5 questions with Brittany Young: How leaving the traditional engineering path led to uniting culture and community - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Aug. 8, 2019 3:09 pm

5 questions with Brittany Young: How leaving the traditional engineering path led to uniting culture and community

As a black woman engineer with agencies like McCormick, Key Tech, and JHU’s Applied Physics Lab on her resume, Brittany Young is changing the Baltimore STEM talent pipeline by building B-360: an educational community driven by dirt bike culture.
Brittany Young.

Brittany Young.

(Courtesy photo)

When Brittany Young graduated from The Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 2007, she knew she was well prepared to be an engineer.

Through a network of black mentors and Poly graduates in all kinds of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers, she had seen the opportunities that were open to her and was ready to put her experiences to work. But in a space where she looked like the outlier, challenges led to inspiration that shifted and narrowed her focus.

“I was prepared for the industry but the industry wasn’t prepared for me. I think that is a story we often forget. We can teach people about going into STEM and show that it is attainable and accessible to them, but we have to equally prepare people in industry to receive us in this space. It’s not easy, especially when you don’t see representation where you are” she said.

Now with a volunteer team of 25 working with over 5,000 students and a goal to get the funding needed to expand programming and accommodate the 1,000-student-long waiting list, Young left her traditional engineering career and went full-time on B-360 in 2017. As the Founder and CEO, Young leads this community partnership working to connect dirt bike culture and STEM careers through educational programming, while creating a platform for social change.

We spoke with Young about how she identified the need, validated her assumptions, and grew the support she needed to get B-360 off the ground and out into the city’s communities. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us the highlights of your career so far. What is the pathway that got you to where you are now?

My pathway begins honestly with being a Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) student. When my students hear me talk they hear that that is my superpower. That gives me the most assurance, the most comfort, the most ingenuity, the most diversity. Any BCPS student that you meet, we get up against all odds. But more importantly, we come out stronger on the opposite end, even though we don’t have the most resources. I wish more students had the opportunity to tell their story because we only often times hear the negativity that comes from Baltimore and our education system. I am not an anomaly, just a lot of people haven’t had the opportunity to speak passionately about their experiences and what made us so great.

When I was in first grade, unfortunately like a lot of students, I was told a lot of what I could not do, but that really forced me to, no matter what, believe in myself. That’s where this journey comes from. My entire life was determined for me by the third grade. If I didn’t get the right test scores, if I didn’t get the right support as a fourth grader, I wouldn’t get to go to Poly. As a city school student we are pretty used to competing. We’re pretty used to slim chances to get big outcomes and that’s unfortunate. That’s also why we’re crafty and smart, because we know that systems aren’t designed for us.

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Because I got to go to Poly, going into STEM was easier. I had a solid foundation and I already knew what I was going into. The problem is that people weren’t ready for me. After I graduated, I went on to engineering and started working in industry at 19. When I first started working, I was confused with the administrative assistant. I was the youngest, the only black person, the only woman, and I was the only person from a city, and to be honest, you get tired of being the only you. I will say my pathway, being a BCPS student and overcoming adversity, but more importantly being focused and committed to who I wanted to be and using my own issues and turning them into solutions for, how do you get more people like me into this space and show us in new lights and different dynamics? Women aren’t really in STEM and black women aren’t really in STEM and that representation part really matters. It’s become my mission to better get people and organizations ready for STEM students of color.

What was the shift point that made you leave your traditional engineering role and start B-360?

When I started B-360, people think I wasn’t doing all of those things still, engineering and teaching at BCCC. When people talk about startups, they assume that the person has even the power to be full-time when a lot of times that is slim to none. The Echoing Green Fellowship was the first organization outside of the Elevation Awards that provided money for me to make that leap to being “full-time” even though I was already doing the work, along with everything else.

In 2015, this was an idea that I had had for a while around not just how do you get more people interested in STEM, but how do you unite culture? I am from West Baltimore, so our sound of summer is dirt bikes — something I could never imagine not hearing. But then also realizing as an adult that maybe dirt bikes don’t belong in traffic. Not saying there’s something wrong with poppin’ wheelies or riding a dirt bike, but we need to make it more safe.

I remember seeing reports in 2016 for the need for more people to go into STEM jobs. Baltimore is a tech hub. We have over 200,000 STEM careers where you do not need a four-year degree. That is almost half the black people that live in this city. If we want this city to grow, that means adding to the economy, that means getting people ready and more familiar with jobs that are coming — anything like cyber, like manufacturing, but also the notion that you need the mechanic just as much as you need the mechanical engineer. You need both sides of the STEM pipeline. We can’t just have people doing C++ and Java. When the machines break, you also still need someone to fix the machine. You need someone that does the coding and you need someone that will fix the manufacturing plant.

This is also post-Freddie Gray, so on the opposite side also seeing better ways for community and police and people to be heard and to be respected. So when it came to the topic of dirt bikes — I’m not in politics, but I believe that there is a better way for us to work together. B-360 has the same outcomes as the Dirt Bike Police Task Force. For us, it’s, how can we empower people to be a part of things positively. Having a brother that is in jail, I am completely against solutions that result in people going to jail for non-violent offenses. I would rather do programming, which is very hard, as opposed to short-term solutions with long-term impact and so I believe it could be more of a balance between the two. Again, we have the same outcomes, but our message is that we work with students and people that do not want to ride the street, and they should have the opportunity to do that. We also work with students and people that would not naturally go towards a STEM career or be interested in STEM, not because they aren’t smart enough, not because it’s not attainable, but because we’ve never put it in a context that they can understand.

