May 19, 2021

When the Clubhouse Doors Close: Discord Opens New Spaces to Create and Connect

Krithika Jagannath, Remy Cross, Katie Salen Tekinbas

“Even though being LatinX has a really big part in uniting us, it isn’t the only part. The common ground doesn’t necessarily have to be built on race. It can be the things we enjoy – music, tech…” Audrey, member of ListoAmerica Digital Clubhouse

Listo in Spanish means to “be prepared.” ListoAmerica is a LatinX-serving organization committed to preparing underserved youth for success in adulthood. Vulnerable youth populations, including LatinX, encounter stigmas and barriers around resources for mental wellbeing (e.g., Umaña-Taylor & Updegraff, 2007). Research strongly suggests that these youth need culturally responsive forms of support within authentic contexts for positive development (Ito, et al., 2021). ListoAmerica plays a vital role in providing such embedded support for these youth.

The question of “how can we help you in your life, whatever path you choose to take?” sums up the core ethos of the organization. “There’s a very Latino culture that bonds us all as a family,” says Gustavo Madrigal, Creative Tech Learning & Development Program Director at ListoAmerica. ListoAmerica taps into youth interests in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) through an after-school Clubhouse program as part of the Clubhouse Network. It is a place where young people can hang out after school, get snacks, learn to code, work on a drone, explore other cutting-edge technologies, or receive tutoring. ListoAmerica’s unique approach results in integrating members’ interests within and beyond school. It provides mentorship, community connections, and resources for its members and their families.

Finding Discord

In Spring 2020, when stay-at-home orders shuttered the physical space that housed the Clubhouse, ListoAmerica was faced with the urgent question of how they might continue to support their members remotely. Beyond continuing their after-school programming, ListoAmerica was concerned with maintaining community connection, which was so vital to their youth and families. “In the early days, we were doing a lot of hangouts in Google Meet, and then it was actually one of our members who suggested Discord—that we should build a Discord server,”  says Gustavo. Discord, a popular online social platform, allows anyone to spin up and customize their own server. ListoAmerica was eager to understand how they could leverage the social richness of the platform to tailor a server for its members. Researchers from the Connected Learning Lab (CLL) at the University of California, Irvine partnered with ListoAmerica and adopted a “design from within” paradigm to help them explore this question.

The following case study explores key learnings from the design of the ListoAmerica Clubhouse Server on Discord. We describe how ListoAmerica mentors and members shaped the design of their Discord server, using it as a space for connection and community wellbeing.

The Spaces of Refuge series highlights organizations, technologies, and programs that leverage social and digital media to support mental health and wellbeing for vulnerable youth and embody the following guiding principles:

  1. Meet youth where they are: Too often, experts and adults have designed technologies and programs, only to struggle to have youth, and particularly minoritized youth, engage with them. Youth populations that innovators are seeking to serve should be involved from the start, with their interests, practices, and lived experience informing and driving the development and deployment of new efforts.
  2. Tailor to diverse groups and ages: Youth are often described as a monolithic group, even though we know that young people’s backgrounds and interests are just as diverse as we see in the adult world. Approaches must be tailored from and draw from the needs and assets of specific populations and communities in order to arrive at equitable solutions.
  3. Build connections between existing assets: Despite an explosion of apps and online content for mental health, wellbeing, and self-care, the evidence is clear that vulnerable youth are not connecting to these assets. The critical gap in the ecosystem is the connection, translation, and tailoring of expert content and wellbeing resources for vulnerable youth, where and when they need them.
  4. Tap youth agency and peer-to-peer support: Youth leadership, knowledge, and lived experience in supporting each other in times of distress, amplifying positive practices, and working against toxicity online, are generally not considered in the design of wellbeing apps and interventions, even when they are intended for youth. Tapping youth agency and expertise is critical, particularly with technology-intensive interventions that require youth buy-in and engagement.

Evolution of the ListoAmerica Server/Reconnecting a Community Online

Gustavo was inspired to create a Discord server for ListoAmerica Clubhouse in early 2021. He saw the potential of the platform to create a community space for two initiatives that had occupied members over the summer—the Black Lives Matter movement and a research project centered on youth wellness and social media. We worked with ListoAmerica leadership and youth mentors to customize the server to support these initiatives and create a community space that felt true to the ListoAmerica ethos.

