An engineer, social entrepreneur, and Baltimore native, Brittany Young is on a mission to show young people how brilliant they are, so that they can be their own geniuses and problem solvers. Via B-360, the Baltimore organization she started in 2017, Young is solving for two seemingly disparate challenges: the lack of meaningful STEM education and the stigmatization of Black youth culture in Baltimore, as embodied in the culture of motorsports (dirt bikes). Ashoka’s Angelou Ezeilo sat down with Young to learn about B-360’s work to unleash young people’s brilliance, create safe spaces for learning and belonging, and build the nation’s first dirt bike campus, now with $3 million in new funding.
Angelou Ezeilo: Brittany, you and B-360, the organization you founded and lead, focus on motorsports for a few connected reasons. One is education and job skills. Tell us more.
Brittany Young: Right. Bike riders, young and old, learn mechanical engineering just by repairing their bikes. This is true! And I’m saying this as an engineer myself. It’s better than reading a textbook. So not only is dirt bike riding embedded in Black Baltimore culture, it’s teaching skills that can literally pay the bills.
Ezeilo: But dirt bike riding is criminalized in Baltimore, right?
Young: Yes, but the reason people ride dirt bikes in traffic is that there are no dedicated spaces for it. For basketball, you go to a rec center. For swimming, there’s a pool. But for people who ride dirt bikes in Baltimore, there’s only the streets. So 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: Great news, congratulations! The announcement also recognizes B-360 as Baltimore’s only diversion prison program. What is the link there?
Young: Well, in the early days of B-360, we saw that a lot of our students were getting charges for dirt bike possession. So I was calling judges, talking to lawyers, putting together paperwork. Then in 2020, our Baltimore City state’s attorney’s office reached out to us. They wanted to take a new approach to dirt bike-related offenses. Out of that came the B-360 diversion program. So now when people get arrested for any nonviolent offense, they can opt into our programming, for a minimum of 20 hours. Once they complete the training, we submit a letter to that judge, and charges are dropped. The young people can also become employed with B-360 to build transferable skills.
Ezeilo: You’ve said that some 122,000 STEM jobs exist in Baltimore that don’t require a four-year degree. How do you connect Black students with these jobs, and what barriers are you finding?
Young: If you tell a student, “Hey, read this physics book,” they’re going to ask, “Why should I care?” But if you say, “Hey, you pop a wheelie going down the street at this angle, and you have to figure out how long it takes to get down there and at what time,” that’s actually a distance equation — which is physics. And you’re now talking about Newton’s second law. Now, we also need the dynamic in educational institutions and workplaces to be culturally competent because access isn’t the only barrier. For example, I grew up knowing I wanted to go into STEM. I went to the number four high school for STEM in the country and had great grades. But when I got into the industry, people had never met a Black girl from Baltimore who worked in chemical engineering. The culture in a lot of STEM institutions is 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 to get more Black people to not only go into STEM but to stay there. That’s when the virtuous cycle truly starts.
Ezeilo: You draw young people in through dirt biking. But are they now starting to see that there are so many other jobs that are unlocked through your program as a vehicle?
Young: Yes. Lots of our very first students are now pursuing entrepreneurship and contributing their own ideas. Daron wants to open up his own auto body mechanic shop to make his own dirt bikes and then to go into business. Treasurer is a girl who just turned 16. She wants to be a traveling psychiatric nurse. A STEM career is cool, don’t get me wrong. But we want to make sure young people have cognitive reasoning skills so that no matter what they become, be it a chef, or an entrepreneur, or an astronaut, they are well-equipped. And then when we look at the data, 100% came for dirt bikes, and more than 90% leave wanting to go into STEM careers because of our programming. Not to mention the 43 point increases on their standardized tests.
Ezeilo: When you started helping young people access STEM careers, were they aware that these possibilities existed?
Young: You know, as a teacher some 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 heart-breaking. But when you look at the links between professional stunt riding and Black street riders, you see that this industry would not exist without us. Just look at the Bessie Stringfield Award. The American Motorcyclist Association gives out this award, which is named after a Black woman and the matriarch of stunt riding. If you ever watched “Lovecraft Country” and saw that woman riding the Harley, that’s Bessie Stringfield. She’s the reason Harley Davidson is popular today. She rode through the Jim Crow South to spread the radical vision of a Black woman on a motorcycle. Yet in the history of this award, I was the first Black person, in 2021, to have ever won it! Point being, we need to elevate new role models.
Ezeilo: Brittany, you’re not a dirt bike rider yourself, right? So how are you involving people close to this problem to be part of the solution?
Young: I had a whole conversation too with local dirt bike riders to get consent, to get buy-in. And from that group, we also got riders who signed on with us to be a part of programming as educators. These riders are really idolized by the young people.
Ezeilo: When you look at the statistics, Baltimore is around 68% African American. Yet most of the wealth is held by 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 about Baltimore, they could also think of Billie Holiday, all these great people that come from the city, or the fact that we’re the number five tech city in the country. And then there’s also a lot of Black wealth in Baltimore, too. The importance of an organization like B-360 is that we can start to shift that narrative and lead with what’s working, the bright spots that show a new way forward, something to aspire to.
Ezeilo: Your idea lands with impact for education, talent, jobs, criminal justice. When did you know that this idea was working?
Young: Ha! It was the fact that our program kept growing. With my older students, I knew we were doing it right, when they kept coming back. One of the riders we have now, Derek, has been riding his whole life. He knows how to put together a dirt bike by hand. And what I like about Derek is that he’s motivated and ready for more. He says, “Let’s get more people involved.” And he’s barely 20 years old, so his potential is enormous. But it was also seeing the change in how students spoke about themselves. Of course, they had never done dremeling or soldering or worked with CNC machines, so that was a transformation. But hearing them say, “We love Baltimore. We know that we’re smart.” That was the most important shift.
Ezeilo: Last question: How does it feel to be recognized — by Ashoka and in your 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’ve always been people that have to go against the system, even though it is assumed that the system is never wrong. The power in the work we do is igniting and exploding the genius of our community. And what B-360 has been showing is just how smart these students already were and will continue to be.
Brittany Young and Angelou Ezeilo are both Ashoka Fellows. This interview was edited for length and clarity by Ashoka.