Innovating dreams

Oakridge teen tech center providing safe space for teens to dream as they pursue alternative career paths

Coming to the Oakridge Studio teen tech center has helped bring his vision of being a photographer and videographer into focus, said 20-year-old Israel Kelai, who goes by Izzy.

Izzy, a 2022 graduate of Des Moines North High School, has been going to the center in Mainframe Studios since it opened in December to learn and develop his skills in hopes of taking his young career to the next level.

The access to equipment and technology, but also the people, has made a difference in his life, he said.

It’s that combination of knowledge and people who come to the center with their own ideas and dreams that inspire him, Izzy said.

“There’s a spark of inspiration and hope in my body that it feels like ‘oh, I can do this, too,’” he said about being exposed to the interests and talents of others who come to the center. “It’s opening up that mental capacity and mental access that I can do other things. That I’m not limited to just doing one thing and I shouldn’t be limited to do just one thing. If you are, it puts you in a box.”

Kelai works with Emmett Phillips, career pathways coordinator in the center’s sound studio in Mainframe Studios. Photo by Duane Tinkey

The center

The teen tech center, operated by Oakridge Neighborhood, is funded by the Best Buy Foundation and Wellpoint (formerly Amerigroup Iowa). It’s also a member of the Clubhouse Network and has received support from the local corporate community.

The center offers young people ages 13 to 21 the opportunity to explore cutting-edge technologies, like music and vocal production, audio engineering and robotics, augmented and virtual reality, 3D printing, design, engraving, drones and more. Students can participate in both collaborative and individual projects, training and workshops.

The goal is not only to give students the opportunity to explore technologies they might not otherwise have access to but also to provide opportunities through mentoring and internships to see how they can turn their interest in technology into a career for the future.

Izzy’s journey

Izzy first became interested in photography in high school. He took some classes and learned some of the basics. He bought his first film camera and began his own business shooting photos. Being artistic is part of who Izzy is. He launched his own clothing line and teaches dance to elementary students through the Des Moines Art Center to help make ends meet.

While he had already learned some basic photography skills and basic business fundamentals, the tech center has given him the chance to learn more about editing, shooting video, social media marketing and more.

“Whatever you do leads to another thing, so they always connect,” he said. “When you try new things, you try things that you like and then see how it can fit with whatever you’re already doing  and then branch off your business in different ways.”

After coming to the center, Izzy got a job working for Mainframe Studios doing social media marketing.

Izzy, who knew early on that pursuing a college degree wouldn’t be for him, said being surrounded by like-minded people who can learn from and inspire each other is important to him.

“You pick up inspiration from them. You pick up ideas. Having that here is great for everybody,” he said. “It helps everybody stay on their goals and dreams, refines their mind to think bigger. It makes people more of a thought leader.”

Israel Kelai, or Izzy, is pictured working with Derek Frank, the coordinator of the Oakridge Studio Best Buy Teen Tech Center at Mainframe Studios. Photo by Duane Tinkey

The evolving mission

Derek Frank, the center’s coordinator, said it’s been exciting to see how the center has evolved in the short time it’s been open.

“I knew what the potential was but now seeing how it has affected people … has been great,” he said. “It’s like the light bulb turns on even more. I had a really good grasp of what it was and what it would be. But it’s all changed in a great way. I didn’t think we had so many people wanting to be entrepreneurs right away.”

While some of the younger people come in because they want to experiment on the technology, they see what some of the older kids are working on and become curious, Frank said.

Frank gave an example of a group of 13-year-olds coming in one day to play on virtual reality headsets. They saw Izzy and other older participants, who got jobs working on projects for Mainframe Studios.

“And instantly, you see in [the younger kids’] eyes, ‘How can I make some money? I should probably be doing something because they’re making money. How can I do that?’ You could see their brains shifting. They wanted to come in and play on VR headsets [and it changed] to ‘how can I make some money? How can I be creative and make money?’”

Frank said while the center brings in members of the business community to help mentor and advise young people, he’s been surprised to see how older participants at the center have stepped into leadership roles and mentor and guide the younger kids. That has created a system of self-governance and makes what happens at the center more organic and holistic.

“It’s that evolution of the space that is super important to me, and I think it’s the biggest asset we have,” Frank said.

Keeping the space flexible to accommodate the interests and needs of those who attend is also critical to the center’s success, he said.

The center also has received another grant through Best Buy to fund a career pathways staff member to help find the youths jobs, internships and mentoring opportunities. That person is Emmett Philips, a performing artist and longtime member of Oakridge’s youth department.

Frank said the opportunity for young people to explore nontraditional career paths is important, and the career pathways position will further help facilitate those opportunities.

“I think it’s more important than my position because [we’re] seeing how this is changing people’s lives,” he said. “We’re only going to get bigger and we’re only going to get better. We’re going to tell more people and it ties this space into more of what Oakridge does.”

Kristin Littlejohn, vice president of development at Oakridge Neighborhood, said the career pathways staffer will be a peer to Frank and is a “perfect complement to what this space does.”

“It’s a perfect fit for the teen tech center and a perfect fit for Oakridge because now you’re opening the door to a pipeline of talent that might not otherwise have had those opportunities,” Littlejohn said.

Frank said there has also been an increase in people wanting to volunteer.

“Having the community start to understand what it is and that messaging and wanting to get involved, that’s what this is all about,” he said. “Not even having to ask the community to be involved and them just wanting to is just a dream.”

The number of young people who come to the center can vary widely, but it averages around 15 a day. Many of them are in the 19- to 21-year-old age group that college didn’t fit into their lives, Frank said.

“They needed a place to be and this is that place and now they’re doing some great work,” he said.

A safe space to create

Not only does the center provide a space for belonging, but it’s a space that gives young people a place to be creative without an agenda, Frank said.

“I think that permission of just letting them explore is what is the most important,” Frank said. “Just letting them explore. We’ve had quite a few failures and they’ve tried some things that didn’t work, but they have to have that permission to try.”

Littlejohn said the center provides an opportunity that is unique to the community.

“I think there was a misunderstanding when we received the grant that we were building a tech center that would replicate what others were doing,” she said. “I think in a short period of time we’ve shown to others what this space is about. You can learn more about coding, but there’s not going to be a coding class and … there’s [not] going to be a test. That’s not our role.”

Instead, the center provides the opportunity for kids to explore their interests and see where it takes them.

“Our goal is if that’s your jam, then come in and learn more and play with it and take it where you want it to go,” Littlejohn said.

The inclusive environment also makes the center a unique workforce development tool, she said.

“We don’t shut the doors to anyone, aside from age,” Littlejohn said. “You don’t have to have a certain grade-point average. You don’t have to be good at calculus. This opens the doors to so many who might not otherwise have that option. I think it’s delivered, and we just started.”

Frank said the center is designed to help young people dream.

“I’ve told a lot of them that someday I want them to call me and ask to hire me for their company,” he said. “I want them to get so good and get so much further than they ever thought they could. I love that they can dream and no one’s telling them that they can’t.”

Littlejohn said providing a space to dream is important for young people who may have otherwise experienced “too much reality.”

“So much of their lives are spent in an overwhelming amount of reality, [or] trauma, and when they come here, for the most part, it’s the first time they’re able to be free to let go and dream of anything and be presented with an opportunity to let everything at home go, any limitations or barriers or school and actually see themselves in any light. So, for that, it’s life-altering,” she said.

For Izzy, the center provides a place to escape and create.

“Having space like this is good for the mental, spiritual things and to keep people safe and keep people on their path of what they want to do,” he said. “I think that’s what is missing today, is having that sense of option to know they can do that.”