Sept. 23, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

D.C. Wonks Get Out of 'Bubble' on Millennial Trains Project

Courtesy Cameron Hardesty
Hardesty’s “Visual Poetry Project” involved photographing quotes in locations including at “Cloud Gate,” aka “The Bean,” in Chicago.

Millennials are supposed to be lazy, indecisive parasites who rarely stray from the family nest — unless it’s to suck down an iced mocha-choca-latted calorie bomb from Starbucks while sponging free Wi-Fi.

Just don’t tell that to the two dozen, 20-something overachievers who spent 10 extra-long days (standard routine: head out around 6 a.m., turn in after midnight) crisscrossing the country to make this a better world for all of us.

These particular go-getters are the inaugural class of travelers to partake in the Millennial Trains Project, an outfit dedicated to sparking creative thinking by showing would-be thought leaders the big, beautiful world beyond their cubicles.

Having just returned from their first, crowd-funded nationwide tour, MTP spokeswoman Jessica Straus, a former aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said the group is very excited about rounding up new recruits for its forthcoming journeys.

For its maiden voyage, the MTP hauled 24 millennials, ages 18-32, from San Francisco to D.C., stopping at seven cities along the way. To snag a seat, participants had to pitch an ambitious project and raise at least $5,000 before the refurbished passenger cars rolled out of the station.

Once aboard, the riders were exposed to motivational lectures, challenging leadership exercises and, of course, some of the most unforgettable experiences of their short lives.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Matthew Stepp, senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said he first synced up with the MTP while presenting at one of its events earlier this year. He kept in touch and became intrigued once the train trip plan began picking up steam.

“I wanted to reconnect with the idealism of innovation,” he said of his reasons for seeking temporary reprieve from the terribly insular “D.C. bubble.”

But old habits die hard.

Like any wonk worth his government grant money, the original purpose of Stepp’s project — titled, “Energy Innovation Across America” — was to synthesize as much intel as possible and then spoon-feed his findings to lawmakers.

“Upon completing the trip, I will bring everything I chronicle and discover across the country together into a short case study on American Energy Innovation, which will analyze my findings to better inform public policy. This white paper would then be made available and distributed to Congress and the Administration,” Stepp outlined in his pitch.

But after brainstorming with those he firmly believes will help lead the next revolution in renewable energy — as part of his project, Stepp orchestrated roundtable discussions at nearly every stop (Omaha was a bust) where energy advocates were invited to talk shop — Stepp has shelved the primer for a more interactive approach.

He now aims to electrify the energy community by creating an ever-evolving map plotting where rising stars are located and what they are working on. “I don’t want this to be a flash in the pan,” he said of his prospective coalition-building tool.

His favorite part of the trip?

That MTP didn’t attempt to indoctrinate anyone as part of the program. “They’re providing a space for people to be entrepreneurial ... an open, unique space. There’s no ideology attached to it,” Stepp asserted.

His second favorite thing?

“There were significantly long periods where I wasn’t constantly checking email,” Stepp said.

Picture Her Rolling

Cameron Hardesty thought she had a pretty good idea of what she wanted to accomplish with her “Visual Poetry Project” before stepping on the train.

But as each glorious stop unfurled before her, the digital strategist for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said she wished she’d built more downtime into her tightly packed agenda.

“The train felt like a cruise ship on the high seas — you look out the window and see a vastness you can’t go out and touch. It’s very beautiful, but it also reminds you that you’re isolated from the rest of the world, and that gives you license to focus on what’s happening a few feet in front of you, right now,” she posited. “That was very liberating.”

The aspiring poetess (you can see more about her life’s passion on her personal Tumblr) became swept up in emotion each time she disembarked: swooning from sheer exhaustion and pure ecstasy after a pre-dawn photo shoot with her father on the visually striking salt flats outside Salt Lake City; bubbling up with pride after introducing skater punks (“I had them reading poetry out by the grain silos three days before school started!”) in Omaha, Neb., to the mesmerizing power of verse; and marveling at the power of networking after a new acquaintance salvaged her wavering plan to shoot in every sports stadium she could find by securing admittance for Hardesty to the Colorado Rockies’ facility.

While she still had to wrestle with the same inner demons (“self-doubt and inertia”) that constantly threaten to derail her lifelong dreams, Hardesty said getting away from it all helped replenish her intellectual toolbox.

“You can create your own reality, but you have to define what you want first,” she said, citing one invaluable lesson learned.

Hardesty plans to apply that knowledge moving forward, mapping out plans to continue doing photo shoots in D.C. and North Carolina in the near term, while pursuing plans to arrange a full-fledged show of her artistic endeavors somewhere around town — an open space on H Street Northeast remains a prime contender — later this fall.

Then again, she sounds like she’d gladly put all that on hold if given another ticket to ride.

“I wish I could do it full time,” Hardesty said of the transformative MTP trek. “It would be cool to explore different projects on each route.”

Straus said the next MTP voyage is scheduled for March 2014; that journey will usher travelers from Los Angeles to Miami via a southern route, slicing through swaths of Arizona, Texas and Louisiana.

The final, as yet unscheduled, trip is projected to carve through the northern United States, shipping folks from Portland, Ore., to Boston.

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