Brittany Young’s mission in life is to show young people how brilliant they are, so that they can be their own geniuses and problem solvers. In Baltimore and beyond, she starts by tapping into young people’s interests in motorsports. Not only does this motivate kids to stay in school and pursue STEM careers, but it has proven to be a way to forge community relationships, challenge one-sided laws and media narratives, and even begin to address systemic racism, and is so doing unleash young people’s brilliance.
A nova ideia
Brittany connects two seemingly disparate challenges - the lack of meaningful science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and the stigmatization of black, youth culture - and in so doing proves that the most powerful way to address bigger issues of belonging and agency (and systemic racism) is through collaborative, culturally-attuned, creative efforts to unleash young people’s brilliance. In her case, and through an organization called B360, Brittany is tapping into the energy of Baltimore’s vast dirt-bike community to build community relationships and propel kids into STEM careers. Another principle of Brittany’s is to force people to confront situations with solutions. Here she shows how she and her team have reinvigorated the city’s STEM offerings, launched the nation’s first diversion (from incarceration) program for non-violent dirt-bike related charges, and are transforming city policy and even land use, all by meaningfully engaging young people who channel the passion and skills they use to repair, modify, and maintain their dirt bikes towards engaging in school, preparing for careers, and changing their city.
Addressing a lack of educational opportunities alone isn’t game changing in a place like Baltimore, where laws that explicitly criminalize popular black pastimes land hundreds of young people in the criminal justice system. Therefore Brittany is simultaneously helping communities see how the laws and practices in a city like Baltimore are not reflective of their own communities’ values and full of double standards. By engaging community leaders as well as those affected by the problems in concrete civic engagement and bridge-building to change racially charged policies and even reclaim and commit public space to popular activities, she interrupts the cycle of one-sided laws reinforced by a one-sided media narrative.
The end result is a city that moves to the beat of residents, with young people in particular feeling more fully engaged and intrinsically motivated to learn in school and seek careers that play to their strengths and interests as adults and where more people are engaged in creating laws and plans for the future of a city. (Rather than pass an ordinance banning dirt bikes because of the noise they create, why not challenge kids – aka future engineers - to design better mufflers? Or electric motors?) For at least a dozen other world cities from Cleveland to Oakland and Detroit to Paris - each with a similar set of challenges as well as large, vibrant, albeit disenfranchised Black communities - Brittany is already creatively spreading the format of STEM+dirtbike culture as one way to unleash more creativity in education, civic engagement, and community partnerships.
Ashoka Fellow Fagan Harris has observed that Baltimore leads the nation as one of the cities with the most “deeply embedded inequity” owing to its history of “rigid, white-black segregation of housing” during the early 20th century. Another Baltimore-based Fellow, Sarah Hemminger, points out that this has only calcified over time as, in the middle of the 20th century, desegregation sparked “white flight” to the suburbs and directly contributed to de-population, abandoned houses, “blight”, and a “dramatic rise in concentrated poverty” in the urban core. Neighborhoods that were once economically and racially diverse became predominately black and astoundingly poor and disempowered. Baltimore today is more than 60% African American, but an outsized proportion of the city’s wealth is held by white residents. Black homeownership is at 42% compared to 60% for whites (whose homes – on average – are worth $80,000 more) and the city’s black residents have median incomes just half that of white residents. According to CNN, the unemployment rate among young black men is 37%, compared to just 10% among their white peers. In the richest state in the country (Maryland, where only 9% of residents live in poverty), 35% of children growing up in Baltimore live below the poverty line (and 61% are in low-income households).
Brittany Young, a native Baltimorean, observes that young people can’t help but grow up angry in an environment like this. But what particularly frustrates her is the way in which these young people are treated and these entrenched challenges are addressed. “Overall, the problem is a lack of inclusive models [for solving problems] that include the communities directly affected by the problems.” This lack of inclusion is a far-reaching challenge, and in the U.S. young Black people are particularly excluded.
Take, for example, dirt-biking, one of the most popular pastimes for young black men in Baltimore. For decades Baltimore’s black community has cultivated an interest in motorcycles of all kinds, from Sunday motorcycle meet-ups in Druid Hill Park in the 1970s to the vibrant “dirt-bike” culture today, where hundreds of mostly young, Black men own and operate bare-bones motorcycles that they modify and maintain so that they can take them out and show them off on community joyrides. When asked why the sport has become so popular, young and old aficionados are quick to say it “relieves stress” or to use the catchphrase “bikes up; guns down,” as dirt-biking is widely considered to be a “cool” deterrent to street life and other vices. Very cool, in fact. Local dirt bike riders achieve near-celebrity status for trademarking tricks like the “12 o’clock, a wheelie so steep the bike almost stands up on end.” Groups like the “12 O'clock Boys” roll more than one hundred bikes deep through the streets of Baltimore on weekends, and videos from helmet cams and passersby form a popular genre on YouTube and receive millions of views from around the world. Indeed, while Baltimore’s role in the U.S.’s dirt-bike culture is paramount, young riders in Detroit, Atlanta, Cleveland, Oakland, and beyond make up a vibrant, national fan base with local rider communities and cultures of their own.
