Millennial Trains Project: America’s New Pioneers

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Speaking of transformational youth, my second conversation was with Jessica Straus, a spokesperson for the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), whose inaugural journey took place in August. The group traveled on a refurbished train, described as a “retro piece of industrial hardware,”  from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. This was the first of three planned trips, with the next one scheduled to travel from Los Angeles to Miami in March 2014.

MTP was founded by Patrick Dowd, a Fulbright scholar who co-led a Jagriti Yatra journey in 2010-11. Similar to Jagriti Yatra, MTP has a pioneering sensibility and seeks to engage Millennials who are interested in exploring new frontiers.

Patrick Dowd

MTP also has some additional, unique attributes. For example, to help build a sense of personal commitment, and to demonstrate an ability to build a community around an issue, participants were each required to raise $5,000 to help fund the journey. Crowdfunding also produced a greater sense of accountability, because the funders (each initiative had about 100 of them) would likely monitor the progress of the projects they helped fund.

MTP participants on the train, reflecting and collaborating.

Like Jagriti Yatra, MTP’s participants were a collection of young people who possessed a unique quality that all Millennial leaders seem to share:  Aspirational pragmatism. That is, the ability to craft a lofty vision that is grounded in common sense.

The MTP participants, Jessica explained, “saw possibilities for disruption everywhere. They imagined how to design a preferred future. What systems of scale would look like. For an entire government. Or a school.”

“There was very much a sense of leaving the west and going towards the rising sun,” she added.

Like Jagriti Yatra, the MTP organizers believe smaller towns and cities offer greater potential for change than big urban centers, because there is often no entrenched bureaucracy.

“There are big opportunities to design your future in these small-sized cities,” Jessica said. “And that was a huge learning. GenY can move there and move the needle.”

It was while visiting smaller towns that the MTP participants developed an important insight:  Transportation was a problem in virtually every community they visited. It was obvious that the existing infrastructures were not built to support the needs of contemporary society, which was having a direct impact on local economies.

The good news is that in addition to identifying the problem, the team encountered a potential solution, in a very unexpected location. During a stop in Omaha, Nebraska, they were introduced to Anne Trumble, a visionary landscape architect,  and founder of Emerging Terrain, a non-profit that collaborates with governments, citizens and artists to “re-shape the built environment.”

Emerging Terrain has taken on the challenge of helping Omaha solve its transportation-related challenges by thinking about its needs and existing resources holistically and creatively. The group believes, for example, that “transport can include networks linking people, goods, ideas, information, economic growth, urban development, cultures, resources, and technology.”

As one of its first efforts, Emerging Terrain launched Stored Potential, a project to revitalize a grain elevator by painting murals on it that would provide an aesthetic improvement to the area while initiating a public conversation about how to transform shared spaces. (Re-imaging existing spaces, beliefs and institutions seems to be a Millennial theme, and it certainly characterizes both Jagriti Yatra and MTP.)

It would have been difficult to launch a project like Stored Potential in New York or L.A., due to inflexible bureaucracies, but Omaha embraced the initiative, and Emerging Terrain’s success has been so profound that other communities throughout the U.S. and the world are seeking to emulate it.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Jessica whether she had learned anything new about Millennials during the MTP journey. She said yes, that she had been surprised by the degree to which the group made an effort to support one another.

“There were twenty-four different Millennials working on twenty-four different projects. There were projects on open government and clean energy. On poetry. Art. Higher education. And even though each member had their own unique focus, they were willing to think outside the parameters of their own projects to help solve the problems of others. There was a willingness to come together.”

Yes, something is going on. As Jessica put it, we are in the “throes of revitalization.” The world’s youth, the Millennials, are in motion. They are in active pursuit of a preferred future, and although this shift is in its infancy, initiatives like Jagriti Yatra and the Millennial Trains Project are an exciting indication of the drive, focus and selflessness that Millennials can bring to problem-solving.

We should all get on board.

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