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Millennials learn about nation, themselves on cross-country trip

Chicago Tribune

For millennials, everything old is new again. Vinyl records. Typewriters. Pabst Blue Ribbon. And cross-country train trips.

Tapping into a yearning among young people for better ways of learning and communicating, a former financial analyst left his Wall Street job to start the Millennial Trains Project. Now in its fourth year, the nonprofit puts dozens of young people from around the United States and the world onto vintage train cars to explore the country and talk to one another about what they’ve seen.

“We’re trying to give participants a real, visceral sense of the scale of our country and build a transregional perspective,” said Patrick Dowd, 29, MTP’s founder and CEO. “We look at this as an inner journey and an outer journey – the inner journey is about how our participants are growing at an individual level.”

This year, the project doubled to two train trips, with two diverse groups of 26 travelers, including participants from Germany, Peru and Singapore. The first trip started in Pittsburgh and went through Chicago, Kansas City, Missouri, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, before ending in Los Angeles on Sunday. The second started in LA, routed through San Francisco, Denver, Milwaukee and Detroit.

The young people on board, who raised money mostly through crowdfunding to pay for their $5,000 tickets, include recent college graduates, grad students and those a few years into their careers. The State Department also sends a contingent of foreign Fulbright scholars. At each stop, they meet as a group with local leaders – including Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Chicago city Treasurer Kurt Summers on the most recent trip.

They then go off on their own to meet specialists in their fields of interest, ranging from designing playgrounds, planning museum programs, teaching financial literacy and promoting urban farming. Some have specific goals. Pittsburgh’s Daniel Scullin is making a documentary about local food economies – while others are just there to learn.

After their city visits, they return to their train cars, which include a domed observation car and a Pullman sleeper, to eat regional food prepared by on-board chefs, attend seminars and lectures, and exchange ideas. It’s a full day – starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 11 p.m.

Dowd said the goal of the trips is to build leaders and grow networks. A train is an ideal environment for community building because a cross-country observation car is like a “floating living room,” where people can relax and talk, he said.

“Riding on an airplane or in a car is an anonymous and isolating experience,” Dowd said. “Being on a plane eliminates the space to have a natural human conversation – two people having to look at each other and talk. We have an environment that’s very conducive to creativity.”

Riding along are MTP staff and mentors, including former participants. The cars are attached to Amtrak trains.

Dowd said he doesn’t look at the trips as a business incubator – but participants do go on to start their own companies and other creative endeavors. One traveler started a business that turns misshapen fruit that gets rejected from grocery stores into juice, and others she had met on the MTP trip helped her out, Dowd said.

Another MTP traveler wrote clean energy legislation, using research from his journey.

“There are so many examples of people making connections that were helpful for their careers,” Dowd said.

The idea for MTP came to Dowd while he was training to be a financial analyst on Wall Street in 2012. The Occupy movement was going on outside his office windows, noisily questioning his work. While Dowd didn’t want to be an “occupier,” he knew he wanted to do something besides juggle numbers.

“I wanted to do something I thought would be helpful,” Dowd said.

He decided to try a U.S. version of a train tour he learned about while on a Fulbright scholarship in India. The tour, called the Jagriti Yatra, which means “journey of awakening” in Hindi, takes young people on a loop around the subcontinent.

Dowd said his peers are besieged by advertising and constant claims on their attention, which can distract them from getting anything done. He sees a train journey as being similar to practices like yoga or writing personal letters – a way to slow down, pay attention and act with intention.

“We’re not all sitting in a row with our ear plugs in, watching an on-demand movie,” he said. “We’re talking.”

Dowd said even the delays that come with Amtrak are educational – the fact that a train is held up by a freight carrying coal and oil tells something about the nation’s history, and how things work.

One participant in this year’s project is Rachel Reilly Carroll, 31, of Washington, D.C., who works for Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that finances affordable housing. Carroll wanted to look at the need to preserve and create affordable housing near transit.

On her journey last week, Carroll talked to residents in the gentrified East Liberty neighborhood in Pittsburgh, and with activists in Chicago’s Wicker Park and Logan Square neighborhoods who fear being displaced by new, high-rise projects near “L” stops.

Carroll decided to take the trip because she could only learn so much “sitting at my desk behind a computer screen.”

“It’s a great opportunity for me to learn about different policies,” Carroll told the Tribune while waiting for the next leg of her journey in Chicago’s Union Station. “You really got to be on the ground and take a look for yourself.”

Carroll said it’s also important for people who want to understand the nation’s problems to not just see the big cities – like New York and LA – or popular mid-sized spots like Austin, Texas, but also places like Kansas City and Detroit.

She said the trip has given her a chance to unplug from the online world and engage.

“You can’t help but have conversations with people,” she said. “I really wanted to take this opportunity to learn.”

Those interested in next year’s project can check it out at

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