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Rich Millennials on Trains Won't Save America

The Millennial Trains Project puts young entrepreneurs on a train and asks them to develop projects in each community they pass through. It's a dumb idea.

"Pioneers" aboard a Millenial Trains Project car. Screenshot via YouTube

Things aren’t looking very good for America right now. International threats—or at least the political fear-mongering about them—will likely divert scarce public dollars from civil society to the war machine. Record inequality is changing the country from oligarchic to neo-feudal, while schools are more segregated along racial and class lines than they were in the 1960s, cementing current social divisions well into the future.

The basic structures of society seem weak enough to collapse, but what if the solution to our woes is right in front of us—in the form of entrepreneurial millennials who see the future not as a compendium of crises, but as an opportunity to innovate?

This is the essence of the Millennial Trains Project (MTP).

Photo via the Millennial Trains Project

The MTP is a ten-day, cross-country train ride that chauffeurs a few dozen young people through dilapidated urban areas across America. Each rider is on a crowdfunded mission to develop his own civic project at each place he stops. Some participants hustle energy-saving apps for students, some solicit funds for art installations, and some blog about their meetings with local small business owners.

The MTP was founded on the idea that post-recession America is a land of “new frontiers” and its problems are just waiting to be settled by a new generation of “pioneers.” The language used to sell the program closely mirrors the language of colonial Christian frontier missions, used to impose the good word on native populations. The MTP pioneers aren’t bringing the word of God, however, but the cure-all gospel of entrepreneurship.

“Technology and time has opened up 3,000 miles of new frontier,” declares a narrator in an informational video on the MTP’s website. “Those that claim [the frontier] will travel by train,” it says. “It’s the ghost of Jack Kerouac, staying up all night, with the spirit of Steve Jobs.”

The founder of the MTP is Patrick Dowd, a former Fulbright scholar who went on a similar train ride through India called Jagriti Yatra. The Indian ride is funded by American companies that have recently made huge investments in the country, including Rolls-Royce, Google, and Coca-Cola. But Dowd emphasizes that the crowdfunding aspect of his project gives the MTP a democratic edge.

“Everybody who shows up knows they’re there to accomplish something,” he told me, “and [they] approach travel in a manner that has been sanctioned and supported by a wide range of people who believe in them.” While each participant’s project is crowdfunded before they board, the program itself is sponsored by a number of associations and nonprofits, including the Fulbright Program, the US Small Business Administration, and a handful of globally recognized consulting and corporate law firms.

Dowd decided to launch his project after watching Occupy Wall Street break out. At the time, he was an analyst for JPMorgan who had grown discontented as protesters raged in the street against his employer and soon quit to start the project. “Those protests needed to happen, but at the same time, the [Jagriti Yatra] model from India provided a positive avenue for dissatisfaction,” he said. “The Millennial Trains Project… [is] an alternative, and it’s based on locomotion and moving forward.”

The people who will move society forward, Dowd believes, look like the people on his train: savvy, young, college-educated men and women. Around 40 participants rode the train, and while the cohort featured some racial and cultural diversity, most were still white and seemingly from privileged backgrounds.

“The idea is to use the trains as a platform for leadership development and national inspiration,” he told me. “We need that leadership from our generation.”

The most recent ride from Portland to New York ended in late August, stopping in Rust Belt towns like Milwaukee and St. Paul. All of the pioneers were bound together by their collegiate education and confidence that they had ideas people needed to hear.  

One participant, a rising senior in college, wrote on her crowdfunding webpage that she wanted to “remind people that life is more than a steady paycheck” by encouraging them to “break outside the norm” and start small businesses. Another young woman wrote she wanted to “give people reasons to see things differently” by installing geometric art installations of her own design in public spaces. While nearly all of the projects required the “pioneering participants” to meet with community members in each city, everyone had an agenda to accomplish that was his or her own. Culminating visits to the US Mission to the United Nations and the White House solidified the sense of personal mission among the pioneers. 

Photo via the Millennial Trains Project

For all its focus on civic duty, when it comes to improving society, the MTP champions individualistic traits like gumption and ingenuity, not systemic change. That’s as clear as the neocolonial connotations of the MTP’s public-relations pitch, which pushes a perception of the impoverished American heartland as a tabula rasa frontier, valuable only insofar as it can serve as a laboratory for the ideas of privileged youth. Certainly, an image of a retrofuturistic train slowly rolling through deindustrialized wastelands—which many low-income people still call home—as young do-gooders look on, dining on meals cooked by onboard professional chefs, may be unsettling to some.

Dowd argues the pioneers are more like wayward wisdom-seekers than white saviors, despite a stated focus on leadership development. “The spirit in which people are participating,” he told me, “is in the spirit of wanting to learn about what people at the front lines of change are doing in their communities.”

One train rider who embodies a cross-section of civic engagement and entrepreneurship is Jessica Meyer, who used a recent train trip to develop her vision of a community learning center (or a “skillshare”) in Detroit called 313exchange. Myer writes on her crowdfunding page that the 313exchange will be “a knowledge and skillshare community designed to tap into the hidden talents, skills, and experiences of… veterans, the unemployed, ex-inmates, autistic people, and the elderly.”

Myer, who is from Chicago but moved to Detroit three years ago to work in the nonprofit sector, got the idea for 313exchange while completing classes through D-Hive, a nonprofit that offers lessons in small business development and that is part of a swelling complex of privately funded nonprofits in Detroit. She spent her time on the trip meeting with similar skillshare groups in different cities and developing partnerships with interested organizations.

“I spent half the time looking at knowledge and skillshare organizations, just looking at how it works,” she told me. She eventually formed an informal partnership with the Library of Congress and became more determined to launch her skillshare in Detroit.  

