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Less than 10 blocks from Temple University sits the Caring People Alliance R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club, where you’ll often find a room full of teens playing video games, doing each other’s hair and just hanging out doing homework.
On a bright spring day in April, I received a tour of the space from 16-year-old Kamerin Isley, who has been going to the R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club for about 10 years, first for its after-school program, and now for its teen program. In his words, he’s been at the club for “too long.”
Isley showed me all the different activities available for teenagers at the club, including a sound recording studio, a video game station, apparel printing, a workout room, 3D printers, a craft room and a cosmetology station. Isley currently leads the club’s podcast, and edits other videos for their YouTube channel, R.W.B Teenz. He spent most of our time together showing me the videos he’s editing and ones he’s already produced.
“I’ve always been interested in technology,” he told me. “But videography, there was a guy here, he ran his own production company, he does his own videoing. He’s popular in Philly. He came in here and he mentored me and a couple other kids. He mainly mentored me and he motivated me. Now ever since then, this is all I do.”
R.W.B. Teenz is just one of the tech-focused activities that are available for young adults at R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club. The club is operated by the Caring People Alliance (CPA), an anti-violence program that supports families and youth in Philadelphia.
Branon Gilmore, senior director of program and service delivery for CPA, said the teen program started having more of a focus as a safe place for teens to come and talk about whatever was on their minds in 2018. Tech-focused programming started with a recording studio and an Xbox the following year. Gilmore said CPA started integrating more tech into its teen program a few years ago as a way to recruit more teenagers and engage with them after school, getting them off the streets.
“That three to seven [p.m.] range when teens get out of school, subsidy is no longer paying for childcare because the child has turned 13. Where do they go?” Gilmore said. “A lot of the rec centers are closed in the city. We had Boys & Girls Clubs in high-risk communities where teens were at high risk of experiencing violence or trauma.”
Gilmore called this the “pandemic before the COVID pandemic.”
Quamir Williams and Shakeem Smith were two of the original club members who helped build up its tech activities, starting with the studio where they recorded and produced their own songs. Williams and Smith are both now in their 20s and working to help support their families, but Williams said his experience setting up and building computers for the club makes him want to pursue that professionally. Smith said he wants to be a software developer and build websites.
“We didn’t have really good technology back then, we [weren’t] really focused on technology as kids, but growing and coming through the years in this program, there’s been stuff to introduce us to many things within technology,” Smith said.
Gilmore said the focus on technology-based activities came from knowing its what kids are interested in and also what could be useful to them in their future careers. The teenagers who come to the club have access to software to design video games, design digital art, and many produce videos and audio.
“Some of the kids are coming from backgrounds where they have access to this technology. Our kids do not, they don’t have access to this technology in their schools,” Gilmore said. “So we become a place where they can come. And we can expose them to things and skills that they’re going to need in order to have a level playing field as they leave us.”
Gilmore said he wants the teens in the program to think more about their futures through this programming. For example, the club participates in the Summer WorkReady program with the Philadelphia Youth Network. Part of this summer program involves the teenagers pitching a business in a “‘Shark Tank’-style” presentation. The club has an entrepreneurship class during the school year and a program where they sell the items they make in the club at the front desk to the families who come through.
The teen program at R.W. Brown Boys & Girls Club in North Philly is the biggest of CPA’s three clubs, and Gilmore said they are trying to bring more tech-focused activities into their other centers in South and West Philly.
“We have children who are like sponges, waiting to absorb whatever it is [that] someone’s going to teach them,” Gilmore said.
Gilmore said that sometimes they have volunteers come in to teach the kids how to use the technology, but most of the time, the kids are figuring out how to do it all on their own. He said that if companies in Philly are interested in diversifying their talent pool or giving back to the city, they should come volunteer with the club, and CPA is always open to new people coming in to teach the teens. He said it would be even better if CPA could connect with companies and create internship opportunities for them.
“We have children who are like sponges, waiting to absorb whatever it is [that] someone’s going to teach them,” Gilmore said. “That person just needs to come. And some people may think that it’s a time consuming commitment and it’s not, it doesn’t have to be.”
As for Isley, he said he wants to pursue videography and editing in the future. Gilmore said Isley is so active in the teen club that sometimes he thinks they should be paying him — younger teens see the work he does and gravitated to him with an interest in learning.
Isley’s time at the club has been cut back a bit since he’s gotten more involved with sports, but he told me he’s always willing to teach someone how to use the club’s tech.
“That’s what I love coming to this program,” Isley said. “Is that you not only have people here to motivate you, but you can motivate others to go out and do the same thing.”Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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