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How a Baltimore resident is taking the city's dirt bike culture and turning it into STEM education for youths

Brittany Young remembers Sundays in West Baltimore as a child, when she’d hear the distinct buzzing and revving of engines. It was the city’s signature soundtrack for the summer, a sound that said: It was dirt bike season.

She’d watch, fascinated, as a pack of around 40 riders, mostly black, zipped by on their dirt bikes, making their way to the local park — popping wheelies or the well-known 12-o’clock tilt, where they’d pull their bikes upright, nearly vertical in the air. Sometimes police officers would stand nearby, she said, blocking off streets, allowing riders to display their tricks as dozens watched.

She “didn't see it as a safety concern or a nuisance,” said Young, 29. “I always thought it was cool.”

The dirt bikers were local celebrities. They were also talented mechanics, known to fix their bikes, customize the color and fine-tune the sound of their engines. But as Young got older, she learned how complicated and dangerous the pastime could be. Some bikers sped through crowded streets, causing accidents and deaths. Bikers were collectively labeled dangers to society. Eventually, riding a dirt bike on the street in Baltimore was outlawed.

Still, in the city long considered the capital of dirt bike culture, the sport endures. And Young, an elementary school technology instructor and a former chemical engineer, is tapping into that love as a platform for something bigger. Through her grant-funded B-360 program, Young is using bike culture to introduce more black children to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. At the same time, she hopes to decrease street riding in Baltimore and to challenge the negative perception of this popular hobby.

Her initiative comes as officials here and in other cities consider developing dirt bike parks, and as Baltimore awaits its appearance in a dirt bike feature film from executive producer Will Smith.

“People think that an engineer looks a certain way, and then people think a dirt bike rider is a certain type of person,” said Young, noting that black people are under-represented in STEM fields. According to a 2018 report by the Pew Research Center, black people account for 11 percent of the U.S. workforce overall but represent only 7 percent of STEM workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“I work with kids who want to be both. … How do we change the narrative around who they want to be, and where they want to go?”

Young launched B-360 in March 2017, recruiting from local elementary schools and hosting STEM-focused workshops on 3-D printing, laser cutting and polymer making. She enlisted experienced dirt bikers, ages 16 to 50, to teach students about riding safely with helmets and gear, and about the inner workings of dirt bikes and their ties to STEM. The name, B-360, means “be” the “revolution” — “The gears and wheels turning on a dirt bike, the mindset shift with perception change, and community-centric models to work better together.”

Despite a lack of funding and space, Young has expanded her program with pop-up “dirt bike clinics” at local events. She’s worked with more than 3,000 students and has sought to engage residents, police and dirt bikers in community forums.

As program manager for the Baltimore City Community College STEM Scholars Program, Young said, she has trouble getting students to see STEM as a real career option — which is where B-360 comes in.

Daron Harrell, 12, of Park Heights, began riding dirt bikes at age 6, but had not thought about being an engineer until he met Young, a technology instructor at his middle school. She taught him about 3-D printing and making slime — polymers similar to those in the plastics used in dirt bikes — from glue, contact solution, baking soda and food coloring.

Now, Daron aspires to ride and be an engineer who builds bikes.

“I want to program them, so I can have my own dirt bikes to ride,” he said. “Instead of spending money ... I can just make them.”

City Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III, who represents areas of West Baltimore popular with dirt bikers, said the program turns a “nuisance activity” into “something that can provide educational benefits and potential training for other pursuits.”

“Any program or opportunity that gets young people interested in sciences and further in their education is something we should support,” he said.

And Young’s work has attracted attention beyond those communities — Forbes magazine and Teen Vogue have written about her. Red Bull Amaphiko and the Johns Hopkins Social Innovation Lab have backed the program, allowing Young to obtain working dirt bikes and helmets for demonstrations and group rides at racing parks in the state.

But because dirt bikes are illegal in Baltimore — even on private property — Young has to navigate tricky terrain. The bikes her program is allowed to operate in the city are too small for older students, making recruitment difficult, and transporting bikes out of the city is costly, she said. On top of that, riders often feel skeptical about volunteering for the program because they fear being identified or arrested by police, she said.

Young hasn’t been able to purchase broken dirt bikes for students to work on and repair because of the law, so she hosts other exercises in their place.

