In Baltimore, Teaching STEM Through Dirt Bikes

Photo courtesy B-360

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In Baltimore, Teaching STEM Through Dirt Bikes

An engineer-turned-educator says cities get it wrong when they criminalize Black youth’s hobbies, rather than seeing them as an opportunity.

Story by Cari Shane

Published on Aug 31, 2022

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On a quiet side street tucked back in an industrial section of West Baltimore, Damon Ray Harrison revs the engine of his red dirt bike. He sits askew, unable to reach the ground with both feet. The street is empty except for a few other dirt bikes and riders. Harrison lowers the visor on his helmet and takes off down the street lined with industrial buildings that are set back from the road. Then he pops a wheelie. With the front wheel still in the air, he jumps off the back of the bike, runs a few steps, then jumps back on, continuing his ride down the stretch of empty road.

The teen has been a dirt bike guy since well before his uncle bought him his first bike. “My mother says I loved bikes, immediately.”

But in Baltimore, as in most major cities in the U.S., owning and riding a dirt bike is illegal and can mean jail time and fines for those caught. Government officials from Atlanta to Oakland point to crashes and deaths involving dirt bikes as the reason for the non-violent offense laws established in their cities. In 2016, Baltimore launched a Dirt Bike Police Task Force to handle the “noise and nuisance” problem; last year, it was disbanded.

Still, dirt bikes remain a hobby for enthusiasts in Charm City. “Dirt bikes are as much a part of Baltimore as the [Inner] Harbor, as SnoCones. And when I think about being Black in the city, [dirt bikes are] part of my blackness,” says Brittany Young. An engineer who worked with both NASA and McCormick Spice Co., she has been working for seven years to change how the city perceives riding and riders.

In 2017, Young returned to her roots in West Baltimore and launched a nonprofit called B-360. The name itself calls on people to “be the revolution” – that is, a 360-degree angle. Through a partnership with police, youth can legally ride dirt bikes as part of B-360’s educational programming. And through hands-on training and workforce development, they can develop their skills and find their way into careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Already, they’ve worked with over 8,500 young Baltimoreans.

“It’s not just about dirt bikes; it’s about Black freedom,” says Young, 33, of her mission. “So, literally, be part of a change, be part of a revolution, be part of systemic change beyond dirt bikes, for Black people across the country.”

Young, who grew up watching riders at Druid Hill Park, says legislators get it wrong when they ban a sport that’s part of Black and Brown culture instead of using it to improve lives through education and open doors to opportunity. Those are two of the key problems that Young says B-360 aims to fix: “The opportunity divide for Black and Brown people, and the need for programmatic solutions instead of incarceration for Black and Brown people.”

B-360 is using dirt bikes to teach STEM to kids of color and hosts events that show off a style of riding that she says has, so far, been ignored by the $42 billion motocross industry. It’s an attitude that confounds Young: Motocross, she argues, could be a $100 billion dollar industry if it didn’t neglect the talent and drive of Black and Brown riders.

(Photo courtesy B-360)

According to a Baltimore Sun report on the history of the city’s dirt biking community, back in the 1970s dirt bikes were not ridden on city streets but on state park trails and dirt roads, which is what their lighter bodies and treaded tires were designed for; but, within a decade, laws against the use of dirt bikes outside of the city had passed. “That’s when — local dirt bike riders say — they moved to the city streets,” the Sun reports. Soon after, dirt bikes became illegal to use on streets in Maryland’s cities, too.

By criminalizing dirt bikes, Young says, the city has spent decades ignoring rather than tapping into unrecognized potential. “A dirt bike police task force is not a strategy or a game plan,” says Young. “Programmatic solutions that unlock potential is a much better approach.” As a “solutionist,” she says, her approach has been using dirt bike culture to help end the cycle of poverty, disrupt the prison pipeline and build bridges in communities.

This month, the mayor’s office announced its second round of the American Rescue Plan Act to nine nonprofit grant recipients. B-360 was awarded $1.25 million in funding to support its STEM education programming and workforce development.

It’s all about perspective, Young says. The Black men and women who ride dirt bikes are seen as the problem, but for her, it’s exactly the opposite. Riders can be the solution, and B-360 is showing how.

Some of the teachers B-360 hires are riders paid to teach students everything from mechanics to stunts, “acknowledging their assets,” Young says. According to the group’s own assessment, B-360 has employed 57 former dirt bike riders, decreased dirt bike arrests by 81% and saved the city $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars by employing locals at risk of incarceration.

Other teachers, like 23-year-old Shavone Mayers Dixon, heard about the program and wanted to get involved. Born and raised in Baltimore, Mayers Dixon graduated from Arizona State with a degree in biomedical engineering. Now, she works full time as a software engineer and part time at B-360’s summer camp.

“We definitely need more young Black people in science, and this is a bridge to do that,” says Mayers Dixon. “It’s doing something that’s fun for them – dirt bikes – to get them engaged and incorporating the education aspect to help them go into careers…That’s all up my alley, just helping out kids, science. It was perfect and I thought, ‘sign me up.’”

