As the sun rose over an ash-pale stretch of Arizona desert sprinkled with saguaro cacti—a Western scene straight out of Central Casting—25 millennials emerged from bunks on refurbished 1950s Pullmans, grabbed coffee, and began to work.
This is the third voyage of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), the brainchild of Patrick Reilly Dowd, 27. The train offers the millennial innovators on board 10 days of fellowship, mentoring, and project development as it trundles toward the final destination: Washington, D.C. The train will also make stops in San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans, and Atlanta. In each city, the participants have arranged meetings, meetups, interviews, pop-ups, and other engagements to help out test their various ideas for transforming society.
"The idea is that we get to see America as it could be," Dowd says, referring both to the optimistic, international, and racially diverse group that makes up the this MTP expedition, as well as the wide range of social innovation spaces the riders are each exploring—from apps for better nutrition during cancer therapy, to building a more robust network for ongoing discourse around Black Lives Matter, to expanded access to maker spaces across the country. These young innovators each raised thousands of dollars to participate in this excursion. Ideas scribbled with Sharpies on sticky notes pepper the train windows. Throughout the journey, mentors and guests from Ideo, Stanford, City Year, the U.S. Border Patrol, Craigslist, and advertising agency GMMB will help MTP participants shape their core ideas, their design thinking, and their strategic narratives.
A graduate of Georgetown University, Dowd settled in Washington, D.C., after a Fulbright Fellowship in India and a brief stint as an investment banker in New York. He then began to plan a transcontinental rail journey for millennials based on his own rail explorations of the Indian subcontinent. The project quickly gained traction with a range of supporters—free housing in Georgetown from a wealthy Japanese biotech innovator; a gig as editor-at-large from National Geographic Traveler; time from McKinsey consultants who took a shine to Dowd's ideas for social action. The end result: a project backed by the U.S. Department of State, Fulbright, NBC Universal, McKinsey, Ideo, and Tyson Foods. There are many other eager partners these days, but Dowd is careful, preferring frugality to partner misalignment. "We don’t want to be associated with liquor or alcohol brands," he noted.
"These are all exceptional people on the MTP—ideas flow through the train as we move eastward. We interact with the geography of innovation on the train, connecting visually with the landscape as a moving picture," Dowd says.
As the desert landscape unfolded during the first morning on the train, Nhlalala Mavundza, 26, a Fulbright Scholar and doctoral student in the neuroscience of obesity at Kent State University, discussed how obesity rates in the American South drew her to climb aboard. Originally from Pretoria, South Africa, Nhlalala (who goes by Lala) noted how the train trip offered the opportunity to study Liberty Kitchen in New Orleans, a thought leader in school nutritional programs.
Seated beside Lala in the breakfast car, Magdalena Leszko, 28, of Szczecin, Poland, is a Fulbright postdoc who is investigating how to keep the elderly safely integrated in urban communities, particularly those with varying stages of dementia. "Our generation owes something to that generation. When they were 45 years old, they were building safe playgrounds for us—now that they are 85 we can design safe communities for them."
Across the aisle, D.C. resident Jeff Martin of GMMB pondered the wide-open desertscape, noting how time seems to slow down on a train. Martin met Dowd more than five years ago he approached GMMB for help packaging and marketing the experience.
"Right away we all felt it was a really cool project that aligned with our anthem, 'cause the effect,'" Martin says. Martin’s creative content group at GMMB works alongside colleagues who spearheaded the Obama for America campaigns. Other clients include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and AT&T.
For Kalimah Priforce, 34, of Oakland, California, the journey offers a chance to step back and further develop his burgeoning youth coding education initiative, Queyno. The project is named for his younger brother, who was gunned down at age 18 in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Both brothers grew up in group homes in Bed-Stuy and at an early age, Priforce made a name for himself as a thought and community leader. "I went on a hunger strike at 9 to get more books in the house. That lasted three days. When they finally let me go to the library (the residents of the group home had been restricted from going to libraries and museums before the strike), I met a Buddhist nun. I told her my story and her order in Chinatown adopted me. I studied Buddhism from age 9 to 14." Priforce is now a White House Champion of Change and lauded tech innovator who teaches low-opportunity youth in the Bay Area to code. The train offers him time to ponder and develop initiatives like Building While Brown, which he described as the largest social network for diversity in tech.
As breakfast wound down on Day 1, Martin called down to stragglers to climb the stairs into the retro-dome car. It was 9 a.m. and the beginning of 12 hours of talks, mentoring, writing groups, and what Dowd describes as "diagonal conversations."
While admirable in its ambition , the MTP project has had its fair share of critics. And its exact purpose is still elusive to the larger population. Despite his enthusiasm for the project, on the train, Martin offered a frank message for the MTP project: "They need to simplify and get on point if they want people to listen. They all have an interesting story but the fact is that in the bigger picture, no one cares. They need to craft a compelling story to make people care." Will that narrative emerge over the course of the next two weeks? Stay tuned for my next update in the coming days.
Leslie Carol Roberts is a writer, journalist, and Dean of Design at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. You can reach her at email@example.com.