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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 (ages 18-34) 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.
MTP is funded through a combination of crowd-funding, corporate sponsorship, and philanthropic grants from foundations and individuals. In addition to crowd-funding in small-dollar amounts from 1,000 individuals, current and past sponsors include Norfolk Southern, Bombardier Transportation, the United Nations Foundation, and the S&R Foundation.
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 for March 16-26, 2014, will take travelers from Los Angeles to Miami. The train will stop in Albuquerque, N.M.; Kansas City, Mo.; Louisville, Ky.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Atlanta, Ga. 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 Dowd to discuss the project and his vision for its future. (The Christian Science Monitor has published an abbreviated version of the interview.)
Ari Pinkus: How do you describe what you do for people?
Patrick Dowd: 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.
Ari Pinkus: Describe more about the process for getting on the train.
Patrick Dowd: 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 transcontinential 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.
Ari Pinkus: Why did you decide to launch Millennial Trains Project?
Patrick Dowd: When I was a Fulbright Scholar in India, I helped lead a train journey over there that’s been going on for a couple years, and is really a big sensation in India. When I came back from India, I was working in finance in New York right as Occupy Wall Street was reaching its height. And I felt there was a more positive way to channel the dissatisfaction that a lot of people felt with where the country was, and [it] would look more like the trains project from India than these protests that were going on outside our office, so I decided to take a risk and try to start it.
Ari Pinkus: And why do you think now is the perfect time for this project?
Patrick Dowd: 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. And 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, 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.
Ari Pinkus: You described a little bit about your experience in banking, and I wonder if you could elaborate on your background a bit more.
Patrick Dowd: I did a lot of different things after I graduated from Georgetown, where I was student body president. After graduating, I basically just let my curiosity guide me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do so I worked as a legal reporter, I worked as a campaign speechwriter, I was a field researcher and then an investment banking analyst. So I got to try a lot of different things. None of them were my dream jobs, but they all helped me build skills. When my passion and sense of purpose was really ignited by this idea of the trains project, I had the skills I needed from these other jobs to realize that vision.
Ari Pinkus: Can you talk more about how this idea of experiential education on trains came about?
Patrick Dowd: It just felt right in the beginning. When I experienced it 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.
Ari Pinkus: Can you talk about the kinds of trains you use and whether you’re partnering with anyone?
Patrick Dowd: We charter refurbished rail cars. They’re from the 1950s. Around the country, there are a handful of different kind of mom and pop outfits that own vintage rail cars, restore them, and go on different excursions. So we work with a company out of Los Angeles, another one in San Francisco and grab these old cars from the 1950s. We just kind of lasso them all up and we put them behind an Amtrak locomotive and they go.
Ari Pinkus: Describe more about the projects and the kinds of participants you attract.
Patrick Dowd: The essence of these projects is a focus on building transregional 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.
Ari Pinkus: What do people take away from the experience?
Patrick Dowd: 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 measured 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.
Ari Pinkus: Talk about what a day on the train is like.
Patrick Dowd: It’s a long day. And it’s pretty stimulating. Everyone’s up at 6 a.m. We have breakfast on the train and usually we’re just getting into a new city at around 6 a.m. And then we get off, we get in a bus or taxi cabs and go to our local hub, which is always an entrepreneurial workspace, or creative design studio, or something of that sort, where we hear from some local leaders about what’s the vision for the future for Denver, for Omaha, for wherever we’re stopping, and give some context with the vision for this place and also its history. So that’s probably an hour or two there.
Then, there’s six hours of free time where participants go to all different corners of the city and pursue their projects so that’s a unique experience for everybody. Then we come back on the train in the late afternoon and we do a debrief on what did everybody experience and discover and witness in the city that day. And that’s one of the coolest parts of the day because it provides everybody with this extremely kaleidoscopic and granular and rich portrait of the city.
And it was amazing because our hosts would always say, ‘I can’t believe you guys have only been here for six hours because I’ve been living in this city for six years and it took me all that time to discover all these different little subworlds that you guys just encountered in this short period of time.’ And that’s what’s cool about traveling with a group of such diverse and deep interests: We strike this balance between your own individual purpose and the perceptions you get through that lens, and the perceptions that all of the fellow travelers on the Millennial Trains Project are sharing from their own lens. So you just get a much richer picture of a place in that way.
