Riding With Leaders of Social Innovation
- by Katlyn Grasso
When one journey ends, there is always another waiting to begin. The day after graduating from Wharton last May, I flew to Los Angeles for what was one of the most transformational experiences of my life. Through the support of Comcast and NBCUniversal, I was selected to participate in the Millennial Trains Project, a 10-day, cross-country train trip for 25 social innovators. The train departed from Union Station in Los Angeles and made stops in San Antonio, Austin, New Orleans and the District of Columbia. Each participant rode the train to advance a different social project and meet with stakeholders in each city to establish community partnerships.
As a recent graduate, I found myself comparing this trip to a condensed version of college on wheels. I had a mobile dorm (a set of streamline cars where we ate, slept and worked); a roommate (a Fulbright scholar from Cambodia); professors (the nation’s leading business, civic and academic leaders who served as mentors aboard the train); and homework (preparing my site visits in each city). I spent my time on the train preparing for the GenHERation Summer Leadership Series 2015, a 10-city tour across North America to hold conferences for high school girls.
The most important lesson I learned from the Millennial Trains Project is that the people make the place. The friends I made on the train are the most fascinating, courageous and insightful people I have ever met. They are change-makers, leaders in social innovation who utilize action to address adversity. To share their perspectives on the Millennial Trains Project, I asked five participants to provide an overview of their project and highlights from their trip.
Watch the Millennial Trains Project video above to see what it was like for the 25 social innovation leaders on the trip.
Participant: Clara Ritger
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Project: The Great American Cooking Story
“I created a documentary series on the role of restaurants in revitalizing neighborhoods. In every city where the train stopped, I explored one community in transition and filmed interviews with at least two chefs and/or restaurant owners who influence and are influenced by the change in the neighborhood. I think the biggest takeaway I had from the trip was how passionate, involved and knowledgeable the chefs and restaurant owners were about their community, and the potential that lies in energizing those who create gathering places for their neighbors to play an active role in defining the future of the neighborhood. The Millennial Trains Project provided me with the unique opportunity to engage with six different communities across the nation on this topic while interacting with mentors who helped to shape the way I approached the storytelling of it. I am excited to share a taste of what I learned with audiences in the six-episode series set to be released this fall.”
Participant: Maceo Keeling
Hometown: Los Angeles
Project: Citizens of Culture: Citizen Quest
“Traveling the nation to investigate the growth and needs of the creative economy. I learned that America is a dynamic place where creativity thrives in the smallest town to the biggest metropolis, and due to changes in the economy, people have become increasingly more adaptive in their ways of making a living. It is absolutely inspiring. My favorite part of the trip was time on the train having deep conversations with the staff and other participants. We formed strong bonds in such a short period of time that I believe will last with me for years.”
Participant: Nicole Behnke
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Project: Should You Stay or Should You Go?
“My project was to explore the millennial generation lifestyle across the United States and discover what the key factors are that they look for when they decide to settle roots and call that place home. My key takeaway from the trip was the power of connectivity. We can all connect in different and equally meaningful ways that can help propel not only ourselves, but also our communities forward. We’re all trying to create change, and if we band together to use our individual strengths to help each other, we can create the most powerful change possible. My favorite part of the trip was being able to explore the cities through each other’s eyes and individual experiences. To come together to share stories of what we all saw or noticed built an even stronger image of what made that city unique and special.”
Participant: Lauren Zelek
Hometown: Washington, D.C.
Project: Today’s Multicultural Millennial Generation
“After learning, studying and interviewing individuals in the growing Third Culture Kid demographic, I wanted to grow my understanding of the international student population and experience at colleges and universities across the U.S. My intention was to create a video on these interviews, which I am now working on after visiting six institutions. Who knew I’d also be directing and producing a video from interviewing some of my MTP peers?! You’d think it’d get to you quickly (especially if you are claustrophobic), but each day kept building on the next. The conversations, ideas, laughs, realizations … ah, it was all so organic because we were spending hours and hours in dome cars, bedrooms and small restrooms. When you’re surrounded by people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.”
Participant: Magdalena Leszko
Home Country: Poland
Project: Designing Friendly Communities for Individuals with Dementia
“If you told me one day that I would be one of 25 people travelling across the United States on a train for 10 days, I would have thought you were crazy. Ten days on the train? How would you possibly do that? Well, I did and I can tell you that I would do that again. I am a Fulbright Student from Poland who is a post-doctoral fellow conducting research on dementia prevention and caregiving at Northwestern University in Chicago. I rode the train to educate millennials about dementia so they can serve as leaders in their communities and create healthier environments for individuals with dementia. There were quite a few moments that I considered to be pivotal for my MTP project. I enjoyed talking to researchers from different fields such as architecture and social work and getting a different perspective from them. I think the most important lesson I learned was to always be connected with my community and open to their problems.”
The Millennial Train Project community of social innovators extends well beyond the 10 days we spent on the train. During the GenHERation Summer Leadership Series 2015, my trainmates served as volunteers at our events, guests for our interview series and impromptu tour guides that helped us navigate the cities. I am certain that my Millennial Train Project friends will always be a part of my life, and we are already planning our five-year reunion trip.