OUTstanding Virginians 2016

 

Charles Britt

Counselor, Mentor

Charles Britt_2

There are many ways to be an OUTstanding Virginian. For some, it means serving a particular constituency within the LGBT community. For others, it’s driving change in powerful institutions. For a few, it’s a lifetime of struggling and bearing witness. For Fairfax-based consultant Charles Britt, the path to his award was about “paying forward” the career guidance that started him on his career—while being forthrightly gay.

Charles was born in Indianapolis, the son of a single mom who had joined the Army right out of high school. He moved to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, while in third grade and then to Maryland. Growing up, he didn’t think much about what he would do after high school. College did not seem like an option, and the military had done well enough for his mother. But Charles had a 3.99 GPA and was in the Honor Society. His computer teacher insisted that he apply to colleges and helped him figure out that working with computers was what he most liked to do.

When the admissions results came in, Charles found he had many offers. He chose nearby Capitol Technology University in Maryland, where he had won a full scholarship in Computer Engineering. After a disastrous freshman year, Charles realized that he needed to change majors if he hoped to graduate, yet in changing majors he would lose his scholarship. Refusing to drop out, Charles switched to Information Technology, took out student loans and worked full time. “That and paid internships in the summer let me make it through college,” Charles says.

In September of his senior year, Charles got a surprise call from a recruiter representing the CIA. Two years earlier, Charles had given the Agency his resume at a career fair—something he didn’t even remember.  Now it was two weeks after 9-11 and the agency needed to hire more tech people. So Charles accepted their offer. There was just one concern. As Charles tells it: “I was not yet out, and in the background investigation process they asked about ‘this person living with you.’ I said, ‘He’s my boyfriend.’” To Charles’ surprise, they were not troubled by his admission. “They just wanted to know I was honest,” he says.

Charles stayed in the CIA for 13 years as an “overt” employee. Part of his job involved outreach. He found he liked talking with talented but underprivileged high school students and getting them to consider careers in science and technology. When Charles left the agency in 2013 to work for Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) in Fairfax County, he wanted to continue this aspect of his work.

“There’s a misconception that everyone in Fairfax is wealthy,” Charles says. “Actually, there is a lot of poverty. Some populations do not benefit from the overall wealth.” Many students end up in low-wage jobs because they do not have skills that are in demand, he explains. To get them preparing for careers in growth fields, Charles and NVCC began working with local governments, public schools, and community organizations. Together, they developed strategies to inform and engage students about to finish high school.

One of these strategies was an after-school competitive robotics program. Because of the high cost to enter many robotics competitions, low-income and minority teams are under-represented. However, Charles was able to arrange corporate sponsorships and leverage partnerships between schools, community centers, and the county government to field 20 teams over the last three years. Team activities are not just fun, says Charles: “We teach them teamwork, time management, and critical thinking.”

Charles fondly describes how the program transforms young lives, such as a young immigrant from Ethiopia whom he mentored, who was so energized by competing that he became an IT major at NVCC and plans to transfer to George Mason University when he graduates this year—the first member of his family to go to college. Then there was the group of Muslim girls from Reston whose parents thought girls should not work on robots. As Charles tells the story, “They snuck into program and created the only all-girl robotics team, the Pearls.” The Pearls fought their way to the state championship, winning news coverage and corporate backing along the way. “On appreciation night the parents showed up,” Charles recalls. “They were shocked at how much the program had opened up for the girls,” he says. Not only did it change the parents’ minds about robotics, it got them thinking about career options for their daughters.

Another outreach venture Charles initiated with NVCC was award-winning technology summer camps funded by corporations such as Northrop Grumman and AT&T. Charles helped develop the curriculum, which includes not just robotics but Charles’ own specialty, cyber security. He brought in speakers from various federal agencies to describe different tech careers.

Charles also makes a point of helping LGBT causes, especially organizations that serve youth. He is a major supporter of Supporting and Mentoring Youth and Leadership (SMYAL), the only organization in the region dedicated to providing a welcoming environment for LGBTQ youth. Recently, he connected with a program to promote LGBT engagement in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): O-STEM (Out in STEM). Incidentally, one of the sponsors of this program is his old employer, the CIA. Charles spoke at one of their conferences and plans to connect SMYAL with O-STEM.

Through these efforts, Charles hopes to “break the stigmas about gay people in engineering and technology.” He frequently encounters this misconception in his own life. “People don’t believe I’m gay,” he says, “because being gay is not associated with careers in engineering and national security.” What he would most like is for people to look at him through a more holistic lens. “I want people to see I’m doing all this good stuff and I’m gay too.”

 

 

Celebrate our victories this year and honor the 2016 OUTstanding Virginians by joining us at this year’s Commonwealth Dinner!