After the debrief, we have some lectures on the train from our distinguished mentors and they lecture about where are the new frontiers in their professional area. So for instance, we had the senior managing editor of the Associated Press talking about what are the new frontiers in media; we had some famous Silicon Valley venture capitalist talking about new frontiers in investment and entrepreneurship and frontier markets. And then we have dinner.
A lot of fellowship is built through those meals on the train. We had two 26-year-old chefs who provisioned the whole train journey and cooked in this little kitchen for all 50 people on our train, and we had great food. So we really bonded over those meals. So then when we were having dinner at 9, maybe people talk for an hour and then go to sleep and get five hours of sleep and then we’re up the next morning in a new city and it repeats again. So there’s hardly a down moment, except maybe when we’re traveling a bit on some of the long-hauls.
Ari Pinkus: How do you choose your mentors on the train?
Patrick Dowd: For our first journey, a lot of them volunteered and were really excellent. It was easy. We try to have a stable of mentors who are preeminent in their field and from a bunch of different fields. We had award-winning architects, journalists, successful venture capitalists, folks from major corporations. We try to pick people who clearly have some wisdom and perspective to share with the group and who want to be there. That’s the most important part that all of our mentors really get. This could be a faculty at an Ivy League school. If any of our mentors were teaching a course where I went to college at Georgetown, it would be an oversubscribed course because they are really well-established practitioners of their craft. All of the professors and mentors come on the train for free because they want to mentor to the generation. They want to do something that is a new way of doing things. And maybe they’re excited about going on a train journey, too.
Ari Pinkus: Tell us about your mentors.
Patrick Dowd: I’ve definitely been inspired by a lot of my teachers, by my parents. There were a handful of classes that I took in college that really changed my perspective of the world. One big mentor would be the dean emeritus of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown. I took a class of his when I was an undergrad called ‘Explorers, Warriors, and Statesman,’ where we looked at the history of the world in terms of historically, mostly men, who really shaped its history at key moments. And we’d read a biography every week of somebody like Amerigo Vespucci or Marco Polo or Genghis Khan, and try to get inside those people’s experiences, and understand what’s the personal journey that people go on that leads them to have a really big impact and be of a lot of service to society and the world.
Ari Pinkus: What kind of exposure to experiential education did you have in high school, and what did you take away from those experiences?
Patrick Dowd: Actually a lot. At Georgetown Prep, they have a lot of good programs. Two that really stand out are summer service learning program in the Dominican Republic. It’s called Somos Amigos, which means “we’re friends,” basically. I went to the DR with a group of classmates and a teacher one summer, and we built a 60-foot-long concrete bridge with no power tools and working in tandem with local residents there that really solved a challenge for this local village, and we lived in a small hut with locals. And that was a strong experience that gave me some cultural sensitivity, I think, and [we] worked hard, too. I mean we were doing hard manual work and that was a humbling experience, for sure. And also fortifying. In different contexts, not manual labor, when things fell apart, I would remember that, that it’s not that hard.
And the other one was this model organization of American states, these mock diplomatic summits, where you prepare and take on the position of some nation and then debate for the interests of that nation. And I feel like I learned a lot through those.
Ari Pinkus: What lessons have you learned from the last train trip?
Patrick Dowd: 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.
Ari Pinkus: Where do you see the organization going in the next couple years?
Patrick Dowd: When I set out to do this, I said I’m going to do three of these [trips]. And it’s going to be a shot in the arm basically for the country and the people that take part in it and follow it. And I’m going to finish that.
Then there’s a question about should it blossom into something bigger than that that goes on for a lot longer, and I think that it could. I certainly feel that this is an experience that should be open to many more people and could really become the road trip for our generation because it’s an incomparable way to experience our country, and a great way to test your ideas and experiment with your dreams in the real world. And with the first three journeys, I’m experimenting with different permutations of the same concept to see what’s the most beneficial route this might take in the years ahead. For now, I’m just focused on this year, 2014, and what we’re doing. We have two more journeys: One in March from Los Angeles to Miami and another in August from Portland to New York.
One of the possible pathways in the future is doing something that’s more targeted towards high school-age kids. We had the editor-at-large of the Chronicle of Higher Education on the train and he was like this is a really great model for experiential learning and could also be, not a gap year, but something students do before they go to college, to get a sense of what opportunities are out there. You think you want to major in policy. Well, why don’t you meet with councilmen in various communities and see if you really like it afterward as opposed to making a big commitment, taking a big risk.
The views expressed here reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS. Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments and suggestions for future blog posts.