But there are two sides to every story. And a 2017 article in the Baltimore Sun mentions both by plainly stating that “dirt-bike riding is a pastime in Baltimore but remains illegal.” The more common of the two stories, at least in terms of which one is enshrined in law and maintained in the media, is the latter one here that casts dirt bike riders as criminals. The city of Baltimore has impounded more than 10,000 dirt bikes, and hundreds of people have criminal records (and even jail time) for infractions like riding on sidewalks, riding a motorcycle without turn signals, or simply possessing an unregistered dirt-bike on private property.
Brittany agrees that dirt-bike riders can be loud, annoying, and even endanger pedestrians, but she finds it inexcusable that the only viable solution so far has been to arrest the riders and criminalize the sport. To her, the dirt-bike debate puts on full display power imbalances, systemic racism, and “a lack of empathy for individuals or groups we do not understand.” Speaking now of not just preferred pastimes but of the toxic levels of stress that black residents experience, Brittany bemoans the fact that “society cannot see how those directly affected by problems are the root of the solution or how leaving out a group that is considered the problem further divides and causes more fear and perception issues.” Whether we are talking about the war on drugs, dress codes in schools, gentrification, or economic policies, Brittany points to the same root problem: that “the ‘problem’ people are not valued, their culture and beliefs done away with and there is nothing that the original people can relate to in their own communities.”
This way of solving “problems” has far reaching consequences. Cities, schools, and institutions that don’t reflect the values, interests, experiences of their residents and students will find their offerings mismatched, or even harmful. Take for example the issue of bike lanes and bikeshare programs. Baltimore – the city that has confiscated thousands of dirt-bikes and sentenced Black men to jail for as many as three years for dirt-bike related offences – has spent more than $2.3M dollars to invest in bike lanes and in bikeshare programs which require an ATM card or bank account to use. Since young black Baltimoreans typically have neither, it’s abundantly clear that this system was not designed for them. Or take a more innocuous but similarly shaped example. Brittany, who used to be an educator in Baltimore’s schools, was happy to see Baltimore Public Schools commit that every school would have a Lego League Robotics Team, because all kids like Legos. But when the program was finally rolled out, the materials, the language, and the activities were designed in such a way that alienated her predominantly Black students.
For young kids of color in Baltimore, the things they should be doing- like, for example, getting exposure to science, technology, engineering, and math in school - are either not available or the content is not tailored to their experiences. And the things they are doing - like riding dirt bikes - are criminalized. This contributes to a deeper feeling that they don’t belong and that they and their ideas or interests don’t matter.
And all of this leads to huge missed opportunities. In Baltimore alone there are 122,000 unoccupied STEM jobs that don’t require a 4-year degree. Brittany knows that the city is teeming with young engineers, mechanics, technicians, and machinists – she’s seen what kids can do to their dirt-bikes. But she also knows that you can’t land a job at NASA with a misdemeanor and that a popular pastime is aggressively criminalized. Brittany loves that kids have passions and would bet her life that each and every child is brilliant in her own way, and she can’t stand to see her city holding them back.
Systemic racism is fueled, in part, by a lack of empathy for people we don’t understand and persists as its norms and practices become embedded in systems of education, politics, criminal justice, and urban planning. Problems this big spawn daunting challenges and can feel impossible to address. Brittany’s perhaps counter-intuitive formula for addressing problems as big as systemic racism is to double down on single interventions powerful enough to send shockwaves – in the form of novel invitations to think and do differently - through each of those four systems, to confront every situation with a solution, and to ensure we tap into the brilliance of youth Her focus on youth dirt-bike culture might seem surprising at first, but it includes all the right ingredients to initiate the wider, further-reaching changes she believes necessary.
The ingredients for the pivotal intervention start with irrefutable facts: that having a passion can help you succeed in life, that it’s easier to swim with the current than against when it comes to youth culture and young people’s interests, and that schools and cities win when they can better prepare their students for available jobs, for example. In Brittany’s current work these truths are evident in her mash-up of magnetic dirt bike culture with underperforming STEM education.
