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Traveling Residency Puts Millennials on a Vintage 1950s Train

This program gives artists wide open spaces to spark creativity.

In 2011, Patrick Dowd decided that the best way to get creative millennials to think about the future of America was for them to see the vastness of the country by train. He launched the crowdsourced Millennial Train Project because, as he put it, “everybody knows that travel is transformative.” The Millennial Train Project is a weeklong tour of America on a caravan of vintage 1950s railcars aimed at Generation Y. The 3,000-mile journey has become a residency for artists and entrepreneurs to work out ambitious projects generally launched after the long train ride.

“Why is it that trains are so conducive to deep thinking that breeds creativity?” Asks Dowd. “One idea that really comes to life on the train is this notion of time away from time,” he explains. “The train helps participants get out of their normal pace of life and think deeply about their ideas.” Dowd’s project also provides on-train programming where mentors from different fields provide feedback to the participants about their projects. “The expectation is for participants to own their ideas,” says Dowd, who helped lead a similar initiative in India as a Fulbright scholar before bringing it to the US. He adds, “The whole idea is to see things as they could be.”

Artist Ayla Boyle working on an string installation she created in the cities where The Millennial train stopped. Photo: Millennial Trains Project

The project also sets up site visits with artists, tech entrepreneurs, government officials, and venture capitalists in the cities the train stops along the way. “We want to help people build a strategic roadmap to implement their projects when they get off the train,” explains Dowd to The Creators Project. In cities like Austin, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, where the millennial train stops, the participants are also challenged to gain perspective on how their projects can potentially have a national impact.

The projects that are created on the Millennial Train have ranged from governmental policies to ensure clean energy usage, to experimental performances. Matthew Stepp used his weeklong journey on the train to meet with clean energy innovators, which resulted in the America Innovates Act which passed in the United States House of Representatives. Poet Cameron Hardesty used the trip to photograph public poetry installations across the country for an exhibition entitled The Visual Poetry Project. Randi Gloss used her journey to do research for a documentary film, The Conscious Chronicles, about the police brutality that sparked Black Lives Matter. Artist Ayla Boyle created a string installation in each of the cities on her journey. The train also supports participants like writer Maritza Alarcón who worked on an existing book project about happiness, I Am Happiest Book, throughout her time at the program.

Nathan Conroy, a social entrepreneur from Milwaukee, WI, used his MTP journey to market a hands-on STEM education curriculum he had developed to local school precincts across the country, one of which signed on a pilot partner to test his project. Photo: Tyler Metcalfe, National Geographic Travel

“On an individual level we want it to be a positive transformative experience for everyone who gets to take part in it,” says Dowd of the organization’s mission. “On a generational level you can look at the people on the train and get a sense of the aspirations of people who make up our generation. The platform can sustain a diversity of interests from clean tech entrepreneurs, to poets, to teachers, and artists.” He adds, “I hope it can help shape positive change for our generation. We can use our trains to explore our country and imagine its future.”

A photo from Cameron Hardesty’s The Visual Poetry Project taken in Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats during a train stop. Photo: Millennial Trains Project

For more information on The Millennial Train Project, click here.

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