Deborah Levine is the Director of LGBT YouthLink at CenterLink, which supports, strengthens, and connects LGBT centers.
Chad talks with Deborah about working on something new called imi: a free digital research-backed mental health tool intended to support and help LGBTQ+ teens explore and affirm their identity and learn practical ways to cope with their sexual and gender minority stress, founding Q Chat Space, a digital LGBTQ+ center where teens join live-chat, professionally facilitated, online support groups, and how over the time that she's been doing work in LGBTQ+ spaces products and online interaction have changed and evolved.
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CHAD: This is the Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Chad Pytel, and with me, today is Deborah Levine, Director of LGBT YouthLink at CenterLink, which supports, strengthens, and connects LGBT centers. Deborah, thank you so much for joining me.
DEBORAH: Thanks, Chad. I appreciate you inviting me.
CHAD: So I was first introduced to you and to CenterLink through the Q Chat Space product. And that's still going, right?
CHAD: But you're working on something new called imi.
DEBORAH: Mm-hmm. We actually just launched imi on June 1st.
CHAD: Congratulations on the launch.
DEBORAH: Thank you. Yes, it went pretty smoothly. [laughs]
CHAD: That's good. So, what is imi?
DEBORAH: So imi is a free digital research-backed mental health tool. It was developed by Hopelab in partnership with CenterLink, and the It Gets Better Project, as well as hundreds of LGBTQ+ young people across the U.S. It's a little hard to describe, to be perfectly honest. It really is intended to support and help LGBTQ+ teens explore and affirm their identity and learn practical ways to cope with their sexual and gender minority stress.
And we really hope that the tool is helpful, relevant, inclusive, and joyful. It is a web app, but it operates...it's not a lot of reading. It's listening, and doing, and thinking, and really giving youth an opportunity to explore and consider ways that they might help support themselves.
CHAD: That's great. And I suppose it's even a compliment to your prior work at CenterLink and with Q Chat Space, which is an online support community.
CHAD: People can use both.
DEBORAH: Exactly. We actually engaged in a partnership with Hopelab because we recognize that though youths were really excited about and engaged in the support groups that Q Chat Space provides, those are synchronous, and they happen once or twice a day. They last for an hour and a half, but that's all there is. So if you come to the website when a chat isn't happening, then there's not much to do. And we wanted to be able to provide youth with something else, and imi really fills that gap.
CHAD: So when it comes to the product itself, how long was it in development for?
DEBORAH: Great question. Of course, there was the pandemic, so there were some delays related to that. But it was about two and a half years from when Hopelab first approached CenterLink until the actual launch date.
CHAD: That's a fairly significant amount of time.
DEBORAH: It is for when you're working, I think if we were only tech firms, but both Hopelab and CenterLink are nonprofits. And the process included a lot of steps. So we actually had a prototype pretty early. But because we wanted to make sure that we did put something out into the world that actually had the impact we were seeking, we did a randomized controlled trial. We had 270 youth, half of them using a similar-looking website with just resources and the other half using imi. And we did that randomized controlled trial as well as a test of marketing. Those were both pieces that extended our timeline. And then ultimately, we also wanted to launch during Pride Month, so we timed it for that.
CHAD: This idea of a randomized control trial is pretty incredible to me. A lot of product people wouldn't necessarily do that; maybe certain companies do. Why do you think you went in that direction?
DEBORAH: So our goal is not to make money. And ultimately, if that was the goal, then we put something out, we see if people are using it and using it at the rate and the ways...I'm a social worker, so my business lingo is going to be limited. [chuckles] But that's the way to test it. And if youths use it but don't have any impact or potentially even harms them, which is not the case usually; it's just neutral, but if it doesn't have any impact, it's not worth our time.
And so, a randomized controlled trial really allows us to see whether or not it's working and then to make changes if it's not. We're testing not only whether it works in terms of the impact but also whether or not youths were interested and wanted to use it. And those are important elements for us before we're going to go out with something.
CHAD: That's great. That's what I was thinking you [chuckles] would probably say. In your work, correct me if I'm wrong, but your main demographic that you work with is youth.
CHAD: You alluded to this earlier, but how do you make sure that you're building products and things that they want to use?
DEBORAH: For sure. So it's really about involving them in the process. Going back in time to Q Chat Space, the idea for Q Chat Space actually came from focus groups we did with youth. It wasn't an adult who thought this is a good thing to do for youth. We really went to them to see what it was about and then kept youth involved in the process. We had youth involved in the design process. We had youth involved in the conceptualization and design and continue to this day to have a Youth Advisory Board who participate in Q Chat Space chat and give us feedback. And when we want to change something, we look to them.