Brittany calls this type of approach “direct service programming with systematic influences”. Brittany’s direct service component is a wildly-popular dirt-bike based STEM curriculum hosted by schools and groups like the YMCA and delivered by a STEM-educator and a dirt-bike “elder” (a local dirt-bike idol in his/her 30s). Her organization, B360, employs and deploys these pairs and also hosts two program directors who work as site managers in overseeing all the partnerships and programming which, in the last year alone, reached 8,000 students in Baltimore. The program has evolved over the years from short sprints to a 6-8 week process of building a dirt bike from scratch. Students naturally learn about electricity, engineering, robotics, physics, welding and soldering, but also about mental and emotional well-being and the criminal justice system. New modules include polymer science (dirt bike’s bodies are mostly made of plastic) and 3D printing replacement parts as well as computer programming and developing dirt bike-inspired games. Popping a wheelie is a physics equation and getting the right gas to oil ratio in an internal combustion engine is organic chemistry. During the school year this content is delivered to 12 afterschool and Saturday programs at city rec centers, at five schools, and four public libraries. During the summer 20 rec centers offer the program along with three summer schools, city-sponsored summer camps, and libraries in Baltimore but also DC. The team of instructors is almost 60 strong, with many drawn from the diversion program Brittany has developed with the city of Baltimore, where the city pays her to hire young men charged with dirt-bike related offenses to deliver youth programming rather than proceed with their arrets only to have them sit in jail. (It is estimated that this program has saved the city $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars by employing those at risk of incarceration, and by decreasing by 81% the number of dirt-bike related arrests.)
Brittany reports that while ~80% of incoming students had no interest in STEM careers (nor did they know what a STEM career was), nearly 100% stated that they wanted to be in the program because of dirt bikes. By the end of their participation, however, nine out of ten not only wanted to continue programming, but stated that they wanted to further explore opportunities in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math. Data shows that these same students also attended school more frequently, and scored higher on their standardized tests.
Programming culminates in community events. The Baltimore Police Commissioner has approved the program, and B360 works with lawmakers and law enforcement to get their events permitted. They recently hosted Baltimore’s first sanctioned urban Dirt Bike racing event where young people showcase what they’ve been working on and where B360 awards prizes for best customization, best stunts, and creates time for adult dirt-bikers from their pool of instructors and from the community to shine. Graduates of her program have landed internships at eclectic bike companies, Red Bull, and in the community, though time will tell just how many career trajectories are changed.
Throughout, they also host community forums and draw together unlikely allies. The creation of the diversion program is thanks to the fact that Brittany is on the police taskforce to revise laws to better suit the needs of the dirt-bike community, and she actively works with members of the media to start to change the narrative. Brittany notes that, “police reports and media stories are always one-sided. I’m in the middle; I bring people together.” In this process riders get to hear about complaints levied against them, from clogging traffic to noise violations. They hear the law enforcement perspective that, ‘we are just doing our jobs’, and adults have the chance to hear that young people are just looking for a way to blow off steam. The goal of these collaborations with local governments is to work towards equitably eliminating street riding while replacing it with sanctioned spaces for riders to safely enjoy their sport. Thanks to these efforts, the first press with positive coverage of dirt bike riders ever in Baltimore Sun and Washington Post was of those engaged in Brittany’s work.
For her work to roll up to wider changes, Brittany knows that people in the areas of education, politics, criminal justice, and urban planning must be exposed to new ideas and perspectives that help them address their prejudices and shift their mindsets. Before her intervention, Brittany finds that people on all sides of the issues tend not to know the actual policies and laws, nor have they ever really heard and had the chance to reflect on the complaints of others with different views in their community. In summarizing her impact to date, Brittany has shared that, “We [now] have people in education seeing the ‘gun toting criminals’ (Baltimore Sun) as naturally skilled engineers, scientist and entrepreneurs. We have the government/politics [folks] looking at urban dirt bike riding as a way to reduce violence and including it in smart city models to improve the overall health of cities, increase positive use of public spaces, and pilot better ways for cities to earn revenue by working together. In the criminal justice space, we are showing how the young adults without access to opportunities based on the law are at an unjust disadvantage, and how we can [instead] leverage this culture to create better police and community relations with a new system. Lastly, we are forcing people in transportation and city planning to consider dirt bikes as the next low cost, low emission form of safe transportation and overall create better access throughout cities to lessen economic divides.”
