Black Genius heads for the nation’s first dirt bike campus

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Brittany Young, an engineer, social entrepreneur and native of Baltimore, is on a mission to show young people how brilliant they are so they can be their own geniuses and problem solvers. Through B-360, the Baltimore organization she founded in 2017, Young addresses two seemingly disparate challenges: the lack of meaningful STEM education and the stigmatization of Baltimore’s black youth culture as embodied in the culture of motorsports (dirt bikes). Ashoka’s Angelou Ezeilo spoke to Young to learn more about the B-360’s work to unleash young people’s genius, create safe spaces to learn and belong, and build the nation’s first dirt bike campusnow with $3 million in new funding.

Angelou Ezeilo: Brittany, you and B-360, the organization you founded and lead, focus on motorsports for a number of interrelated reasons. One is education and vocational skills. Tell us more.

Brittany Young: Right. Cyclists, young and old, learn mechanical engineering by repairing their bicycles. This is true! And I say this myself as an engineer. It’s better than reading a textbook. So not only is dirt bike riding ingrained in Black Baltimore culture, it’s also the teaching of skills that can literally pay the bills.

ezeilo: But dirt bike riding is a criminal offense in Baltimore, right?

Young: Yes, but the reason people ride dirt bikes in traffic is that there are no special spaces for it. For basketball, go to a recreation center. For swimming there is a swimming pool. But for people who ride dirt bikes in Baltimore, there are only the streets. That’s why we’re excited to build the nation’s first dirt bike educational campus in the heart of the city—for which our first federal investment is in, a $3 million grant just announced with support from our Senator Van Hollen and Senator Cardin.

ezeilo: Good news, congratulations! The announcement also recognizes B-360 as Baltimore’s only prison diversion program. What’s the link there?

Young: Well, in the early days of B-360, we saw many of our students being charged with dirt bike ownership. So I called judges, talked to lawyers, put together paperwork. In 2020, the Baltimore City Attorney’s Office contacted us. They wanted to take a new approach to dirt bike related violations. Out of that came the B-360 decoy program. So now when people are arrested for a nonviolent offense, they can sign up for our programming for a minimum of 20 hours. Once they complete the training, we file a letter with that judge and the charges are dropped. The youth can also join B-360 to build transferable skills.

ezeilo: You said there are about 122,000 STEM jobs in Baltimore that don’t require a four-year degree. How do you bring black students into contact with these jobs and what barriers do you encounter?

Young: If you say to a student, “Hey, read this physics book,” they’ll ask, “Why should I care?” But if you say, “Hey, you’re doing a wheelie going down the street at this angle, and you have to figure out how long it takes to get down there and what time,” that’s actually a distance equation — which is physics. And you’re talking about Newton’s second law. Now we also need the dynamics in educational institutions and workplaces to be culturally competent, because access is not the only barrier. For example, I grew up knowing that I wanted to do STEM. I went to the fourth STEM high school in the country and had great grades. But when I got into the industry, people had never met a Baltimore black girl who worked in chemical engineering. The culture in many STEM settings is a white male-led or white-led period. You can be ready for STEM, but STEM isn’t always ready for you. And so we want more black people to not just go to STEM, but stay there. That’s when the virtuous cycle really begins.

ezeilo: You attract young people through dirt biking. But are they now starting to see that there are so many other jobs that are unlocked as a vehicle through your program?

Young: Yes. Many of our very first students are now pursuing entrepreneurship and contributing their own ideas. Daron wants to open his own body shop to make his own dirt bikes and then go into business. Treasurer is a girl who just turned 16. She wants to become a traveling psychiatric nurse. A STEM career is cool, don’t get me wrong. But we want to make sure that young people have cognitive reasoning skills so that whatever they become, whether it’s a chef, an entrepreneur or an astronaut, they’re well equipped. And then when we look at the data, 100% came for dirt bikes, and over 90% are leaving because of our programming to go into STEM careers. Not to mention the 43 point increase on their standardized tests.

ezeilo: When you started helping young people access STEM careers, did they know these opportunities existed?

Young: You know, as a teacher several years ago, I remember asking my fifth graders, “What do you want to do?” And no one had ever asked them what they ever wanted to do in life. That’s heartbreaking. But if you look at the connections between professional stunt riding and black street riders, you can see that this industry wouldn’t exist without us. Just look at the Bessie Stringfield Award. The American Motorcyclist Association presents this award, which is named after a black woman and the matriarch of stunt riding. If you’ve ever seen “Lovecraft Country” and seen that woman on the Harley, it’s Bessie Stringfield. She is the reason why Harley Davidson is popular today. She rode across the Jim Crow South to spread the radical vision of a black woman on a motorcycle. But in the history of this award, I was the first black person, in 2021, to ever win it! The point is that we need to elevate new role models.

ezeilo: Brittany, you’re not a dirt bike rider yourself, are you? So how do you involve people close to this problem to be part of the solution?

Young: I also had a whole conversation with local dirt bike riders to get permission, to get buy-in. And from that group, we also have riders who have signed up with us to be part of the programming as educators. These riders are truly idolized by the youngsters.

ezeilo: If you look at the stats, Baltimore is about 68% African American. Yet most of the wealth is in the hands of white residents. And then the unemployment rate for young black men is 37%, compared to 10% for young white men.

Young: Yes, this is all true. And it’s also true that negative framing is unfortunately part of the problem. When people think of Baltimore, they might also think of Billie Holiday, all the great people that come from the city, or the fact that we’re the number five tech city in the country. And then there is also a lot of black wealth in Baltimore. The importance of an organization like B-360 is that we can start shifting that narrative and lead with what works, the bright spots that show a new way forward, something to strive for.

ezeilo: Your idea ends up with impact for education, talent, jobs, criminal justice. When did you know this idea worked?

Young: Ha! It was the fact that our program continued to grow. With my older students, I knew we were doing well when they kept coming back. One of the riders we have now, Derek, has been riding all his life. He knows how to put a dirt bike together by hand. And what I like about Derek is that he is motivated and ready for more. He says, “Let’s get more people involved.” And he’s barely 20 years old, so his potential is huge. But it also saw the change in the way students talked about themselves. Of course, they had never done dremeling or soldering or working with CNC machines before, so that was a transformation. But when I hear them say, ‘We love Baltimore. We know we are smart.” That was the major shift.

ezeilo: Final question: How does it feel to be recognized – by Ashoka and in you TED talk with some 1.5 million views to date – as a leading changemaker?

Young: To me, a changemaker is just a fancy word for a survivor. Black people in America have always had to be innovative, we have always been people who have to go against the system, even though the system is never assumed to be wrong. The power in the work we do is igniting and exploding the genius of our community. And what B-360 has shown is how smart these students already were and will continue to be.

Brittany Young And Angelou Ezeilo are both Ashoka Fellows. This interview has been edited by Ashoka for length and clarity.