And similarly, with imi but we have even more resources. We have, over time, including the randomized controlled trial, involved over 600 youth in the production and creation of imi. And really, the process was so deeply embedded with the youth that we used the language of co-creation and really make sure that youth are saying exactly what it is that they want and need and that they'll be willing to do.
So we did qualitative research in 2019 with over 350 youth initially all across the United States, all the way to Anchorage, Alaska, and to Birmingham, Alabama, and a bunch of places in between. And of those interviewed, 61% identified as racial and ethnic minorities. We really did want to make sure that this reached those youth as well as trans and non-binary and gender-nonconforming youth.
So we always oversampled or over-included those youth. And we also engaged with organizations that serve youth and know youth in a daily way, a lot of LGBT centers, and other organizations as well. And really, again, focused on organizations that are made by and are focused on QTBIPOC or queer and trans youth of color.
CHAD: Over the time that you've been doing this work, has expectations around online interaction, what products are, how youth will use them, has that changed? Has it been evolving?
DEBORAH: It certainly has been evolving. I mean, I think it's an interesting question. I'm not sure of the timeframe that you're asking. In terms of the work that I've done, I started doing digital health education in 2007. And I remember very well because the person who interviewed me and became my boss said, "You don't have to even know anything about technology. Don't worry; we'll figure that out."
DEBORAH: They didn't expect, and to be honest, I say to people all the time that if somebody came to me now with a resume that I had in 2007 for one of the jobs that I did then, I would not have hired them. Things have changed dramatically. I mean, that's obviously 15 years we're talking about. Things have changed so very dramatically in the last 15 years.
But even I would say thinking about Q Chat Space, because Q Chat Space launched as a pilot in 2018 and then launched nationally in the summer of 2019, and then the pandemic hit 7-8 months later. And the concept of a digital support group we had to explain that to people at Q Chat Space. And now, post-pandemic, we don't have to explain that anymore. And if anything, we have to differentiate ourselves in ways that we never had to.
The irony of Q Chat Space, in particular, is that it was started both because youth identified the need but also our member centers, the LGBT centers, often had inquiries from youth who couldn't access them in person, and many of them started satellite programs, but still, you know, a 13-year-old you could live next door and not be able to get. There are other barriers besides location and distance. And so, at that point, centers really wanted to do something digitally, but they couldn't because they didn't have the resources. They didn't know how to do it, or they were concerned that it would start and then youth from all over the place would be contacting them.
But in a matter of weeks, maybe months, once the pandemic set in and the kids were...just like school figured out how to do things, the LGBT centers did as well. And so now Q Chat Space is one of many virtual programs with many different mechanisms. But I think it's really shifted, and youth are more open to it. Not that they weren't before, they definitely were, but they know more. There are less questions about what's this? What's going on here? I think there's a broader definition of what a virtual experience can look like because youth have been participating in synchronous and asynchronous and in text-only and video, and it's just there are so many ways.
In terms of imi in the last couple of years, all over the pandemic, but imi itself, I think, actually, the landscape for imi hasn't changed. But interestingly enough, Hopelab actually came to us with another product that they had already developed and they were hoping to use as the backend, which was a chatbot. They had created something called Vivibot, and it was helping young cancer survivors build resilience. And we know that resilience is an important quality for any person, but particularly: youth, it's important to develop it. And when someone's young, it's easier, not that it's easy.
And they thought that they would be able to use that technology, but ultimately the testing with young people really revealed that they didn't want a chatbot. If you check out imi, which is imi. guide, you can see that there are actually several chat experiences within that are the last remnants of that initial chatbot that we started with. But youth weren't interested in a chatbot, and I think that's one thing that's changed is that they have much higher expectations for automated communication.
I formerly worked at Planned Parenthood. They have a great product called Roo, that's a chatbot. We talked about it before I left there. I wasn't there when it was started. But there are high expectations for what a chatbot can do. And I think there's also just an understanding, oh, this is a bot, and that's okay. Versus a few years ago, maybe people wanted to pretend that it was a real person. And now it's like, no, it's fine that's it's a bot. I understand, and it's okay that this kind of conversation can happen with a chatbot. So there are a few things that I think have changed, but I'm also not a trend person.
CHAD: No, that's okay. That's great. So when it comes to...we talked a little bit about the timeline and the process you went through to arrive and launch imi. With multiple parties all bringing things to the table, how do you tend to manage the products that you work on?
DEBORAH: Sure. So Hopelab, really, I give almost all credit to Hopelab. I mean, I was really pleased to partner with them. And I definitely feel that CenterLink and It Gets Better bring a lot to the table. But ultimately, Hopelab did something I haven't seen happen very often, which is really helping nonprofits work together in a collaborative manner. It's a struggle.