This interrupts the cycle of laws that disenfranchise people perpetuated by a media narrative that tells just one side of the story. But even more importantly, it makes space at the table for new problem-solvers and new solutions. Proposed solutions include a summer dirt bike season, coinciding with city’s high-homicide season, or challenges to kids to design quieter, or electric bikes. Brittany and others across Baltimore are increasingly calling for the creation of dirt bike “mini city” parks or zones, and the city has just donated a “surplus school” and 37 surrounding acres plus committed $5M to transforming it into a world-class multipurpose indoor dirt bike and STEM center. This center will soon be a tangible, physical manifestation of the way B360 is increasingly positioned as the “hill” upon which other authentically youth-aligned, asset-framed efforts can build. It will bring together all of B360’s constituents, from city officials to police to young people and educators, and it asserts youthful vision and reclaims city space.
Brittany has already garnered national attention for her work, and she is spreading this particular approach to youth-forward multipurpose civic and educational reform in two ways. First, she’s in direct contact with other cities like Cleveland to help in a more top-down approach by consulting with law enforcement and various taskforces on how to better engage with the young people in their local dirt bike communities. But she’s also working in a creative, bottom-up way to help other communities see how, in this case through dirt-bike-inspired programming, they too can be more involved in addressing systemic racism and its constituent systems. A slogan like “All cities ride on Sunday” resonates across all the dirt bike communities in the U.S. and, in DC, Detroit, Oakland, Atlanta, and beyond - all are encouraged to learn from and even directly contribute to Brittany’s efforts. In one creative example, Brittany encourages dirt bike clubs to reach out to makerspaces or schools in their communities so that they can access 3D printers. Why? Because Brittany and collaborators have gotten the city of Baltimore to agree to replace a local statue of a confederate soldier with a 12-foot statue of 12-year-old Kamaya Jordan riding a wheelie. B360 scanned Kamaya and her bike at the University of Maryland’s engineering technology building and developed a 3D printer plan for the final larger-than-life statue, pieces of which can be “claimed” by dirt bikers around the country who will have to rally to produce and send back their components. By doing so Brittany believes many of the pre-requisite relationships will be forged in cities around the world, and other dirt bike inspired STEM programming – that celebrates black joy and liberation – can take root around the country.
Beyond dirt-bike themed programming and STEM success, the bigger message is of how to meet every situation with solutions, how to take a negative narrative and flip into something positive, and how to unleash the brilliance of all young people. Brittany shows one path forward by tapping young people’s passions, anchoring creative programming in schools, engaging law enforcement and lawmakers, and then changing the media narrative so that we can begin to unlock a whole new set of problem-solvers and solutions. Iin the future, she envisions concocting similar solutions to other intractable challenges, from changing school dress codes to innovating for improved community-wide mental health.
Brittany Young grew up in Baltimore, and quickly. When her mom died young and while Brittany was still in high school she became the de facto parent of her three younger siblings. Her younger siblings grew up quickly, too, but that doesn’t make it okay that her brother was tried as an adult and sent to jail at age 16. Childhoods in Baltimore tend to be tumultuous and short.
As early as first grade Brittany knew she wanted to be an engineer, and she excelled in school and pursued math and engineering. She’d gotten a full ride to college, but after her mom died and given the fact that she was responsible for her younger siblings, she focused on just her main classes but lost her scholarship. Against all odds she persevered, graduated, and landed great jobs at Johns Hopkins’ applied physics lab and at NASA. But very early in her career she grew tired of being the only women of color on her teams; two weeks into her dream job at NASA she was mistaken as “the coffee girl.” And even though she was a published first author of a peer-reviewed paper without a PhD and discovered and named the “Mickey Mouse on Mercury” crater, it was someone else on her team who took credit and was on CNN telling her story. She always felt like an outsider. Crestfallen, she went back to her neighborhood schools with the goal of flooding Johns Hopkins, NASA, and all STEM careers with more kids like her.
Around this same time, she’d started to zoom in on another festering problem. People from all over would swoop into Baltimore and try to solve the city’s problems. One time, a group from Boston was recruited to address the issue of Baltimore’s 368 murders in 2017… and never even thought to consult anyone from the Baltimore neighborhood that had had no murders in over 500 days. Another time “Squeegee Court” became a local flashpoint when the police and media vilified the [creative, engaging, hard-working] young men making a living washing car windows for tips at city stoplights. While Brittany is careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with other people and their ideas, she believes in her core that people closest to the problem have the best solutions.
In 2014 she started designing programming for kids at a local YMCA. Brittany believes that there’s nothing more powerful than a passionate kid, and she met many such youngsters. When she observed that many of them really came alive around dirt-bike culture, she began to weave together her STEM programming and her students’ passions, and the rest is history.