(Photo courtesy B-360)

When Young was in first grade and “Bill Nye the Science Guy” was her favorite show on TV, her teacher told her that she would never grow up to be an engineer. Despite being fascinated by science, despite her math and reading levels being beyond her classmates, and despite the lab she’d built for herself in the basement of her West Baltimore home, Young recalls that her white teacher told her that she couldn’t be an engineer. Why? Because she is Black, female and her parents didn’t go to college.

As Young describes it, she was ready for the world of science, but the world wasn’t ready for her. In corporate America, she was usually the only Black female in a room of engineers, mistaken for a secretary more times than she can count. “The problem is the receiving side,” says Young. “We can be equipped, prepared, intelligent, but if the work isn’t done to better the reception, it’s always going to be the same issue.”

Her adult experiences were a culmination of the uphill battle she’d fought since childhood. The advanced public middle school into which she’d tested meant a five-hour round-trip commute on up to five buses to the other side of Baltimore, starting at the age of 10. The commute continued when she was accepted into The Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a top STEM-oriented high school.

Educating Baltimore’s Black and Brown youth and providing better experiences than she had to endure are huge drivers for B-360. Though she was working at Key Technology, Inc. doing prototyping for medical devices and, at the same time, working at EMG in asset management for the construction and engineering firm, Young decided it was time to leave corporate life to become a catalyst for change to her city and beyond.

Baltimore at that moment was still reeling from the death of Freddy Gray at the hands of police. “I knew there were a lot of people going through challenges like me, being from this city and not being heard and not being acknowledged,” she says. “Sometimes when it comes to Black societies and Black voices the easiest thing to do is silence us, or police us, or to make the things that we like to do criminal.”

(Photo courtesy B-360)

“Everyone in Baltimore that rides dirt bikes has dealt with the task force in some capacity,” says Young. Too many people in the city see dirt bike riders as criminals because that’s the policy, she says.

Michael Chesser, a B-360 teacher who has been with the program since its founding, has had run-ins with the law. “I just think that they don’t understand where we’re coming from – why we ride, what’s our cause,” says Chesser, 24, who started riding when he was five.

“I just think they see us as individuals who…want to do harm,” he says. But for Chesser and others learning or teaching at B-360, dirt bikes are “my outlet. I feel free. I feel like all my problems go away…It clears my mind.”

While Chesser has taught more than 1,000 students through B-360, the program has also been a fork in the road for him and he wants to stay with Young’s foundation. “I want to help build B-360 everywhere, so everyone can understand the opportunities that it has. It can actually change a kid’s life.”

Wheelie-popping Harrison didn’t realize that he was learning science and math while riding until he joined B-360 four years ago. “I want to be a mechanical engineer when I get older,” he says.

Harrison is one of 8,500 youth with whom B-360 has worked since 2017. Young says if the money from dirt bike task forces around the country were channeled into initiatives like hers, it could affect positive change for hundreds of thousands of youth who are being criminalized for enjoying a hobby. Young wants to take her program and expand to other cities where there is an urban dirt bike culture, including D.C., Cleveland, Oakland and Detroit.

“It really needs to get started in cities before it’s too late, before we have more hashtags,” says Young of her programmatic approach. “And so I think cities have hopefully learned some hard lessons. You don’t want to put officers in positions to enforce policies that can cause turmoil. But you also have to maintain public safety,” says Young. “We have to hit the reset button.”

(Photo courtesy B-360)

“B-360 exists at the unlikely intersection of three lanes; unrecognized potential, dirt bike culture and STEM education,” says Young. And to that intersection, Young has brought together government officials and riders. “We literally created a table for them to talk,” says Young of the figurative space she’s carved out in Baltimore. Her goal is “to build safe spaces, create better practices, and make sure [officials] are thinking about dirt bikes solutions holistically.”

Safety starts with a helmet and riding off main roads, as well as learning how to maintain a safe bike. But it extends beyond the bike itself.

For Young and those she mentors, it means embracing one of the mantras of dirt bike riders: “Bikes up, guns down.” It’s about feeling safe within one’s own city, within one’s own community. It’s about having access to a safe outlet and not falling victim to street life, she says.

Young knew that for her educational programming to work with Baltimore’s youth, she needed to make STEM more relevant. So she teaches science through dirt bikes — basically, applied learning. Popping a wheelie becomes a physics equation, tuning an engine is a class in engineering, finding the gas-to-oil ratio to make sure your engine doesn’t explode is a chemistry experiment.

“A rider has to think about how much time it will take to pop a wheelie, get down a street at whatever speed they are going and make sure they don’t crash,” explains Young. That can be solved through D = V x T, or distance equals velocity times time. “That’s the type of math they can do in their head, and that is the type of math they just know naturally.”

Since her STEM programs require skilled teachers, B-360’s workforce programs also give riders a formal home for teaching — everything from dirt bike mechanics to stunts.