I think nonprofits are competing for funds and donors. And it's a little bit more difficult to collaborate. But Hopelab really led this process and took us all through it and made sure to really put youth at the center, which I think is the force that we all have to remember when we do have conflicts between nonprofits is that we're all in the same missions, and missions that match each other in terms of helping the community.
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CHAD: Do you have people...when it comes to a project like this, are you hiring people? Is it a full-time team working on it? How does it tend to usually shape up?
DEBORAH: No. [laughs] It doesn't shape up like that. At this point with imi, Hopelab really focused on what our current capacity was. They're continuing to support us in a lot of ways. And they do have a full team. But the product that they're handing over to me, me as a non-techie social worker, I can manage it. It's on Squarespace. There are a lot of integrations, but they have made sure that those are things that I can really manage. I mean, I'm not a non-techie, really. I'm underestimating myself. I'm under-selling myself.
But ultimately, I am going to manage that with...I have a staff person who works full-time on Q Chat Space, not a technical person. They're really there to support facilitators and the youth as an administrator and manager, and that person will help me with promotion. But otherwise, imi is a tool that is out there and doesn't...I mean, we'll update it and make changes. But ultimately, it's not a team once it's launched. But the development, yes, it was about 14 people more or less throughout the last two years.
CHAD: I think that that's great and really important. Software isn't cheap. It's not easy. And if you're put in a position where you're putting...I don't know the right word; burden comes to mind. Like, the burden of future work and maintenance and investment in an organization that maybe isn't set up to do that that could be a problem.
DEBORAH: Right. Now talk to me in six months or a year, and I'll know more. [laughter] But that said, even with Q Chat Space, I, with hundreds of people, including folks at thoughtbot and other places, volunteers, and donors, and supporters, really made Q Chat Space a reality, but I was the lead on it. And again, I used, you know, off-the-shelf products, basically.
And I have a developer for the website. But besides that developer, who is a part-time person, we manage. We figure things out ourselves. We get help from volunteers. We bring in a consultant here and there. But we try to keep the technology slim, trim, easy, user-friendly, whatever language we want to use. So that really serves the purpose of the youth. We don't need to be using anything fancy per se.
CHAD: I could be misremembering, but I think when we were first talking, one of the first conversations we had this came up with Q Chat Space. Because if you look at what it does and the problem set, and particularly the market, I think there could be a tendency for someone looking at that especially, I'm a programmer, and so I want to solve problems by programming things. You could say, "We should really build something specific for this.
CHAD: It's not that difficult. It's just a chat thing. There are lots of these things out there." And I'm right in terms of the actual core functionality. You could bang that out in a little while. But doing that would create a burden then to you have a custom piece of software that you need to constantly evolve, maintain, and those kinds of things. And so I think this was a discussion we had about what was out there in the ecosystem, what open source or other things you could pull together so that we weren't creating that burden.
DEBORAH: Exactly. And interestingly, my developer has said to me many times, "I could just build something for you." [laughter] And I say, "No, like, I don't need that." And ultimately, we did end up going with an open-sourced product; it's Rocket.Chat. We picked Rocket.Chat. This was in 2017, I think. We looked at 30 different products. And there were that many products on the market already, and today, I think there'll be even more. But ultimately, we just took Rocket.Chat because it's highly customizable. For those of you who aren't familiar with Rocket.Chat, it's like Discord. It's actually the same code, from what I understand. It's sort of like Slack.
But in the end, we were able to...because there's a lot of like, turn this on, turn this off, turn this on, turn this off, just a lot of different features, we were able to just make it into what we needed. We're using it in a way that very few people are using Rocket.Chat because we opened up a channel just for that hour and a half, and then it's gone. It's not an ongoing conversation. But Rocket.Chat has been a great supporter. They give us a fabulous nonprofit rate and really appreciate the unusual use case that we have for their product.
CHAD: Yeah, that's great. I think one of the things that hopefully motivates a lot of people is having a positive impact on the world. This is Pride Month. You alluded to it already. And I think it's important that we celebrate Pride. I think you have a great organization that I hope people will get involved in and pay attention to even outside of Pride Month. How has it been for you? And sometimes, it's hard for me to judge are things better or worse in terms of really supporting LGBTQ+ youth today?
DEBORAH: Both. [laughs] It's better, it's worse. There's no question to how far are we going to go back? But there's so much more media representation, and more schools have GSAs, and more people know someone who's LGBTQ. And I think it's different for lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks than it is for trans and non-binary and gender non-conforming folks. There's more acceptance of sexual orientation differences than there are gender differences. But I think culturally, that's changing, and as a result, there is currently quite a large...the word coming to me is flashback, but that's not the right word. Backlash, push back, exactly.
