The United States is incredibly divided at the moment. Republicans and Democrats despise one another. There is no substantial effort to come to a consensus on any number of issues.
Instead of working to find common ground, Americans are seemingly content to continue bickering like siblings on a family vacation.
There seems to be no end in sight to this divisiveness either, and the incendiary rhetoric surrounding the US presidential election isn’t helping matters.
But what if the solution to many of our problems was as simple as a train journey across the country?
What if we could cultivate the next generation of leaders, foster ingenuity, build bridges across communities and improve America’s global reputation through a combination of travel and dialogue on the country’s railways?
Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Train Project (MTP), believes we can. For the past several years, he’s taken dozens of Millennials from diverse backgrounds on train journeys across America, hoping to breed understanding and innovation through crowd-funded transcontinental expeditions.
Established three years ago, MTP is an award-winning non-profit that’s engaged with multiple communities across the US while fostering entrepreneurship, cross-cultural dialogue and global outreach.
Dowd recently took some time to speak with Elite Daily about the origins of MTP, what the organization has already accomplished and the train journeys it will take in August 2016. The conversation we had was inspirational, enlightening and refreshing.
At 28-years-old, Dowd is not your average Millennial. Even asking him where he’s from is not a simple question, as he moved around a lot as a kid and feels connected to multiple communities.
A graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Dowd was the youngest ever Editor-at-Large for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He was also a Fulbright scholar in India, and his experiences there were a large part of what inspired him to establish MTP.
While in India, Dowd was involved in an initiative similar to MTP. He served as a mentor on a train journey across the country, and it’s clear this was a very formative experience for him. As he put it,
India is the other great large democracy in the world and on this train journey…a big part of the excitement is about the dynamism and the civic-mindedness and the entrepreneurism of the rising generation in that country…
Traveling across [India] in the company of other young people that want to build it up and… looking at places through a lens of hope, potential and inventiveness – that was an incredibly moving and inspiring way to learn about contemporary India.
It was Dowd’s time in India, combined with things occurring across American society that ultimately led him to establish MTP. As he explained it,
When I came back from India I was working in investment banking as Occupy Wall Street was happening. It was many generations that came out for that, but especially young people. They were coming out to protest the vast inequities that are generated in this system of government and finance in contemporary America.
I definitely feel that there is a time for protest, but I was also reminded of this train journey in India. And I thought it would be beneficial to move beyond protesting and put people’s ideas in motion across the country. I thought they did this in India, we could do this here in the States too… So I quit my job and started building MTP… Eighteen months later we launched our first train journey. This year will be our fourth and fifth journeys…
The train is not a silver bullet, but I think it’s symbolic of the kind of action and unity that a lot of Millennials are embracing and that I want to be a part of and support.
The US is an enormous country, with equally diverse people and geography. Given all this, it’s no wonder Americans hold such disparate perspectives. At the same time, we have a lot more in common than we often realize. This is the goal of the MTP train project: to bring people together and help them find common ground.
In Dowd’s words,
It’s really valuable to get out of whatever your bubble is and meet people from other walks of life, other regions of the country, other sectors, other professions… That’s a big element of what the train project is designed to do: equip the next generation of leaders with trans-regional perspectives.
Right now we’re in the middle of an extremely divisive election cycle and in the midst of that, we can lose touch with how much we have in common with people from different regions of our country… A lot of what this train is about is bringing people together across regions…
When you travel across the country and you meet people face-to-face… you find that you can reach common ground and even get to the point where you’re creating things together and building new partnerships out of shared interests.
That’s our hope for everyone on this train and it’s our hope for our generation, that we can really take a leap of faith across issues that divide us and come together to create things. I think that travel and the exposure to different communities across the country is essential to that process, especially when we’re all so much in our digital bubbles nowadays.
Each train journey MTP goes on lasts around 10 days and involves around 50 participants.
In order to get onto the train, participants must pitch a project that benefits and inspires society in some way or another. It could be a startup, a community organizing initiative or a series of public artworks, among other initiatives.
Millennial Train Project
The lead sponsors of the Millennial Train Project are Comcast NBCUniversal and The Rockefeller Foundation. But it’s also sponsored in part by the State Department, which helps ensure a number of the participants of the journey are from other countries.
As Dowd explained, the State Department is very selective about which countries it wants to involve, so there’s an element of diplomacy and global outreach to the journey. He said,
[The State Department] has been an absolutely tremendous partner from the beginning. It does a lot to improve America’s image in the world. It wants to make sure people from other countries can come to America and see what we’re all about…
One of the really cool things they’ve done on every single one of our journeys, and will be doing again this year, is underwrite of a half a dozen foreign Fulbright scholars who are some of the top researchers from other countries studying in the US. These foreign researchers use the train as an opportunity to advance their research and broaden their perspective on America as we stop in these different communities across the country…
I think the journey itself brings out the conversation, but having these foreign participants there really reinforces a global perspective and keeps us mindful of [the fact that] despite all the challenges we face in the US what a privilege it is to live in America in the 21st century and how many opportunities people have here versus people in a lot of other countries, and how much people from other countries look to America for leadership.
It might seem farfetched that taking dozens of Millennials on a cross-country train journey could ever have a reverberating impact across the US. After all, Millennials are often characterized as an extremely apathetic and disengaged generation, too attached to digital technology to do anything of merit. There’s also the fact a lot of people probably view travel by train as fairly antiquated.
But when we asked Dowd why he chose trains, specifically, to be the mode of travel for these journeys, it all started to make more sense. In his words,
They connect us to our history and so much of American history begins with the railroads…
It was the railways that really connected America for the very first time and that really shaped the consciousness of this country and has continued to do so. There is not a community in this country that doesn’t have a railroad history of its own or tracks that connect it to the rest of the country.
As we’re traveling, we’re in conversation the entire time. Then, when we’re not in conversation we’re coming into the heart of cities and engaging with people right away. Then, when we’re back on the train. We’re feeling and have a very visceral experience of the scale of our country. It’s really quite different than driving or being on an airplane – you feel every bump of the landscape as you go across the country. You can really feel how big America is when you’ve been across it by train.
There’s also a lot of convenience to it. The train is our mobile campus. We sleep on the train, eat on the train, we are a roving symposium of workshops, guest lectures and leadership development.
The natural wonder of our country is as much a part of what makes America special and extraordinary as the urban landscapes and the dynamism that exists in those arenas, which we interact with a lot as well.
Indeed, trains were the first thing to truly connect the US coast to coast. They allowed for expedited travel across long distances for the first time in American history. In terms of reconnecting the US, culturally and geographically, it’s fairly logical for us to return to travel by train.
Dowd is really excited to see who applies this year and even more enthused about the journey itself. He said there’s always a special moment on each trip where it’s evident the participants start to feel like a true community of traveling thought-leaders.
In many ways, the Millennial Train Project is a perfect example of what this country needs right now: optimism, cross-cultural dialogue, innovation and a spirit of adventure.
If you’re interested in learning more about MTP and the August 2016 journeys, click here.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."