I traveled across the country by train to find how our generation is trying to change the world


By: Ethan Chiel

When Amtrak's overnight train from Pittsburgh arrives at Chicago's Union Station we are already behind, and a group photo with the bean in Millennium Park is struck from the schedule. As everyone waits in the concourse of Chicago's Union Station to pile into cars, a staff member named Jenny Gottstein, who'd previously taken the trip herself, asks a small group of participants what their goals are for that day.

Michelle Ching, a former teacher in Oakland hoping to "expand the reach" of a literacy instruction app she created, offers up her hope.

"I wanna be more cognizant of this journey," Ching says. "Yesterday was very overwhelming."

Ching is one of 26 "participants," 15 women and 11 men, who are spending the first week of August traveling across most of the continental United States. They start in Pittsburgh, and after five hours in Chicago they'll wend their way through Kansas City and Albuquerque, before ending up in Los Angeles. The trip is referred to as a "journey" with near-military discipline by almost everyone involved.

The "journey" was organized by the Millennial Trains Project (MTP), a non-profit which has arranged one cross-country train trip a year since 2013. This year —for the first time— they're organizing two, with 26 diverse millennials (read: 18 to 34-year-olds) per trip, who've mostly crowdfunded their way on board at $5,000 a head. The idea is based loosely on a similar endeavor in India, which Patrick Dowd, MTP's founder and CEO, helped staff while he was there on a Fulbright fellowship. After returning to the United States, Dowd was working at JPMorgan as an analyst when Occupy Wall Street began to coalesce. He told to me he doesn't see MTP as a response to Occupy, as he started it to affect change a different way.

How MTP works is pretty straightforward: put the millennials on a set of private rail cars, meet with local leaders in five cities along the way, and work on individualized projects they've pitched. By design, Dowd explains to me, the participants are free to get as much or as little done as they can during the train trip. The projects vary widely from a documentary about food workers' rights to expanding the availability of service year programs like City Year, another MPT partner organization. How some will work is quite clearly delineated, like 26-year-old Nalin Natrajan's plan to write explanatory texts that encourage financial literacy. But some projects aren't as well thought out: one called "Hello. My Name Is…" offers to create a short film that "will invite people to choose to stand together on a stable foundation of love, truth, and authenticity so that we may collectively create a more beautiful & sustainable future for humanity" by compiling "answers to open-ended questions." Don't wait up for further explanation of how that works.

Even when the projects seem well put together, the short, sometimes only hours-long stopovers feel reminiscent of volunteer tourism: stop in, do something to feel good about what you're doing, and leave. In Kansas City one participant explains to me that his plans have simply fallen through, so he'll be wandering into the Kauffman Foundation to see if he can get a meeting about his ideas on financial tech.

The raison d'etre of MTP itself is even more vague, aside from a pervasive optimism about the "potential of the millennial generation" and an opposition to what Dowd has called "declinist attitudes about the direction of [the United States]." The driving philosophy is that "journeys build leaders," though how they do so is never particularly apparent in my six days on and off the train. A repeated emphasis is placed on the importance of experiential learning, but perhaps I simply missed the experience.

"Innovators." "Leadership." "Inspiration." "Incubator." "Entrepreneurship." These buzzwords are used near-constantly by staff, participants, and guests, all of whom spend time talking like they're pulling from Silicon Valley pitch decks. And while jargon has a purpose, in this case it often feels like play-acting: sounding like the people and organizations who have money thinking it will get you the money. Maybe this is inevitable, since the list of past MTP sponsors and supporters includes WeWork, the coworking and co-living company valued at $16 billion; McKinsey & Company, the massively influential management consulting firm whose ideas, veteran financial journalist Duff McDonald has reported, are arguably responsible for overcompensated CEOs, the popularity of mass layoffs, and Enron; and Ekocycle, which has been accused of being part of a corporate greenwashing trend, but is billed on MTP's site as "an innovative collaboration between Coca-Cola and will.i.am." The organization also receives media and philanthropic dollars: this year, and for the past couple years, the organization's "lead sponsor" has been Comcast/NBCUniversal, along with The Rockefeller Foundation.

There's also MTP's bizarre use of "pioneers." The word is used prominently to sell the program, along with the idea of "new frontiers." When I ask Dowd about this, he says thinking of it as a colonizing impulse is a deliberate misreading. But it's hard to take him at his word when you watch an early promo video for the project, which could be mistaken for a car ad if you aren't listening closely. It begins by explaining how "technology and time have opened up 3,000 miles of new frontier." "Those who claim it will travel by train. "Instead of dynamite and steel, they will bring technology and ideas."

During the first evening I spend with the MTPers, in Pittsburgh, participants are asked to get in touch with any journalist friends they may have and post as much as possible about the trip on social media.

"What's a lead?" someone asks Randi Gloss, the 25-year-old staffer (and another former participant) who is handling press coverage and instructs everyone to send journalistic leads her way.

"A tidbit of information we can give to reporters to write about y'all," Gloss explains to the crew. She quickly adds emphatically that when it comes to a response from the press "any ounce of maybe could work."

On Friday, there's a group meeting with Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry. Justin Vandenbroeck, a straw-hat wearing 26-year-old who's been running workshops designed by his urban farming group Fleet Farming, offers that Albuquerque is the first city where he's felt like a neocolonialist. Members of the city's native population have challenged him: while they like the idea of farming in their front-yards, they're hesitant to do so. Vandenbroeck asks the mayor about what trouble he's had overcoming the city's colonial history. Berry cracks a joke about being a B student, and needing neocolonialism explained to him, then disagrees about divides within Albuquerque's population. It's one of the more interesting conversations I hear on the entire trip, and a rare case of honest, comparatively unbridled disagreement. I'm disappointed, though not really surprised, that none of it makes it onto MTP's social media accounts. Instead, a quote from another participant about thought-leadership makes the cut.

