Story and photos by Craig Moreau
A transcontinental journey of innovation and social change started Aug. 1 in Pittsburgh.
A group of the 2016 Millennial Trains Project participants began their trip across America in the Steel City as they made their way through Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque and Los Angeles. On the journey, they advanced their own social impact projects through group leadership activities and individual outreach in the cities they visit.
Powered by Comcast NBCUniversal, MTP goal is to inspire these changemakers via a cross-country rail journey, all the while meeting with mentors and policymakers, all to further their own community-building and innovation-sparking projects.
Through the intersections of technology and media, this year’s MTP participants are addressing societal issues, from access to education to voter turnout to increasing resources for underserved communities, in an effort to create and inspire positive change.
— sami khan (@samikhanfilm) July 31, 2016
Pittsburgh Millennial Hops Aboard the Train
Dan Scullins, an Allentown, PA. local, is one of this year’s participants. His project, titled “Who cooks for you?” is a documentary that uses stop-motion animation to raise questions about environmental sustainability and the U.S. food industry.
“Stop-motion gives an interesting perspective at the frantic and hurried nature inherent in shopping for groceries,” Scullins says. “I eventually want to juxtapose images from here with the tranquility found at farms and farmer’s markets.”
Farms and farmers markets make up part of what he calls a small food ecosystem. Inspired by the Pittsburgh restaurant, Legume, a venue that purchases all its ingredients from local farmers, Scullins says, “I want to find a way to teach people that living locally leads to sustainable living.”
Setting up his equipment overlooking the East Liberty Whole Foods, he adds, “Being on the train will allow me the opportunity to reflect, sit and figure out what I want to achieve and what I’m learning. It’s a way to see the country in a way that isn’t so focused on getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.”
Beginning of a Journey
The group started their day in Pittsburgh with breakfast at the Ace Hotel. Ace, in a refurbished East Liberty YMCA, held a leadership workshop that morning with senior director of government and external affairs at Comcast, Tony Williams. Comcast NBC Universal offers Impact Grants to participants who want to continue working on their Millennial Train Projects after the journey is over.
“Perception matters,” Williams says. When asked by one of the participants for how best to go about asking others for money to help fund their projects, he responds, “Do your homework. What are they interested in that you’re adding value to? Don’t just chase the money.”
After a short break, another notable speaker, Mayor John Fetterman of Braddock, Pa. spoke to the group. Aware of the neighborhood and building he stood in, he spoke to the group about community and inequality. He says, “Innovation is great, but we have to, as a society, come up with a more comprehensive answer to gentrification and inequality in our society.”
Fetterman, with his city’s zip code tattooed across his forearm, says “I don’t question the value of gentrification; I question the distribution of that value. No community deserves to be abandoned; no community deserves to be discarded.”
Meeting Potential Pittsburgh Collaborators
After Williams and Mayor Fetterman inspired the group, each participant went to appointments they made on their own through the region. Hannah Mixford, of Denver, went to a meeting of the League of Woman Voters. Her project, Inspired2Vote, seeks to engage politically motivated high school students.
“I think there’s a great opportunity to connect people to the voting process with policy that affects them,” Mixford says.
Carrie Hogan, studying first-generation students in higher education, is taking a visit to Carnegie Mellon University to see what issues are similar to what she’s seen in Milwaukee. She’s also looking to see what issues are unique to the region.
“Both me and my brother were first generation students. But he had a different set of issues as an LGBT student entering college – what works for one student may not work for another,” she explains. The train trip will help her see what issues first generation students face across the nation, not just in her *hometown.
Encouragement from Mayor Peduto
After the participants spent their afternoon meeting with local Pittsburghers who share their interests, they reconvened at the Pittsburgh City Council Chamber where Mayor Bill Peduto spoke. Introduced by IHeartPGH blog founder, Lindsay Patross, he says, “Pittsburgh is an example of how a post-industrial city can survive. The question now is not only how do we make it a city for the 21st century, but also a city for all?”
He continues, “How do we get opportunities for people not just with PhDs but for those with GEDs, too?”
During a question and answer session, Mayor Peduto spoke to his dislike of social media when it comes to solving complex social issues. “They push people to one side or the other. There’s no room to talk,” he says.
So where can you talk about complex issues? “There’s nothing better in my experience than being in 90-degree church basement with a fan blowing and hearing people talk it out,” Peduto says, referring to recent efforts to create a dialogue with the Pittsburgh Police Department and the local Black community.
Final Stop for the Day: Conflict Kitchen
From the mayor’s office the group headed for one final spot: the social justice eatery known as the Conflict Kitchen. While en route to the spot across from the Cathedral of Learning, Michele Ching, CEO of Literator, an app which helps teachers help kids read and co-founded with Jing Jin, a CMU alum, recounted her inspiration to do something innovative.
While teaching, “I saw a seven-year-old kid struggle to read, and I saw that his future was already written for him. It was heartbreaking,” Ching says.
From that moment Ching was inspired to create Literator and after some initial success decided to branch out and build a community through the Millennial Train Project. The train, she says, “will make sure that the problem I’m solving in Oakland is the same problem in Pittsburgh or Albuquerque. And if it’s not, what can we do to help solve those specific regional problems?”
Ching’s desire to solve a local problem and also look at it from a national level is shared by almost all of the participants I talked to. The train expands the ways in which these young people can make the world a better place by bringing them to new places.
Even if it was only for a day, Pittsburgh was lucky to have these young, bright innovators and their world-changing ideas pass through town. I hope a little of us rubbed off on them, too. Each participant has a unique story and an innovative solution. You can read more about the participants, their ideas and how you can support them the Millennial Train Project website.