Youth mentors discussed their goals for the ListoAmerica server and how they might welcome new members to the clubhouse, and various projects such as adding Discord bots to make the server more interactive and organizing live social events for members. They wanted to help ListoAmerica members remain virtually connected and share their activities in the clubhouse, school, and everyday life. “I am a member of another program in my school. They’ve been using Discord a lot,” noted Lesly, a youth mentor. “They have random topics where we can talk about movies, TV, food, gardening. … Having outlets like that will help build the community… It’s not always about the topics, it’s about the relationships.

It took a few weeks but soon mentors began testing out concrete ideas on the server. Many of these were channels focused on the day-to-day realities of student life amid a pandemic. Youth mentors were juggling multiple responsibilities at home, school, and work. Some of them shared during design check-in meetings that they were taking care of younger siblings or cousins, helping their parents and extended family members, and were busy with school while also working part-time jobs. The channels they created focused on sharing resources on wellness, financial literacy, and study tips and tricks.

Gustavo noted how important it was that youth could log in to the server as their time allowed: “… they can keep the conversation thread. That’s unique about the platform. That wasn’t possible with the clubhouse. [There are] opportunities to connect on weekends or offline hours.” Youth mentors prioritized social connections and wanted to make the server a place where members could hang out and talk to each other. As Yarin, one of the mentors put it, “Once we do that, and reach that level of participation and investment, then we can start pushing more on the STEM stuff.”

Meet youth where they are

Initially the server was set up to represent the wide range of potential and actual projects that had been present at the physical clubhouse space. But after consultation with the youth mentors and ListoAmerica leadership, several changes were made to better accommodate the youth’s goals for the server. While the adult mentors had focused on the STEM-related work that was often the focal point of the physical clubhouse space, the youth sought to emphasize the interpersonal and interactive aspects that Discord afforded them. During the pandemic, their opportunities to just ‘hang out’ and ‘catch up’ had been limited, so the first changes they suggested for the Discord were focused on social connection and creating a sense of community.

Mentors moved the hangouts voice channel to the top of the channel list on the ListoAmerica server. This virtual hangout is akin to a lobby or lounge as an informal social space on the server where members can simply hang out together and talk, listen to music, wait for streaming events, or discuss Clubhouse projects. This simple change made a big difference in how members could discover and join the hangouts to chat with mentors and members. Members like Joseph would invite mentors and members to join him in the voice hangouts and everyone worked on programming or listened to music. This emphasis on connecting with youth around their interests helped keep members coming back. One way youth expressed their interests was in the creation of topic channels where members could chat, share memes, and helpful resources. Channels focused on wellbeing (good-vibes-and-health), food (food-craves), financial security (how-to-make-bank), and multiple channels focused on academic assistance (study-together, hw-help, and study-tips-and-tricks).

Additionally several members embraced the audio and video aspects of Discord by adding a music bot (Rhythm), and two new members became the ListoAmerica DJs with a special role being created on the server for them. Mentors did the same. Maritza streamed games such as Valorant that she played with her younger sister, also a member. A. Padilla streamed his coding and tech projects. The effect of these changes was to transform the server from a space situated around the adult mentors’ understanding of the clubhouse space to one that was more fully reflective of the needs and expectations of the youth. By allowing the youth mentors and members to shape the server to meet their interpersonal as well as project-based needs, the ListoAmerica Discord became a more active and welcoming space for its members.

Tailor to Diverse Groups and Ages

Diversity, in terms of ethnicity, interests, and ages, has always been part of the ListoAmerica story. As part of the wider Clubhouse network, the physical clubhouse has historically served middle school and high school youth. While STEM was a primary focus, all sorts of academic and community focused endeavors were encouraged by the ListoAmerica adult mentors. ListoAmerica is also in many ways unique among the clubhouse network due to their focus on Latinx members. By working with a wide age-group of mentors, members, and their younger siblings, ListoAmerica understands how to support age-appropriate needs.

In the digital clubhouse, it was not immediately clear how best to meet the needs of younger members, and how best to create a space that spoke to members’ cultural heritage. After discussions with the youth mentors, the adult mentors, and other members, several suggestions were made about how to change the server. Gustavo and other adult mentors reached out to ListoAmerica alumni and invited them to join the server while also empowering the youth mentors to suggest and make changes to the server. This allowed for the creation of intergenerational mentorships with older members sharing experiences and expertise downward to younger members. Additionally, mentors such as Maritza with younger siblings used their familial ties to speak to these younger members who were initially less likely to air their preferences on the server. Subsequently, several new channels focused on providing assistance for homework were created to help younger middle-grade members who were facing academic challenges. Building off of the pre-established intergenerational mentorships, these channels expanded to allow for college age students to mentor high school students, and graduated alumni to assist college age mentors.