As the conversation with Berry continues, Maceo Paisley, another MTP staffer sitting next to me, gets a text from Dowd. He's just posted a photo on the non-profit's Instagram of two chefs from Washington D.C. who've been brought along to cook for everyone in the train's kitchen. Apparently, the horizon in the first photo is off kilter, so he has to repost.

It's almost 3.a.m, and we're traveling through Kansas when the only verbal fight I witness between two participants breaks out. In the domed area of one of the vintage cars, where everyone can eat and socialize, small groups of the participants get a little drunk. It's a nice reprieve from the job-interview behavior I've noticed for much of the trip. Someone mentions the drinking game flip cup, and Jarod, a 31-year-old teacher from Malaysia says he doesn't know what it is. Naturally, a few people teach him how to play. Others talk about their upbringing, and at one point a rising NYU senior named Aayush who's studying playgrounds, wanders around trying with varying degrees of success to give people backrubs.

That night almost everyone cuts loose. By the time the argument happens, there are just three of us: Tom Krueger, a teacher from Minneapolis; Gordon Rooney, a civil servant from Charleston, South Carolina; and me. Both were drunk, Rooney a little more so, lolling back a forth a bit in his seat, and I'd been drinking as well, when the topic turns to whether the racist actions of the founding fathers meant they ought to be less revered.

"Do you wanna rename our nation's Capitol?" Rooney asks at one point.

In response, Krueger offers a thought experiment.

"Imagine your family is buying a house, it's the last house, it's a good value, and it's on a boulevard, and that boulevard is called Hitler Avenue."

Rooney says he wouldn't want to live on Hitler Avenue.

"Now let me tell you what Governor Ramsey did," Krueger continues, referring to the 19th-century governor of Minnesota who called for and attempted to carry out genocide against the Dakota people, but who still has many streets and a town named after him. (Admittedly, large scale renaming is a large undertaking, but an altogether possible one, as Houston Independent School District is demonstrating.)

Rooney calls him ignorant, saying he's looking at the past unfairly. He then cites his own undergraduate history degree by way of establishing his historical bona fides.

"I'm gonna be blunt with you...I advocate for justice, and you just sat here for some time advocating for injustice," Krueger tensely responds. He seems tired of arguing, and Rooney decides to head to bed.

The next morning, as the train rolls on towards Albuquerque, Gloss leads a workshop on "courageous conversations," which is to say, uncomfortable conversations, often ones about race or racism. (Most of the time Gloss doesn't work for MTP, since the non-profit has only two full-time employees and is, among other things, an activist in the D.C. area.) They discuss different sorts so societal privilege and the participants nod knowingly throughout.

Five days into the trip, I notice that "ecosystem," "innovative," opportunity," and "thought-leader" are still being used so often in conversation it's almost dizzying (for me, at least). The MTPers are unflappably friendly and optimistic, but the endless, interlocking bits of jargon give the thin impression of knowledge even where it doesn't exist. This is odd, because I've heard some of them speak with depth and authority about everything from voting rights to sustainable small-scale farms. But they inevitably fall back into the argot of middle managers and venture capitalists. Some of those terms, like "entrepreneur," have become so muddy even their proponents are uncomfortable with the way they're used.

I decide to talk to Jordan Davis, an Ohioan who's both incredibly smart and one of the prime culprits in uttering dreaded terms like "pivot," "pipeline," and "startup," about my misgivings with how the participants talk. To my surprise, she sort of agrees with me. She argues that jargon is largely a necessary way of translation, but that more incisive, specific ideas are there, lurking beneath the surface.

After a couple hours milling about, chatting, and checking emails, the participants are ushered to the upstairs section of the domed car to take part in some group brainstorming (a largely debunked method for coming up with good ideas, sold to the world by an ad executive named Alex Osborn in the 1950s). There are "Brainstorming Rules" on little business cards emblazoned with the name of yet another partner organization, the design firm IDEO: "Defer judgment," "Encourage wild ideas," and "Go for quantity."

When I walk up the stairs to inspect the results I notice the question "How do I raise customer awareness regarding local vs. giant business impacts?" written on a PostIt note by one of the participants (which, I'm not sure). The answers, written on other, multi-colored Post-Its, are answers. But rather than revealing anything even remotely new, they are filled with more marketing tropes: "loyalty cards," an "augmented reality app," and "educational infographics." Based on a promotional video MTP put out a couple years ago, this level of "innovative" thought is pretty standard for the trip:

Millennial Trains Project/Vimeo

On Saturday, the train chugs through Southern California towards L.A. and the participants gather for a final onboard session. Some are still in pajamas, and Dowd urges me to listen in, saying it'll really tie things together. Someone towards the back of the car mentions that she now feels she has 30 some-odd people who have her back. Another says it took her two years to apply to MTP, and how it exceeded her expectations. Justin, who I've overheard say he didn't continue his contretemps with Mayor Berry only "out of respect for MTP," says that "travel usually feels so transactional" and this didn't.

I wince a little, thinking of how many Uber rides staff have called for him and the rest of the group in the preceding week, and am relieved when another participant mentions how hard others have worked behind the scenes. I keep listening to others chime in and agree about how great the MTP trip has been, how supportive the rest of the group is, how everyone should keep in touch.

It does sound like a wonderful "journey," but mostly it sounds like a vacation.