West Baltimore resident Zita Harris, 44, said she was hesitant about having her daughters — Tynesha and Tyneka Feaster, ages 7 and 9 — participate in B-360 programs, especially with the many depictions she has seen of dirt bikers riding dangerously through traffic. But Harris gave in once she saw the program’s educational and safety components and aspiration to change the culture.

“If you got to start with the little ones to show the big ones the right way, then that's what we're going to do,” Harris said.

The motorized bicycle has a long and complicated history in the city.

According to archived Baltimore Sun reports, motorized bikes became a craze around the 1970s and then quickly became a safety issue, with dozens of collisions and deaths around the country. By the 1980s, off-road vehicles, including dirt bikes, had been banned on most public property in Maryland.

Riders took to the streets, leading to a contentious relationship with police. The Baltimore riders’ skills and style, documented in YouTube videos and documentaries like Lotfy Nathan’s “12 O’Clock Boys,” inspired distinct street bike culture movements in other cities, including Philadelphia, Cleveland and Paris.

Pacino “Chino” Braxton, 21, who has been riding dirt bikes since he was 6, has become the face and voice of the local dirt bike scene. His popularity and skill have landed him partnerships and campaigns with activewear brands Under Armour and Supreme and management from Jay-Z’s Roc Nation.

“When I'm riding my bike, I just feel free. Like, I'm free of everything,” said Braxton, who has a role in the upcoming dirt bike film and has visited B-360 sessions to speak with children who admire him. “I don't have no stress.”

But the sport was outlawed on city streets in 2000, and police were later given the power to seize any unlocked dirt bike.

In July 2016, the Baltimore Police Department’s Dirt Bike Violators Task Force was formed. Since then, police report they have made at least 45 arrests and have confiscated more than 400 bikes and four-wheelers.

Though the task force is seen as a success for law enforcement, the approach has been punitive for young riders. Those who simply see the sport as a pastime can end up jailed or with criminal records, Young said.

But “bike life and crime life are not synonymous, and we shouldn't keep treating it as such,” she said, adding that charges, even misdemeanors, can prohibit a person from being considered for most STEM positions.

A Baltimore City police spokesman said the police department supports “anything that’s going to teach young people and teach responsibility to operate dirt bikes safely,” but the program has to operate within the law.

The sport that’s illegal in Baltimore is a profession for young, mostly white men elsewhere. Motocross races are broadcast on ESPN and garner millions of dollars from advertisers. The races are hosted on dirt tracks made for the races. Baltimore officials and motocross enthusiasts have floated the idea of building a facility in the city so bikers could enjoy the sport.

Darius Glover, 27, a Baltimore native and the first paraplegic-certified motocross racer in the American Motorcyclist Association, has made it his goal to bring more diversity to the sport and has partnered with B-360. The crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down forced him to learn how to customize his bike to suit his needs — everything an engineer would do. Glover sees this as a perfect segue into STEM for city kids.

“If they can relate to dirt bikes, we can also show them about different engineering programs,” he said.

The mayor’s Dirt Bike Task Force, formed in summer 2017, has discussed creating a safe space for riders and is considering two potential sites for a dirt bike park, according to Pinkett, the group’s co-chair.

The task force has seen B-360 “as an incredible model of how young people can be engaged in dirt biking in a positive way,” he said, and will be working with the program to help it expand as they finish their report.

The group has also looked to Cleveland. Like Baltimore, the city has had difficulty with illegal and dangerous dirt bike riding in city streets. But Mayor Frank G. Jackson believes there need to be options for young people who ride dirt bikes. Cleveland hosted a series of dirt bike events this summer in a municipal parking lot, and a permanent track is in the works. City officials are now looking at three sites and estimate the cost to be around $2 million.

“It’s a way of life for them,” Darnell Brown, Cleveland’s chief of operations, said of local riders. “Realizing that, there had to be viable options or an appropriate outlet to channel that energy in a positive way.”

Baltimore’s task force has made no decisions yet — it plans to make policy recommendations on the legislation that would be needed to have a dirt bike park in the city. A final report should be released within the next few months, according to Pinkett.

Young, who is a member of the task force, is optimistic. She hopes that Baltimore and its bikers can come together to find a solution that makes riding safer.

“We just need to shift it forward,” Young said of the bike culture. “Not try to get rid of it.”

bbritto@baltsun.com

twitter.com/brittanybritto

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