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For underprivileged teens, tech center offers chance to build critical skills

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Sophia Greiner is fascinated by the 3-D printer.
Sophia Greiner prints a pink octopus using a 3-D printer at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center at the Minneapolis Central Library on Sept. 27, 2017.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Last year, Kiara Raquel was launching her natural skin care line when she made a discovery that would change the way she does business. 

While at the Minneapolis Central Library she came across a room where she "saw some stuff going on." 

Intrigued, she went in and discovered all the available software and equipment — like Photoshop and cameras — that she could use for free. 

"This is expensive stuff that I wouldn't have access to unless I went and bought Adobe, which is getting more and more expensive each year," said Raquel.

The 18-year-old is now one of about 300 active members of Best Buy's Teen Tech Center at the library. It serves underprivileged youth by providing them with hands-on access to technology in a creative space where they can learn new skills and make things. Membership is free. 

In Raquel's case, she realized the tech center could help her market her growing business. In just a year, she's learned how to use a green screen, edit photos and create business cards and other marketing material for Venus Raquel Beauty Care. It's material she might not have otherwise been able to make without the help of the teen tech center. 

Donny Chiqui plays the guitar by the green screen at the teen tech center.
Donny Chiqui plays the guitar by the green screen at the teen tech center.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

The after-school drop-in space is open Mondays through Thursdays until 8 p.m. It's manned by three full-time staffers, along with members of the Hennepin County library system's teen tech squad. Professional and student mentors also volunteer their time. 

It's a "space that's their own," said Amelia Hansa, the Minneapolis tech center's coordinator. "By being able to come and be creative in a way that maybe you're not able to at school or other parts of you life — this is a place you can come and do that. And while you're doing that, you're learning skills that can be marketable." 

The center is loaded with the latest technology, from virtual reality headsets to a green screen to a soundproof recording studio. A bank of computers on one end of the space features photo and video editing software. Nearby is a small music station housing guitars and a keyboard, while a row of printers — big and small and 3-D — churn out banners and photos and chess pieces. The center also includes what some could consider low-tech equipment, like a button maker, T-shirt press and sewing machines. But their purpose is the same as their high-tech cousins — to give members a chance to develop their know-how that could later come in handy.

The tech center has been open since January 2013 and is one of nearly a dozen across the country. It's currently the only one in Minnesota, but Best Buy plans to add three teen tech centers in the Twin Cities, at Hope Community and Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis and Keystone Community Services in St. Paul. Two are expected to open next month; the Hope site has a January target date. 

The new spaces are part of Best Buy's expansion of the tech program. In October, the company announced that the number of tech centers will grow to more than 60 across the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next three years.

"We're uniquely trying to equip these kids to have not just an interest in technology and learning more, but then also acquiring the skills that would make them successful," said William Woodworth, program manager of the Best Buy Teen Tech Centers. 

Dusti Swanson and Jerome McRoy hang out by the computers.
Dusti Swanson and Jerome McRony hang out by the computers at the tech center. Swanson is a mentor at the teen tech center and McRony is a teen volunteer. They help younger teens out with computer skills.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Like Jerome McRony, 19, of Brooklyn Park. He started going to the Minneapolis tech center when he was a freshman in high school. With an aptitude for art, he was already making his own comics and writing books. But then one of the mentors introduced him to Photoshop. 

At first, "I didn't really want to have anything to do with it," he said. "But with me drawing and stuff like that, I was able to kind of bring it to life on the computer."

"It makes me very excited about how far I can really go with it," he said. 

Today, he's a student at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, studying graphic design. He has also returned to the tech center — but this time as a volunteer mentor.

He wishes it had been around when he was younger. The space, he says, needs to exist "because if you don't have the software, you don't have the resources — we can give that to you."

That's crucial in today's digitally oriented world, said Kari Smalkoski, a researcher in the University of Minnesota's Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality studies. She's currently working on a project, 10,000 Stories: Minnesota Youth Make Media, that gives students the opportunity to tell their stories digitally to highlight issues important to them.

"It really speaks to the digital divide and how the digital divide really is very much a part of the achievement gap and educational disparities, because it's really leaving a lot of kids behind when you think about the technical and technology skills and media skills that are needed for the 21st century," she said. 

A young man raps in the studio of the Teen Tech Center.
A young man raps in the studio of the Teen Tech Center in the Minneapolis Central Library.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

Earlier this year, jobs site Glassdoor released its 50 best jobs in America list. Tech jobs claimed 14 spots, more than any other specialty. CNBC, citing data from staffing and consulting firm Randstad North America, reports that as of 2016, the United States had about 3 million more STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs available than it had skilled workers to fill them. And Money magazine is predicting that some of the hottest jobs in 2040 will include tech-oriented positions like virtual store manager, drone traffic controller and augmented reality designer. 

"If (students are) left behind now and they don't have access to learning those things, it's going to be very hard for them to be able to catch up later," Smalkoski said. 

For 13-year-old Diego Greiner and his sister Sophia Greiner, 12, the Minneapolis tech center is really the only place they can freely use computers and other technology. At the beginning of the school year, they were living in a shelter with their parents and three other sisters. 

After a friend introduced them to the center, they now go as often as they can. Diego can usually be found using the virtual reality headsets — he says he'd like to try making a game someday — while Sophia bounces around various project stations, learning a little bit of everything. 

"I've sewed, I've done 3-D printing and I've made pins," she said. Right now, she's learning how to knit. 

But hands-on access to technology isn't the only reason she and her brother keep going back. As it has for many others, the tech center has become their own little supportive community where they can be themselves, explore, ask questions and help one another. 

Young mothers also have an opportunity to care for their young ones.
Kiara Raquel tends to her son, Malcolm, while working in the tech center.
Maria Alejandra Cardona | MPR News

"I didn't feel like there was ever a time that I came here and I felt like I was uncomfortable, that I wasn't safe, that I couldn't express myself," McRony said. 

The same is true for Kiara Raquel, who also gets help in the form of extra hands while she tries to grow her business. She has an infant son, Malcolm, who she brings with her when she visits the tech center. 

"He's like the community baby. ... everybody in here holds the baby," she said. 

If she's trying to work and it looks like she needs to focus, a staff member or volunteer will always volunteer to hold him. 

"That's just heartwarming that I don't have to ask," she said.