Engineer, social entrepreneur, and Baltimore native Brittany Young is on a mission to show young people how brilliant they are, so they can be their own geniuses and problem solvers. Via B-360, the Baltimore organization she founded in 2017, Young is addressing two seemingly disparate challenges: the lack of meaningful STEM education and the stigmatization of black youth culture in Baltimore, as embodied in motorsport culture (mountain bikes). Ashoka’s Angelou Ezeilo spoke with Young to learn more about B-360’s work to unleash youth brilliance, create safe spaces for learning and belonging, and build the first motocross campus. country, now with $3 million in new funding.
Angelou Ezeilo: Brittany, you and B-360, the organization you founded and lead, focus on motorsport for a few related reasons. One is education and job skills. Tell us more.
Young Brittany: LAW. Cyclists young and old learn mechanical engineering simply by fixing their bikes. It’s true! And I say that as an engineer myself. It’s better than reading a manual. So not only is mountain biking embedded in Black Baltimore culture, but it’s also a teaching skill that can literally pay the bills.
Ezeilo: But mountain biking is criminalized in Baltimore, right?
Young: Yes, but the reason people ride dirt bikes in traffic is that there are no dedicated spaces. For basketball, you 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 educational dirt bike campus in the heart of the city – for which our first federal investment is, a $3 million grant just announced with support from our senators Van Hollen and Cardin.
Ezeilo: Great news, congratulations! The announcement also recognizes B-360 as Baltimore’s only diversionary prison program. What’s the link there?
Young: Well, at the beginning of B-360, we saw that many of our students were being charged with possession of dirt bikes. So I called judges, talked to lawyers, prepared paperwork. Then in 2020, our state attorney’s office in Baltimore City contacted us. They wanted to take a new approach to off-road motorcycle offences. From this came the B-360 diversionary program. So now, when people are arrested for a non-violent 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 the charges are dropped. Young people can also become employed with B-360 to develop transferable skills.
Ezeilo: You said there are some 122,000 STEM jobs in Baltimore that don’t require a four-year degree. How do you associate black students with these jobs and what obstacles do you encounter?
Young: If you say to a student, “Hey, read that physics book,” they’ll say, “Why should I care? But if you say, “Hey, you’re wheeling down the street at this corner, and you have to figure out how long it takes to get there and at what time,” that’s actually a distance equation – which is physical. And now you’re talking about Newton’s second law. Now, we also need the dynamics of educational institutions and workplaces to be culturally competent, because access is not the only obstacle. For example, I grew up knowing that I wanted to get into STEM. I went to number four high school for STEM in the country and got 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 many STEM institutions is a white male-led or white-led period. You may be ready for STEM, but STEM isn’t always ready for you. And so we want more black people to not just get into STEM, but stay there. This is when the virtuous circle really begins.
Ezeilo: You attract young people with mountain 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. Many of our very first students are now pursuing entrepreneurship and bringing their own ideas. Daron wants to open his own body shop to make his own dirt bikes and then go into business. The 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 that young people have cognitive reasoning skills so that whatever they become, whether it’s a chef, an entrepreneur or an astronaut, they are well equipped. And then when you look at the data, 100% came for dirt bikes, and over 90% left wanting to get into STEM careers because of our programming. Not to mention increases of 43 points 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 a few years ago, I remember asking my fifth graders, “What do you want to do?” And no one had ever asked them what they wanted to do in life. It’s heartbreaking. But when we look at the links between the professional stuntman and black street riders, we see that this industry would not exist without us. Look at the Bessie Stringfield award. The American Motorcyclist Association gives out this award, which is named after a black woman and stunt matriarch. If you’ve ever watched “Lovecraft Country” and seen that woman riding the Harley, it’s Bessie Stringfield. She is the reason why Harley Davidson is popular today. She traveled the Jim Crow South to spread the radical vision of a black woman on a motorcycle. However, in the history of this prize, I was the first black person, in 2021, to have won it! The point being, we need to raise new role models.
Ezeilo: Brittany, you’re not a dirt bike 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 bikers to get their consent, to get their buy-in. And in this group we also have runners who have registered with us to be part of the program as educators. These runners are really idolized by young people.
Ezeilo: When you look at the statistics, Baltimore is about 68% African American. Yet most of the wealth is held by white residents. And then the unemployment rate for young blacks is 37%, against 10% for young whites.
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 those great people who come from the city, or the fact that we are the fifth largest tech city in the country. And then there’s also a lot of black wealth in Baltimore. The importance of an organization like B-360 is that we can start to change that narrative and lead with what works, the positives that show a new way forward, something to aspire to.
Ezeilo: Your idea lands with an impact on education, talent, jobs, criminal justice. When did you know this idea worked?
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 assemble a dirt bike by hand. And what I love about Derek is that he’s driven and ready to do more. He says, “Let’s get more people involved.” And he’s barely 20, so his potential is huge. But it was also seeing the change in the way the students talked about themselves. Of course, they had never done any dremeling or welding or worked with CNC machines, so this was a transformation. But to hear them say, “We love Baltimore. We know we are smart. It was the biggest change.
Ezeilo: Last question: how does it feel to be recognized – by Ashoka and in your TED talk with some 1.5 million views so far – as a leader of change?
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 it is assumed that the system is never wrong. The power of the work we do ignites and explodes the genius of our community. And what B-360 showed was how smart these students already were and will continue to be.
young britain And Angelou Ezeilo are both Ashoka Fellows. This interview has been edited for length and clarity by Ashoka.