Historic US railroads inspire 21st-century solutions: the Millennial Trains Project

Over 10 days in August, the Millennial Trains Project will send 40 young Americans across the country by train, each rider with a specific, crowdfunded project to help build a better nation.

Courtesy of the Millennial Trains Project
In August, the Millennial Trains Project will send 40 young Americans by train from the San Francisco Bay Area to Washington, D.C.. Each rider will have a specific, crowdfunded project to help build a better nation.

As the Millennial Trains Project (MTP) enters the two-week countdown for applications, the nation is responding to its provocative idea: Let’s use 150-year-old railways to inspire 21st  century change.

Over the span of 10 days, 40 Millennials will cross the country by train, each rider with a specific, crowdfunded project to help build a better nation. Riders won’t be alone: They will count on the dialogue and involvement of onboard mentors and station-side cities.

We Millennials [Editor's note: Millennials, roughly speaking, are teens and adults under 30 years of age] don’t have an easy future up ahead of us, and it seems that we’ve been dubbed with some tough-to-swallow labels, like narcissism and laziness.  25-year-old Patrick Dowd, MTP’s founder and CEO, insists that the jury is still out on our generation – and that maybe Millennials are ready to step up to the plate.

In our conversation, Dowd shares the challenges that Millennials face, the inspiration behind the project, and the stories MTP is uncovering through its applicants and stakeholders.

Your Huffington Post article suggested that Millennials may not be such a “Me Me Me Generation,” as TIME recently suggested.

I thought that the TIME article was, like many others, not that impressive or accurate. It takes a slice of data and makes sweeping generalizations about what this generation is or isn’t.

I’m not saying that Millennials are one thing or another. I’m just creating a platform that will help people to explore their passions. Applications are proving that there’s a lot of talent in our generation. That’s a big asset.

MTP says that Millennials are living in a United States that is more divided that at any time since the Civil War. 

It’s true. Just look at the exit maps from the last election – look at the red and blue states. There are a lot of disagreements, and a lot of polarizations. With the way the media has evolved, people can now build silos around themselves, surrounding themselves with information sources that reaffirm only their beliefs.

But there is no political litmus test to get on this train, and we are bringing really diverse people together. This is building new relationships based on shared aspirations for a better future – that aren’t constrained by existing political fault lines.

You’ve said that MTP was inspired by your similar experience in India with Jagriti Yatra

Yes. I studied Hindi and read and learned about India for three years, and I lived in India for five months – but traveling across the breadth of the country gave me so much more than what I could gleam from academic study or living in one place.

It also helped me to imagine what it’s like to do something on a big scale; to think of what the opportunities could be. You feel the diversity – the geographical diversity, the human diversity, and even the spiritual diversity as well. There’s something about feeling the bumps of the country as you go across it – highways and airplanes can’t offer that.

When I came back from India, I was working with JP Morgan when the Occupy Wall Street movement began to gain traction. I thought there was a better way to channel the frustration that my generation has with the challenges we face.

How does MTP’s compare to Jagriti Yatra?

They are both built on the concept that journeys build leaders, and they share the mission of building trans-regional perspectives and experiential learning.

The biggest difference is that MTP is very user-generated. Riders are designing their own projects, and doing their own crowdfunding. In India, we didn’t have the opportunity to develop our own projects.

An India-inspired idea, taking root in the United States. Any hopes it will continue to spread?

Expansion could happen. Maybe people will want to copy it – and that’s fine! We can help with capacity building if other people wanted to do this somewhere else. I think the most important component is that the location needs to have a geographically diverse innovation ecosystem.

You’re making a big bet on Millennials. Have you seen any adversity from that?

We had some surprising responses to my piece in GOOD. Some people from older generations were complaining about the project being only for Millennials, saying that older people shouldn’t be left out of the project. I certainly understand, but I think we need to create a safe space for our generation to create ideas of our own.

I was joking with my team that for every seat in Congress – which is making decisions that will affect our future – that’s occupied by a Millennial, we’ll offer a seat for older people on the train!

Ha! I bet the comment wouldn’t sit well with a lot of non-Millennials. 

I don’t know about that. For every one snide comment I’ve gotten, there have been 100 people saying, “This is great,” “I want my daughter or son to get involved,” or “How can I support you….”

Older people are generally very supportive of MTP. People want to rebuild a sense of America, and that’s cross-generational.

What other stakeholders have been in dialog with MTP?

On the one hand, we’re working with the entrepreneurial, design-thinking community – but it’s been fascinating to connect with the old-school train community. The train guys are like land sailors. They have this amazing oral history about seeing cities being built across the country, but it’s not very well-documented or accessible online – you have to talk to them to discover their stories.

We also hosted a delegation of native Americans that had gone on a walk from Kansas to DC. We both connected with the idea that journeys build leaders. We had a very long discussion about the history of their people, their beliefs, and what it’s like to be a native American. The meeting was three hours long, and for the first 90 minutes, I just listened to the storytelling of their history and culture.

They reminded us that in popular culture, the idea of trains represents adventure and the pioneering spirit that we want to revive. But for them, it represents an instrument of extreme terror that was used as a vessel to desolate their populations. It was good to be made aware of that. They also recognized that we are using the train for a different purpose, and both sides hoped to see participation from their tribes.

Are you learning anything new about Millennials through this process?

Very diverse groups of people are gravitating toward the opportunity. It’s just this kaleidoscopic look at where the generation might be headed.  There are projects about alternative education, wearable technologies, music, poetry, computer science, health, local governance….

I’m learning about things I didn’t even know existed. There is one project about citizen science. They are using technology to connect outdoor athletes, conservation scientists, and policymakers. For example, a rock climber sees an eagle’s nest, takes a picture with her cell phone, tags it, and sends the data to an eagle conservatory.

Another project works with community wireless networks. They use free open-source software to build community mesh intranets. One applicant, Stephanie, is using Google Glass to identify opportunities for wearable technology.

So are you seeing a tech-heavy balance of projects?

There are a lot of projects that are only possible because of new technologies – but it’s not really about technology. It’s about passion, principles, and ideas.

Cameron wants to digitally share her street installations of poetry, but for her, [MTP] is about the magic and beauty of poetry. Stephanie is working with “techy” Google Glass, but it’s also about honoring and connecting with her immigrant parent’s pioneering journey to the United States. Lindsea from Hawaii is integrating technologies into local governance, but I think it’s also about being part of a country even when you’re from an outlying part of it. I imagine her connecting with inspiring friends from the mainland as a result of this.

At a time when we have so much ability to connect through technological innovations, we have physical connections that can be much more powerful. It’s worth the time and effort of people to unplug and connect in that way.

This will be MTP’s first trip. What are MTP’s expectations? 

This first journey is an experiment, and we’ll learn from it. Some stops and forms of engagement will be more successful than others, and everybody getting onboard knows that. It’s the start of something great and a learning experience for everybody involved. We’ll reinvest that knowledge.

Does that mean we can count on more trips in the future?

(Laughs) Let’s just see how this goes. I think it’ll be great – and if that’s the case, there are more places to go.

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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