And we are seeing alarming numbers of legislative efforts to particularly limit what transgender and gender nonconforming and non-binary youth can do and what their parents can do. And that is very alarming and certainly highly regressive. But I do think that it comes out of the fact that we have moved forward in so many ways.
So for any young person who's listening or any of you who are listening, you can say this to the young people in your lives like, "You deserve to be yourself. You deserve to be able to be yourself and open. And you deserve a good and strong and mentally healthy life." And that message is really what imi certainly gives, a joyful life. It is about pride. We are proud to be LGBTQ. There's nothing to be ashamed of. And yet there are many forces in our culture and government who do make young people and adults feel shameful about it. So that's really what we're trying to counter.
CHAD: And that's one of the great things I think about when it comes to online tools is because you could be in an environment where you're not supported, where you don't see that support or people like you, or it could be very isolating. And the ability to reach beyond your family boundaries and geographic boundaries and connect with people who can support you is really great.
DEBORAH: It is. And to know ultimately, the tools are really designed to acknowledge that some young people have to keep it a secret or private. They're not ready to come out. Both websites have a quick exit, so a young person can click on that and go right to Google. imi also times out after 10 minutes.
And it's an interesting thing because the folks who are regressive, going back to our last bit, those folks jump on that and say, "Look, they're keeping it a secret from their parents." And we're like, well, if the parents are going to be abusive, then yes, we're going to keep it a secret from their parents. But if the parents want to figure out how to be affirming, we are with them. We want to help them be affirming.
So it really does allow youth...both tools really reach youth who may feel as if they have no one around them. And imi, in particular, provides community in a way youth don't even have to talk to anybody else. But they're going to hear the voices and see the faces of other young people dealing with similar things. imi is rich with those stories as well as other activities. And then on Q Chat Space, they can connect to a real other teenager who's dealing with similar things but maybe in a different state or a different country even.
CHAD: I guess that's another...I think the conversation I was having was very U.S.-centric, too. And you think things are bad here; they're even worse in a lot of other places in terms of LGBTQ rights and support.
DEBORAH: They are.
CHAD: And I guess that's another benefit of online. It really crosses those boundaries too.
DEBORAH: It does. And we have enabled that on Q Chat Space and imi. Both are accessible from anywhere in the world. We have heard from youths in 149 other countries, I believe [laughs] on Q Chat Space.
DEBORAH: And we just launched imi, so we don't have that data yet, but it is available. Unfortunately, right now, imi is only in English. Q Chat Space, we do have a weekly chat in Spanish. So we welcome any youth who prefer to chat in Spanish on Monday nights. But imi from now is just in English. But other than that, I mean, the reality of colonization is that a lot of youth speak English, even if it was not their first language. So we have had chatters from Korea, Vietnam, Australia, UK, and everywhere in between.
CHAD: That's great. If folks want to get involved, where are the best places for them to do that?
DEBORAH: Sure. So anybody who feels like they can help in any way, whether it's tech help, or with financial support, they can connect with us through the websites. And we will happily figure out ways to get engaged. In terms of your more traditional volunteer situation, I recommend folks go to the LGBT Center Directory that we have on CenterLink's website; CenterLink's website is lgbtcenters.org, and find your local LGBT center. They have many opportunities for volunteers as well as support and tech help. If you check out their website and you think it doesn't look so great, [laughter] offer help with their website.
So there are a lot of ways to get involved in the LGBTQ community between these two products, as well as just the LGBT centers that the two products are really meant to serve. I didn't really mention that, but we have 300+ LGBT centers that are part of the CenterLink network that we work to support, strengthen, and connect. And imi really is a product that none of them would be able to develop on their own. And this way, they're all able to use it as if it was their own. That's one of the beauties that, of course, the greatest impact is for youth. But for our centers to be able to have that kind of resource available to them, we owe a huge thanks to Hopelab for doing that for CenterLink and all of our members.
CHAD: We're going to include links in the show notes for all of the things that you just mentioned.
CHAD: I really encourage people to if you want to reach out with your time and get involved, that's great. You can also, as Deborah said, go there and donate. If you can't donate your time, but you can donate some money, that'd be great. Deborah, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing with us. I really appreciate it, and I appreciate all the work you do.
DEBORAH: Absolutely. It was a pleasure. Thanks so much.
CHAD: You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at giantrobots.fm. If you have questions or comments, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find me on Twitter at @cpytel.
This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thanks so much for listening, and see you next time.
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