“I was so encouraged by the fact that if you want to [start something], you can do it, and it doesn’t matter if you have money or supplies as long as you have support,” she said. “The [train] environment pushed me to be the best person I can be.”

Myer also embodies the pioneering ethos of the Millennial Trains Project. On her crowdfunding webpage, she writes, “If you are a millennial then Detroit is the city for you!… [N]o idea is too outlandish and no challenge is too big.”

Detroit itself, tattered and broke, is the avatar for an America pulverized by capitalism into a frontier of opportunity for ambitious transplants with access to capital and powerful social networks. 

Ruins in modern-day Detroit. Photo by Bob Jagendorf

When a promotional video on the MTP’s website says that its pioneers will travel “3,000 miles to blast a hole in the theory that America is in decline,” it’s an implicit reference the trope of the once great American city decimated by decades of outsourced labor and industry. This archetype fits basically any of the Rust Belt cities, but nowhere was the fall as dramatic as Detroit, which once symbolized American industry. As recently as 2000, Detroit was still number ten in America’s largest cities by population, but as revenue dried up and buildings crumbled, its population fell by a quarter.  

But even as it was hemorrhaging people, something else was happening: Young people with degrees were moving in. According to the Census, between 2001 and 2011, the number of college grads under 35 in Detroit rose 59 percent. And as others have reported, this trend is likely accelerating as the cost of living remains low and private sources of capital proliferate.   

“The Motor City has become the testing ground for an updated American dream: privateers finding the raw material for new enterprise in the wreckage of the Rust Belt,” wrote Ben Austen in New York Magazine, although it could have been written by Patrick Dowd, who wrote in National Geographic that the pioneers on the MTP “evidence my generation’s search for a refreshed, compellingly remixed version of the American Dream.” What better place to find that dream than a hollowed-out metropolis where “no idea is too outlandish” because everything is already fucked up?

And it’s in Detroit we glimpse the idealized frontier imagined by the Millennial Trains Project: a city where fantastically wealthy private interests have replaced an eviscerated public sector. The city doesn’t even have a mayor anymore and longtime residents have virtually no say in what happens to their city, but Wall Street and a handful of foundations have pledged hundreds of millions in loans and philanthropic dollars for new business enterprises heralded mostly by newcomers, who can even receive tax credits for moving in. It’s the perfect place for ambitious pioneers and a nightmare for disenfranchised natives who just want the horror to end.

“Detroit is not a blank slate,” Michelle Martinez, an environmental activist and community organizer from Detroit, told me. “There’s a lot of knowledge inside of the community… that should be acknowledged before anything new is laid down.”

Martinez said that while many of the new nonprofits are well intentioned, and even effective, they mostly operate independent of the municipality, which means they’re unaccountable to those they serve. Furthermore, she said, they can displace efforts that have been in place for years.

“When you have folks coming from the outside with great new initiatives and they scoop up funding that may have gone to nonprofits that have been in the community for decades… [you’re] undermining decades of social capital.”  

Another longtime activist, organizer, and member of the DPS school board Elena Herrada told me that much of the newer development in the city has been directed by online social media campaigns (similar to the ones that financed the projects of Millennial Train passengers). This is a problem, she said, because less than 40 percent of households in Detroit have access to broadband internet.

“The kinds of things that are going on [in Detroit] are for younger and more privileged people who have more access to technology,” she told me, adding that most newcomers are white.  

Yusef Shakur, a local activist and businessman, echoed Herrada’s concerns of a disempowered local populace. Shakur is Detroit native and black, like 82 percent of the city’s residents. He was imprisoned for over a decade as a teenager after a rough upbringing. Since being released, he’s founded two community organizations and continues to organize mentorship programs, entrepreneurial leagues, and grassroots fundraisers.

“The community, the people from here, should be at the forefront of leading the changes to be made in the community,” he told me. Outsiders can help, “but don’t need to lead us.”

Photo via Yusef Shakur

Shakur doesn’t oppose newer nonprofits, but he resents their tendency to sap momentum from grassroots initiatives. He described to me a neighborhood wealth-generating effort he leads through his Urban Network without help from wealthy philanthropists.

“You get 20 working people to put five bucks or more into a pot every two weeks, then after six months you use that money to host a fish fry. We raise money with the fish fry, then we make t-shirts to sell. Then we keep going like that—and folks on the outside look at us and say, ‘Hey, they’re doing it!’”

Fish fries and t-shirt sales are not nearly as cool nor fun as traversing the country like a Jack Kerouac-Steve Jobs hybrid, but they’re more democratic, and ultimately give people more agency to decide what happens in their lives and communities. They’re more empowering, giving the people who live in a community a stake in its future, which means a stronger community in the long run.

In addition to colonial logic, the MTP reflects the very vogue idea that we can parse social problems from their broader context and apolitically solve each one with technology. But revelations in economics have shown that inequality will likely rise under current conditions, and as everybody knows, politics is a zero-sum game that fulfills the will of the rich. Any solutions that don’t deal with this extremely political fact are doomed.

Despite the good intentions of the pioneers, the MTP is an extension of neocolonial tradition and is complicit in the decades long co-opting of the public sphere by elitists channeling their influence through banks, nonprofits, and philanthropic foundations. It won’t save America, and that’s the sad, hard truth.

Follow Aaron Miguel Cantú on Twitter.

Editor's Note: This piece originally said the Millennial Trains Project stops in "Rust Belt towns like Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Detroit." While MTP participant Jessica Myer used the project to develop her skillshare idea for Detroit, MTP does not actually stop there. We apologize for the error.