This year, City Year and NBCUniversal announced an exciting opportunity for City Year AmeriCorps members and alumni to apply for full scholarships to participate in the Millennial Trains Project (MTP). The MTP invites diverse groups of young innovators to participate on a transcontinental train journey to explore America’s new frontiers, grow as leaders, and launch projects that benefit and inspire their communities.
In August, three City Year alumni – Phillip Ellison (City Year New York, ’10), Tom Krueger (City Year Boston ’11, ‘12) and Davier Rodriguez (City Year San Antonio, ’10) – were selected to represent City Year and join the Millennial Trains Project to work on innovative projects with fellow entrepreneurs and change-makers over a week-long train journey to various communities across the country.
Read below to learn about the experiences of Phillip, Tom and Davier and the role City Year played in shaping their project ideas.
What role did your City Year experience play in the creation of your project?
PHILLIP: City Year’s focus as a national service program played a direct role in emphasizing the power and necessity for human capital. It was during my experience with City Year mentoring students in high-need communities that I realized the power mentorship can have on helping young people realize their potential – beyond their friends or family.
DAVIER: City Year allowed me to participate in a number of unique opportunities during my service year including recruitment, development, public speaking and interacting with elected officials. While my direct service enhanced and strengthened my commitment to social justice, these opportunities helped me to understand how non-profits operate.
TOM: I never would have entered the teaching pipeline if it hadn't been for City Year. I have also seen many of my peers from City Year go into the education field after their service with City Year. City Year gave me the chance to "try on" a field in a much different way than a College or University ever could.
Can you tell us about your project?
PHILLIP: At my startup, ULink, my team and I believe that strategically integrating technology and human interaction can support improved experiences for students, especially first generation and lower income students, and help empower them to be proactive in reaching their full potential in higher education and beyond. Throughout the MTP Project, I hoped to gain feedback from community college advisers and community college students on ULink's beta product- a website that resembles a mobile application to innovate advising and student engagement processes at colleges.
DAVIER: My project is called Defining Democracy. My goal on the Millenial Train Project was to interview people, primarily focusing on millennials, about issues related to democracy, such as freedom, social justice, education, and how they are connected to these issues. I also took pictures of artifacts and moments that symbolized democracy to me.
TOM: I have seen the impact of inequality first-hand in my community and working in schools in high-poverty communities. While there are many things that are in need of change and improvement when it comes to serving students in these communities, I often heard that the teaching force does not reflect the diversity of the students that are served. This observation was the inspiration for my project, where I aimed to explore new innovations to increase diversity in the teacher pipeline. During the project, I wanted to explore what other cities were doing to recruit and train pre-service teachers in an effort to expand the teacher pipeline and eliminate existing barriers. Through the Millennial Trains Project, I had the opportunity to see various approaches to licensure programs, educational non-profits, have many conversations with teachers, students, and community members, and see innovations happening in spaces that effect public education like Urban Planning and Public Housing.
What was your experience like going from city to city during the journey?
PHILLIP: Miles of oil rigs, deserts, mountains, farms, corn, and towns that echo times of the "American Golden Age.” The miles and miles of land we passed on the train made me understand how people all over this country experience life differently than I do - their interactions, the types of jobs and industries that exist where they live, the landscape, education and their interaction with government. I found myself asking questions around how one builds an empathetic, collaborative, and active citizenry. The journey enabled me to understand the importance of inclusion.
DAVIER: The cities were all very different, even though the spaces and organizations we visited had such similar missions, many of which focused on social entrepreneurship. Even though I had been to four out of five cities, I felt like I was truly experiencing it for my first time due to the unique lens of the Millennial Trains Project. Throughout our visits, each city showcased democracy organically, and I spoke to strangers in a candid way. My favorite part of the journey, however, was the time spent on the train itself. The landscapes were centering, spiritual even.
What is your favorite moment of the MTP experience?
PHILLIP: My Millennial Trains Project experience and my fellow participants reminded me that regardless of a nonprofit beneficiary, end user, a constituent, customer, a community...that it should be about people and should be about human dignity. I was humbled to be on the train with one MTP participant in particular, named Courtney. She is a noted Michigan and national advocate for transient youth who face homelessness. In her hometown of Detroit, on the last day, I attended her meeting to create an advisory board and pitch her idea and her MTP research to build Detroit's first "asset based" youth drop-in center for transient youth and youth facing homelessness. She is the type of leader who should have access to resources and connections, like MTP, because she can make change happen and expand opportunities to those in need. Courtney leveraged obstacles to build opportunity for others and I was honored to be there, inspired by her work, and humbled to now call her a friend.
DAVIER: The conversations with my peers aboard the train was by far the most transformative part of the journey. All the other participants were intelligent, thoughtful and committed to advancing social good. One night, a group of us sat on the caboose floor and engaged in a three hour conversation that stretched from entrepreneurship, to prejudice, music and an arts festival. The loud sound of the train on the tracks and the wind forced us to shout, yet we stayed there for hours because we were so engaged. That night on the train along my MTP journey, I was a part of some of the most thought provoking discussions I have ever had.
TOM: I experienced and enjoyed so much about this trip! One experience stands out on a bus in Albuquerque. As the bus began to fill with passengers, a young man named Sonny sat down next to me and asked me to "shelve a book" that had been left behind on a seat. Busses in Albuquerque all have what's called a "free little library" on it with culturally relevant books for children to read when riding the bus! Sonny and I began talking and I quickly learned that he had dropped out of High School because of family stress, but after a year with the support and encouragement of his community, he returned to High School and was able to finish and graduate. His story was one of many of young people and families who persevere, even when faced with insurmountable challenges. If I spend my whole life listening to others, learning, growing, and being the best educator I can be, it still won't be half of what my students and the families I serve deserve.
How do you plan on continuing to work on your project now that your journey with MTP is over?
PHILLIP: Moving forward from my experience on the MTP, I am gathering my team, as well as advisors and mentors to prepare for our beta testing phase. I am going to also explore the possibility of writing an Op-Ed, with the help of the Millennial Trains Project staff, about community college funding in Massachusetts and partnering with student success and student engagement vendors. Additionally, we will be looking to raise more funding for our seed round, gain entry to a premier education technology accelerator, and refining our product market fit and proof of concept. I am also looking to work with people on the success coach model and looking for people to shape what that looks like for ULink in community colleges.
DAVIER: Currently, I am an organizer for the Florida Democratic Party. Every day, I register new voters (primarily millennials and college students), and I engage young people into the political process by offering them volunteering and internship opportunities with the campaign. I hope to be serving within the next year with Peace Corps, Fulbright, or some other exchange program. While abroad, I am committed to continuing to listen and learn about democracy from a global community. I am still thinking through how to share the stories I collect and what I learn with others.
TOM: I come back from my journey with many questions and reflections on how to evolve my ideas. This is a good thing, and it is humbling. The open avenues that are ahead include collaborating with the Minneapolis NAACP, Metropolitan State University - Urban Teacher Program, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, as well as a variety of public officials. I want to stress that people are putting in the work to re-imagine the teacher pipeline here in the Twin Cities, and I hope to help plug into that work with the unique things I have learned and experienced through this project.