The youth mentors often spoke of the stress that many ListoAmerica members experienced daily due to academic, financial, familial, peer, and other pressures. They expressed a reluctance to seek mental health help and the stigma that often exists in Latinx communities. The research team suggested that mentors could begin with simple things that make youth feel better or give them a pop of energy to refocus. The youth mentors worked with the adult staff and research team to identify culturally resonant practices that could provide relief and assistance. This included a channel on the server dedicated to ‘good-vibes-and-health’ where members shared tips and memes meant to reduce stress but in ways that did not employ clinical language. One member, Joseph, took it upon himself to post a ‘daily dose’ of memes to the channel; another member, Lesly, made an effort to offer a ‘question of the week’ to spur discussion and thought.

One of the memes that Joseph posted on the good-vibes-and-health channel

By leaning into their strengths, extended alumni networks, and content that provided tips without being too clinical in orientation, the ListoAmerica members and mentors were able to create a space that organically became a source of support and encouragement for their members in ways that both replicated and expanded upon what the physical clubhouse had offered.

Connections between existing assets

Integrating family is a key characteristic of ListoAmerica. Pre-pandemic, parents would visit the clubhouse during special events or occasions and regularly drop off and pick up their children. As Gustavo explained, a shared Latinx culture bonds everyone in ListoAmerica as a family. ListoAmerica staff build relationships with parents that reinforce trust, and know the youth for years from the time they enter as members until after they transition into mentors and alumni. Similarly, everyone is encouraged to bring their interests from experiences in school or real life into the community clubhouse space.

On the Discord server, mentors continue to extend such help to members and their families. “We’ve got that support down— we have each others’ backs,” said Gustavo. For instance, one of the mentors helped another mentor’s Spanish-speaking parents with English translation for an important legal matter. Lesly, a psychology major and ListoAmerica mentor, shared ideas for workshops that could help members with their application essays and tips for studying abroad, something she herself was currently working on. Additionally, Gustavo invited alumni who had been members of ListoAmerica years ago to re-engage with ListoAmerica through the Discord server, making it possible for many who had been unable to visit the physical clubhouse over the years to be more active in the digital space.

Tap Youth Agency and Peer-to-Peer Support

Mentorship is an integral aspect of ListoAmerica. Caring adults and youth are near-peer and peer mentors respectively, attending to the holistic contexts that encapsulate everyday life of members. Mentors also foster relationships with members’ parents, siblings, and extended family members. Research emphasizes the value of mentoring relationships formed out of authentic interactions in everyday contexts of LatinX youth (Anderson, Sánchez, & McMahon. 2019).

Mentors began with streaming topics and projects in two new voice channels for academic (#Study Together/Homework) and gaming activities. As they went on to talk about their own strategies for coping with and overcoming challenges, they wanted to cover more culturally relevant topics. Thus the Life Hacks category was born (Figure 2). Mentors took the lead in naming these channels appropriately so they would resonate with members. For example, “how-to-make-bank” is a channel where members can “learn about money (financial literacy), entrepreneurship, and cryptocurrencies”. They posted tips for academic activities such as effective note-taking in the #study-tips-and-tricks channel.  Mentors could easily arrange and rearrange channels on their Discord server.  For example, they moved the #hw-help and #food-craves channels out of the Life hacks category to a more general category so anyone could ask for or share information. Members, mentors, and alumni post pictures or share recommendations and recipes for their favorite foods.

Channels for sharing resources on wellness, financial literacy, and study tips and tricks

Wellness was one of the areas that mentors were interested in supporting. Lesly and Maritza came up with an 80-day wellness challenge idea for the server. They shared the details of the challenge with other mentors on the testing server. Adult mentors were able to offer immediate appreciation and suggested that they consider rolling out a smaller (e.g., 21 day or 30 day) challenge. Similarly, Lesly posts reflective prompts every week on the main ListoAmerica server and Joseph suggested the #good-vibes-and-health channel. ListoAmerica members and mentors have taken the initiative to care for their peers and themselves through the use of this channel. Adult mentors reminded youth mentors that wellness tips could be simple things that made them feel better or gave them a pop of energy to refocus. Discord makes it easy for members to post images, memes, and video links from TikTok, for example. Members can also react and reply to posts and continue threaded conversations if they like. The above examples relate to how Discord servers can be designed to offer both flexibility and agency for youth to claim these spaces as their own.

