It's the 21st century, so what are a bunch of young, tech savvy Millennials doing on a train – one of the oldest forms of national transportation?
Saja Al Quzweeni, an Iragi living and studying in Wisconsin, is hunting for best practices in urban agriculture to develop a comprehensive model that could be used in different ecosystems and communities.
Pichleap Sok, a Cambodian living and studying in Chicago, is looking for the "Faces of Women in Tech" in order to share their stories and inspire young girls to dive into technology fields.
Matthew Verlinich, an engineer living in Pittsburgh, hopes to gain regional perspectives on the "Maker Movement," think of it as a tech-influence DIY on steroids, and bring them back to TechShop, a maker space he works for.
It's not 100% incubator, co-working space, nor inspirational road trip – it's a conglomeration. And different for each passenger.
There are 25 different young men and women – six of which are Fulbright scholars, another six sponsored by NBC Universal, the lead sponsor – and 25 different agendas and personalities. The Millennial Trains Project (MTP) has brought them together on this train, technically three passenger cars, to develop their ideas and projects while gaining real-world experiences on the road – er, tracks. This is the third national tour since its start in August 2013. At each stop, these enterprising passengers receive a crash course in local politics, entrepreneurial landscapes, emerging technologies and trends. They attend group meetings and pursue their individual research for their respective projects.
Emailing, tweeting, video conference calls, Internet searches, and other digital forms of research falls short of providing human and environmental interaction – elements that many of these 25 projects require for success. They may see something or meet someone they never would have from the comfort of a classroom or office.
The first batch of Millennials traveled from San Francisco to Washington D.C., taking a central route through Denver and Omaha. The second from Portland to New York visiting northern cities. The third cohort started in Los Angeles and have taken a day-trip to Austin since their stay in San Antonio. Tuesday, they leave for New Orleans and then on to Atlanta and Washington D.C.
Most of the passengers' projects are about connecting the dots across the country creating something that could potentially improve the status quo; for low-income students, for urban farmers, for Millennials, for Islamic cultural centers, for those suffering from post-traumatic stress, and many other communities.
Al Quzweeni, for instance, wants to take a trip to the Renewable Republic warehouse on the Southside, live and in person, to learn about how the compound functions as part solar panel installation, urban farm, event space, and home (it is part residential).
Kalimah Priforce has been working to bring "hackathons" to minority youth across the globe with his company, Qeyno Labs. His MTP project will be the launch of the Gathering of Nations Hackathon, which will focus on Native American youth, and an UbuntoHack, which will team up "youth of color and NYPD officers to build apps that hack dehumanization."
He and his team started experimenting with the idea of "the best way to answer the question, 'Could an app have saved Trayvon Martin?' – because he had a phone in his hand when he was stalked by George Zimmerman – is for the Trayvon Martins of the world to build those apps."
Minority kids making apps for their everyday lives connects them to technology and could potentially save lives, he said. "The apps that they build are attached to their experiences."
Hackathon participants created an app that sends out a text to a designated circle of friends that includes the user's location and brief, pre-set message at the touch of a button. "So whenever you feel unsafe, you just hit one button and your friends will know ... any time you feel creeped out, friends can check in with you."
He's looking into finding more ideas and perhaps bringing a hackathon to San Antonio and other cities along the tour.
"The point of the journey is to build leaders and engage communities and inspire faith in America's future," said Patrick Dowd, founder and CEO of MTP.
The "journey," as its called, also has an element of competition. Once a passenger (and their project idea) has received $5,000, usually via crowdfunding, they can apply to hop on. "You have to marshal your community behind you and your idea for the kind of change that you want to see in the world."
Why a train?
"A big part of the solution to the modern dilemma is slowing down and experiencing people and places in person and trains are perfect for that," he said.
Dowd was in the middle of enjoying a Texas honey lollipop that members of the young professional networking group LOOP had brought to share with the traveling innovators. Unfortunately, a combination of event cancellations and Memorial Day rains will limit the group's experience of San Antonio. But LOOP organizers stepped up to provide some trip-enhancing presentations at St. Paul Square, near Sunset Station where MTP's passenger cars were parked.
The MTP passengers received a crash course in San Antonio and the progressive forces at play to make the city the "world class" city many would like to see it become.
80/20 Foundation Operations Manager Emily Bowe explained the mantra of the philanthropic organization, provided some background on Rackspace and Co-founder and Chairman Graham Weston's other endeavor, Weston Urban, which is poised to build the city's first new office tower in 25 years as part of a larger, multi-block downtown redevelopment initiative. MTP passengers expressed a lot of interested in the foundation's support of inner-city STEM education, CodeHS.
Omar Gonzales, LOOP co-founder and director at Hemisfair, described the center city's shift away from a "tourist only" feel to a local residential and commercial economy. A big part of this will be the completion of the multi-million dollar public park that will supported by on-site, private commercial ventures.
Sho Nakpodia of The Mighty Group explained the unprecedented amount of participation in San Antonio's MLK March and Dream Week celebrations that celebrate diversity and civil rights. He also told the passengers about EastPoint and the transformational work that has been done on the Eastside and will be done soon.
Local artist Michele Jacob described the local arts and culture scene with an intro to Awesome SA, Pecha Kucha, and the OPEN Downtown Pop Up Shops at St. Paul Square. The AME Collaborative, a pop up gallery she co-founded, is a regular participant of OPEN.
Christian and Uche Ogba, founders of BethanyEast PR, explained how they started GOOD PEOPLE networking mixers in order to establish business and casual relationships in their newfound home city of San Antonio, the next one is Tuesday.
The Millennial passengers started with an interest in going to the famed River Walk, but most left with curiosity about the Pearl, Mission Reach, and other locales.
"By the end of today, we'll get to see this city (through the) 25 different lenses of our participants," Dowd said.
The next round is set to embark on August 2016.