Millennial Trains Project
Denielle Sachs, head of global communications of the social sector office at McKinsey & Company and Millennial Trains Project mentor, addresses participants in the train's observation car during the stop in Denver.

Millennial Trains Project: A ride for experimental learning

With the Millennial Trains Project, Patrick Dowd gathers creative people for a nationwide trip along the rails. 

Since Patrick Dowd, 26, launched the Millennial Trains Project earlier this year, it has been touted as a new form of experiential education. Here’s how it works: Millennials propose creative projects and must raise $5,000 through crowd funding to get a seat on the train. There, they advance their ideas in the cities in which the train stops and learn leadership skills in evening mentoring sessions. 

In the first trip last August, 24 participants traveled for 10 days through 7 cities from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, D.C. The second trip scheduled March 16-26, 2014, will take travelers from Los Angeles to Miami. The train will stop in Albuquerque; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Atlanta. This time, the first 40 applicants to reach the $5,000 funding goal by January 15 will secure a spot. As the organization ramps up for the trip, I sat with Mr. Dowd to discuss the project.

Q. How do you describe what you do for people?

I say that we run crowd-funded train journeys that provide an opportunity for people to explore their own personal, professional, and creative frontiers. Everyone sees their own passion in this train. Ultimately, the whole thing is pretty user generated. It’s kind of like a coral reef, where we create the reef, the rock, but then it’s populated by all these other forms of aquatic life, which are people’s ideas in this case of the train.

What’s consistently really exciting for me is to hear the ways that other people interpret the opportunity. So for instance, somebody who really loves poetry will say, this is a great opportunity for me to talk about poetry with people. And somebody who is interested in energy innovation will say: here’s my chance to go visit national laboratories of energy innovation. However we describe it, and the way that we intentionally built it, it is psychologically accessible to a very broad and diverse range of interests.

Q. Describe more about the process for getting on the train. 

In order to get on the train, applicants have to raise $5,000 and design a project they want to advance across all the localities where the train stops. It’s really effective for a couple reasons. For one thing, we don’t have an admissions committee for this train. People admit themselves through their own hard work and desire to be a part of the initiative. So the only thing that we screen for with people’s initial crowd-funding proposal is the sincerity of their project. So if someone is serious about their idea, we approve them so they can begin crowd-funding.

Then they have to go make a pitch to whoever they can. It might be folks at their local church, it might be local business owners, it might be one foundation. But they have to communicate the value of what they’re doing to others and build a community of support for their ideas and aspirations [in order] to build on those ideas through a transcontinental journey.  And then they raise the $5,000 and the first ones to reach that goal get on the train. Some of our supporters were nervous about that. "Are you going to get a good quality of people? You don’t have an admissions committee like most things that are prestigious." 

And we ended up with the most high-caliber, diverse groups of people I’ve ever spent time with. And it was just self-selecting. It had to do with the tone [and] expectations that we set, and the way we’ve been describing it. We left a lot of it open to interpretation in the context of people’s own interests, so great people came forward from all over the world. We had folks from India, Hawaii, Pittsburgh, a lot of different places and doing all different types of projects.

Q. And why do you think now is the perfect time for this project?

The Millennial Generation is coming of age and the verdict of what our generation is or can become is still very much open to question and unresolved. And there’s been a lot of negative commentary about this young generation of Americans, which I don’t find particularly helpful or inspiring. I think that the Millennial Generation has tremendous aspirations and I like that the train provides a platform for people to explore and amplify and experiment with those aspirations – all of which represent possible futures that might be best for us.

I also think that now is a good time because our country is more divided than at any point since the Civil War, and trains have a very special way of bringing people together across place and time. And that is true today as it was after the Civil War, [just] as it was in the 1950s, which is when our trains come from. And I think that when you travel and go to different cities you can’t help but have the prejudices that we hold in our hearts be eroded, and that’s a positive thing for our country.

Q. Can you talk more about how this idea of experiential education on trains came about? 

It just felt right in the beginning. When I experienced it [as a Fulbright Scholar] in India, it seemed really tremendous to me. I didn’t then see it as this is a great platform for experiential education – although that’s definitely what it is and how people are interpreting it now that we’ve done this in the States. I think that it was providing an opportunity for discourse and discovery that was very exciting for me. It was very moving and kind of enlightening experience in the way that really good travel with other inspired people can be. So I was amazed by it, loved it, and felt we don’t have anything like this in America. 

And it turns out that trains really do provide a great environment for discourse. And when you take a very intentional approach to creating an environment for discourse in a transitory environment like on a train, it can be quite amazing what results, and that’s what we found with the Millennial Trains Project.

Q. Describe more about the projects and the kinds of participants you attract. 

The essence of these projects is a focus on building trans-regional perspective on whatever your personal, professional, or creative frontier is. So for some people, their projects are an extension of the work that they do every single day. For instance, there’s an entrepreneur in food waste recycling and that’s what her project was about. For other people, it’s an opportunity to step away from what you do on a daily basis and experiment with an alternative track for yourself. So for instance, there was a speechwriter from the White House – her particular project was about poetry, which she doesn’t get to do every day at the office, but going on this journey provided her with an opportunity to strengthen and affirm her nascent self-perception as an artist, and now she feels stronger and that may lead her down another path. 

Q. What do people take away from the experience?

You might have an idea about one thing based on the context that you experience in the area where you live. It’s a really valuable experience to see how that perception measures up against realities that exist across the geographical breadth of our country.

The second thing they come away with is the feedback and affirmation and challenges that come from interacting with other really inspired people who are on the train who have projects that are completely different from what they’re doing.

The third element is leadership development. The project is based on the idea that journeys build leaders. That is a fundamental human truth that exists, and is celebrated in every single culture in the world....

And we also take an intentional approach working with City Year, one of the leading nonprofits focused on the high school dropout crisis. We’ve built a whole curriculum and philosophy on how journeys build leaders. So part of the journey is an hour each day talking about personal leadership development. 

Q. What lessons have you learned from the last train trip?

A big personal lesson is that one of the greatest things that you can do in life is just completely put yourself on the line for a really big vision. And the very moment where you just give absolutely everything that you have to give, that’s when other people will lift you up. So you’re not going to do anything big 100 percent by yourself, but if you give 100 percent of yourself, that might get you 80 percent of the way. And then other people will pick up on that and help you go the last mile.

So I guess it’s like having faith that if you try to do whatever you feel is the most noble thing – and if you’re pushing yourself so much, and you feel like maybe you’re not going to get there – have faith that other people will pick up on that and help you go the last mile. 

This interview was trimmed for conciseness. Click here to see the full interview. 

Ari Pinkus is the Associate Editor of Publications at the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington, D.C., and maintains a blog at the NAIS website.

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