us grow, so that we know: now we know to change this.” Potent and supportive peer relationships like this are core to Maven Youth’s program and to how the organization is structured.

Conclusion

A group shot of the youth leaders, camp participants, and the tech hosts at a rest area in the Similarweb office.

Over the last 14 years, Maven Youth has been leveraging technology in creative ways to connect LGBTQIA+ teens with each other and to support their wellbeing. This work started in virtual worlds and has since taken shape as a summer camp that is spreading to new host cities around the country. The structure of the organization develops and then relies on youth leaders to co-create curriculum and co-facilitate these summer programs. The result is a youth-powered approach that builds community, develops important skills, and strengthens youth wellbeing.

This case study was produced in partnership with Maven Youth 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.