Beyond the classroom, B-306’s advocacy is paving new strategic avenues for dirt bike riders, both literally and physically. As the Baltimore Police Dirt Task Force disbanded in spring of 2021, Young teamed up with the Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney’s office to create a diversion program for those arrested for riding dirt bikes on the street. As part of the program, which kicked into gear in March 2021, when someone is arrested for a dirt bike offense they have the opportunity to complete 20 hours of programming at B-360. Once their hours are fulfilled, their case is dismissed. According to Young, many of the individuals who enter B-360 through the new diversion program stay on, voluntarily, to learn even more about STEM and entrepreneurship.

“We literally are making sure people don’t go to jail. We are changing people’s lives,” says Young. “One, we want to make sure these young men, 17, 18, 19 year olds, have career and job opportunities, transferable skills, like fixing and repairing bikes and cognitive reasoning. Two, that all charges get dropped which will change their trajectory. And then three, making sure that they know that the skills they possess will give them a new outlook on life.”

One young man in the diversion program is a 19-year-old who had faced a slew of charges ranging from dirt bike possession to traffic violations. After taking part in B-360’s program, he graduated high school and recently found his first job in manufacturing, based on the skills he learned with B-360. Another young man who faced criminal charges is still with B-360. After completing the program, the 20-year-old chose to stay on board. Now he’s working as an instructor at the group’s summer camp every day, teaching the city’s youth on everything from rider safety to bike repair.

(Photo courtesy B-360)

“What Brittany’s program does is completely counter to what the criminal justice system does with an individual. We’ll lock somebody up for 120 days and that can ruin your life,” says Michael Collins, Strategic Policy and Planning Director for the Baltimore City’s State’s Attorney. “As a country we deal with nuisance problems and ‘quality-of-life offenses’ almost exclusively through a criminal justice lens. But we recognize that most of the people riding dirt bikes and being arrested are people of color. They’re riding for fun. It’s not malicious, per se.”

Collins says that what B-360 was offering was a solution outside the criminal justice system – “a safe middle ground where we are getting individuals off the street and putting them on the right track,” as he puts it, particularly for individuals with no other offense except the possession of a dirt bike.

While this new diversion program is just over a year old, Collins said there is much to be done to support groups like B-360. The city of Philadelphia, which has long struggled to deal with its dirt bike subculture, has already reached out to him to learn more about Baltimore’s model.

“At the end of the day we’ve tried the approach of incarceration and that didn’t work,” says Collins. “We are in a moment in the country where we are trying to reimagine policing…We are trying to limit people going into the criminal justice system unless they are a discernible safety threat.”

There has been talk of building a dirt bike park in Baltimore for years — a place to ride safely and legally. There’s been similar chatter in Cleveland. Neither city has been able to get their ideas off the ground. The irony of these failed efforts is not lost on Young, who points out how White hobbies are incorporated into cityscapes. When skateboarders become nuisances on city sidewalks, communities build skateparks; when cyclists are endangered, cities build bike lanes and teach motorists to ‘share the road,’ and when motorized scooters become the go-to transport of choice for thousands, rideshare companies launch money-making ventures. “None of these activities are criminalized,” says Young.

Rather than waiting for stagnating efforts to bring a dirt bike park to Baltimore, Young is moving forward, fostering relationships with city businesses. Last year, the B&O Railroad Museum gifted B-360 the use of 2.5 acres of the museum’s land in Southwest Baltimore for safe riding. Along with the gated, empty parking lot, B-360 used the site trailers for classroom space.

“She can literally be saving lives,” the B&O Railroad Museum’s Executive Director Kris Hoellen says of Young and her program. “Putting kids in ‘the system’ that are trying to overcome so many challenges that they face already, is not going to be helpful…But if you can spark a kid with a passion and use that passion for learning, then you’ve got them.”

This year, B-360 is housed at an unused recreational center in Southwest Baltimore. Surrounded by 10 acres of land, it serves as an example of how vacant buildings can be given new life. Young’s goal is to raise $10 million by 2024 and secure about 20 acres of land and a permanent campus, which would be the first of its kind anywhere in the country. Her aim is to create an auto body shop, an educational space for STEM programming, and an indoor and outdoor dirt bike riding course.

“Initiatives like B-360 absolutely save the public money and frees up resources which we can use to invest in our young people and to catalyze their future,” says Fagan Harris, CEO of Baltimore Corps, which works to recruit and retain social impact leaders to Baltimore. Harris, who is the chairman of B-360’s advisory board, says Young’s “ideas and solutions, for our communities, are big.” Young was one of Baltimore Corps’ inaugural Elevation Awardees.

Last year B-360 was awarded a $300,000 grant through Microsoft’s community skills program, which promotes racial equity in the U.S. It was one of 50 Black-led nonprofits selected nationally.

“We need your funding, but we want people to trust us with our own ideas,” says Young. “I’m a person changing from being in survival mode my entire life…a fight-or-flight mentality, to the person that can now think about sustainability.”

Next City is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic mobility. Read more at BrokeInPhilly.org and follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.

Cari Shane is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.

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