And as we really want to think about moving Baltimore together, that means, how do you elevate what people are already doing and make it better? This was me already being on the ground, already being a BCPS student knowing what we know how to do and deciding to build on how do we do this well, not being too far left, not being too far right, but really having the best interests in students like myself and people like myself who want to see Baltimore thrive. So in 2016, the Elevation Awards came through Baltimore Corps and gave us money to support this idea for the first time, and at that same time I was in the Social Innovation Lab at Johns Hopkins, which taught me how to think on the business side and really incubate this idea — I learned how do you actually create a startup and start it up.

I started meeting with everyone from students, to riders, to government officials and police including our former police commissioner Kevin Davis and [City] Councilman [Leon] Pinkett and really did my due diligence and tested my assumptions. I was putting in 120 hours a week between B360 and my other obligations as a professor at BCCC, and all of the different programs I participated in from the Warnock Foundation, to winning a Black Girl Ventures competition, to being on the Mayor’s Dirt Bike Task Force, and being recognized in 2018 as the Social Innovator of the Year. But I had to be in all these programs just for people to listen to me, even though I had already run programs myself, even though I was already in industry, even though I was a published researcher as an engineer, even though I was already from Baltimore and came from my own network at Poly, I still was not what people would expect. It was still not an idea that people would think because they had never heard of or thought of it that way.

For me, it also tells the story of how it’s really hard to do work honestly. It’s even harder when people want to validate you when they can not understand you and that’s one of my biggest things. For something to work, you don’t have to understand why it works, right, because maybe that’s not the lens that you approach it at — because it may not make sense to you because it is not of you. That does not mean it is not valid to do, and I think that has been one of the hardest things, people realizing that just because you can’t understand doesn’t mean that it does not work.

What keeps you motivated?

I’m always going to be black and I’m always going to be from Baltimore. Those two things are really it. I’m always going to be from Baltimore and I’m always going to want the best for my city and that’s my motivation. And then of course all of the students, the people, that we get to work with that get it, that are part of the program, that we get to help. I feel like we’re the catalyst. They were already smart. For me, my life goal is to teach people and show people just how smart they are, helping them unlock that potential. That’s what keeps me going. Every student was already smart, they were already talented, just nobody put things in a perspective that was for them. There is so much beauty in this city, and, yes, all cities have challenges, but the challenges I look at more as things we can use to empower one another as opposed to tear us apart. Our power is in the people. How do we shift the people out of streets and out of traffic and organize programming and organize safety and organize community and focus on how smart people are and the positivity that’s here? Again, I will always be black and I’ll always be from Baltimore. It’s just, for me, how do you make it better?

As B360 continues to grow, what will change in Baltimore? What does success look like for you?

I’ll start with really tangible things, techy people, we are all about that. Tangible is that we actually own dirt biking and we own new ways of growing STEM talent. This means a full out facility where B360 works with community partners to have a space where students can build, design, manufacture, do everything — a one-stop-shop for dirt bikes. Anything from riding it to thinking about the future of transportation. That’s what’s coming for B360 and having that be in Baltimore but also in other cities like us. Really us showing that Baltimore leads this industry, Baltimore supports its own to solve this, and that we can spread our seeds to teach more people how to solve this. That’s the end goal right there is that we lead the model in this space.

You know, skate parks started somewhere, [makerspaces] like OpenWorks started somewhere. But Baltimore has a unique advantage because we are the city where this dirt biking originated. I’m looking for us to take ownership in all of the positive attributes. Of course you know if people decide to ask us not to ride in traffic, but instead where riders can go to a place where they can do it legally and correctly and safely and learn, so that we have the whole pipeline of students to older adults in a place where they can learn grow and be a part of the economy and be ready for jobs.

Qualitatively: Honestly, joy. I love to see people smile. I love honestly the people that thought they knew about dirt bike riding and the people that read stuff and think that it’s horrible. Those are my favorite kind of people. Those are the kind of people that once they meet our students, and once they meet the riders we work with and once they see our programs — they get it now. I just want people to better understand: the same thing that brings you joy is the same thing that brings somebody else joy. If you focus on what brings you joy and it’s no longer causing harm and is more safe, this is the same experience we get over here. The same thing that someone wants for their kids, is the same thing that I want for my future kids, and the students we work with this is the same thing that their parents want for them. They want them to be happy, to express themselves. It’s the same thing that they want for themselves, to feel like they are welcomed in their communities, to feel like there is something left in Baltimore for me and I guess that’s the real feeling we’re trying to go after. Everybody wants what’s best for Baltimore — it’s how you do it that matters. I want to walk down the street and feel like this is my home, I’ve been here. I don’t want to feel like I’m getting pushed out or moved or being told that what I’m doing has been wrong, maybe the way I’ve done it has not been correctly, but what I’m doing is not a bad thing and I think that’s the feeling that we’re going for — just for everyone to feel that they belong.

What is the one thing that you do every month to make time for yourself and stay charged up?

I go to the spa. Honestly, I love having some alone time. The spa is the space you can be alone, you can get pampered. I need a whole facial, I need a full-body massage, I love to get in the mud bath, I need the whole day, just give me everything. That and then family day, I am really big on family, I try to take my siblings on dates, that kind of stuff. I just turned 30 and I am a whole person, but I am really close to my work so it can be really hard to decompress, so when I do I like to check in on my family, because again I’m from Baltimore and I’m black and I’m always going to have the same family.

Connect with B-360 at B360Balt@gmail.com or through its website.

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