Five Key Takeaways

Our collaboration with ListoAmerica elicited several insights into the customization of community-based Discord servers for LatinX youth. Insights include:

  1. Don’t make it feel like school: Mentors at ListoAmerica recognize that online afterschool activities may be challenging, if not stressful, for many of their youth. They understand that members may have limited connectivity, restricted access to technology, or even have little interest in going online after long hours of virtual school. ListoAmerica focuses on nurturing self-directed and interest-driven engagement in members, whether it is online or off. Members can freely lurk (i.e. read posts without commenting or reacting even) or participate on the server. Similarly, youth mentors can take their own time and space to follow through any ideas (or place a pause on projects) and so on. In this way, the ListoAmerica Discord server continued to reflect the informal, welcoming vibe of the clubhouse.
  2. Just be present (and consistent): Caring mentors know that showing up consistently on the server signals their availability and support to youth. Research shows that mentorship is valuable in supporting academic and overall development in youth (Ito et al., 2013), particularly in LatinX youth (Anderson et al., 2019). ListoAmerica mentors host informal hangouts, react and respond to posts by members, and listen for activity on the server. As Gustavo puts it, “Give them the space where they could freely express themselves and connect with other people or mentors.”
  3. Build complexity slowly and over time: Start with the basics and incrementally add features and scaffolded supports. Discord offers a potentially bewildering array of options for users such as up to 500 text and voice channels, customizable AI bots, emojis, and integrating external platforms like YouTube, Twitch, or Reddit. Introducing too many new concepts or changes all at once may overwhelm or confuse new members. Mentors first created the voice hangouts channel on the ListoAmerica server. As members grew familiar with this channel, mentors added more channels under the Life Hacks category. Similarly, mentors created channels for newer clubhouse technologies like “Alexa skills” and “cryptography” over time based on workshops and events for members.
  4. Stay flexible/Build on what works (Be OK with getting rid of what does not work): (Re-)building online spaces that are responsive to members’ social and cultural needs takes time. Community leaders must be both open to building on ideas that gain momentum and getting rid of those that don’t. Mentors in ListoAmerica always gave everyone a heads-up about changes to the ListoAmerica server and paid attention to how members reacted to those changes. Discord is a highly flexible platform in that one can create additional “staging” servers that can act as a sandbox or prototype for testing out changes. Mentors leveraged the malleability of the Discord platform in setting up prototype servers to observe the impact of changes.
  5. Nurture “Sparks”: Some of the newer ListoAmerica members eagerly sought to take on specific responsibilities within the Discord server. For example, two members serve as DJs and operate the rhythm bot. Another shares funny images and memes to make others smile, acting as a kind of social ambassador for ListoAmerica, and so on. Research shows that adolescents seek to earn respect through their contributions. Caring adults recognize when youth show such initiative and create opportunities for learning experiences (Lerner et al., 2009). Mentors at ListoAmerica recognized the “sparks” in these youth and created special roles such as DJ, Clubhouse Ambassador, and “good-vibes” champion.

Looking Ahead

As ListoAmerica’s Discord community has developed over the past few months, youth have taken the initiative to keep the server active, as Gustavo is busy organizing summer programming and outreach activities. Guillermo “Bill” Izabal, Founder & President of ListoAmerica, observes that this youth leadership is in keeping with a core objective of the ListoAmerica mission: “to engage and empower our youth and mentors to be fully engaged and empowered to excel to their full potential in pursuit of their interests.” Members and mentors are stepping up the pace and quantity of their activities on the server. Members hangout and connect with each other much like they described doing in the physical clubhouse. For example, Lesly posts a “Question of the Week” (QOTW) every Monday that members post responses to. Similarly, members such as Audrey, A. Padilla, Alam, and Cesar share project updates. Joseph and Audrey stream music via the Rhythm bot as they do their homework in the voice channel. Over the course of three months, eight new channels were added for fostering socially and culturally relevant topics. “I was feeling very down for a month or two months…then I started watching memes,” said Joseph. “My favorite channel is the good-vibes-and-health because there’s just so much positivity and people just want to make other people laugh. I just started posting because I just want to make people smile.”

Special Thanks

ListoAmerica, William Izabal, Gustavo Madrigal, Juliana Lepe, and the youth members of ListoAmerica.


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