Before taking her well-trained fingers to the keys of the 1100 lbs. piano that she had shipped to M CENTRAL, a warehouse that served as an artistic and intellectual basecamp for young inauguration attendees this past weekend, 29 year-old American concert pianist Berenika Zakrzewski paused, turned to the crowd, and offered a bit of perspective:
"Chopin was a revolutionary in his time," she said, "and so are we."
The second part of her statement was as true as the first. The crowd that had assembled around Berenika's grand piano was exceptional: technology entrepreneurs, graffiti artists, policy wonks, relationship experts, venture capitalists, Internet freedom fighters, local college students, and conservation advocates - all of whom turned out to take part in the Millennial Ideas Forum, a day-long series of discussions convened by the Millennial Trains Project, the New America Foundation, and the Consumer Electronics Association to explore emerging goals and values of the Millennial Generation.
Last Monday, in his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of the collective responsibility that the next generation bears to build upon the work of earlier pioneers, especially with regard to social equality and economic opportunity. Those who gathered around Berenika's piano this past weekend provided a glimpse of what the new pioneers that the President used his speech to call forth might look like.
Take, for example, Noor Siddiqui, a recent high school graduate and Thiel Fellow who put off college to focus her energies on developing alternative education models aimed at simultaneously unleashing the learning and earning potential of the world's bottom billion. At 18, she is realistic about the challenges facing the world's poorest citizens, and resolute in her pursuit of innovative solutions. At the Forum, Noor urged attendees several years her senior to be fearless about taking on seemingly impossible tasks.
"Make sure to be very specific about what your needs are," she advised, "and don't be shy about asking others to help you accomplish your goals."
From DC-based food truck impresario Justin Vitarello, to the Silicon Valley-based Tyle brothers (the elder, Sheel, is a venture capitalist; the younger, Sujay, a technology entrepreneur) the idea of doing your own thing well, of being an entrepreneur, was reinforced as a sort of millennial virtue.
Other speakers, such as internet freedom advocate Marvin Ammori, spoke about the need to protect a free and open Internet, a generational asset, which, in his view, is just as essential - and just as vulnerable to attack -- as verdant tracts of arable land were to the yeoman farmers of Jeffersonian America.
In Silicon Prairie: America's Internet Economy, a short film that chronicled Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian's 2012 bus tour of Millennial startups throughout the American Mid-West, Forum attendees saw examples of what the frontier that advocates like Marvin are working to protect actually looks like: a fast-growing startup ecosystem in Des Moines, IA; high-speed broadband internet fueling job growth in Kansas City, MO; and online businesses migrating to brick and mortar storefronts in economically depressed neighborhoods.
For a generation that has been derided as overly self-centered, it was refreshing to be reminded by a millennial diplomat, Zeenat Rahman, who serves as Secretary of State Clinton's Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues, that the benefits of open technology extend beyond our borders. "All across the world, I see Millennials using technology to break down barriers, open up new opportunities, and often bypass traditional forms policymaking," she said.
From education to community service, the ideas of "nation-building at home" and "national service" clearly shaped the career ambitions of many panelists. Marine Corps veteran Aaron Scheinberg, Director of Strategy from The Mission Continues, spoke about the overwhelming desire among young military veterans to continue serving as civilians. For anyone lacking the inspiration or energy to serve, Wharton MBA candidate Reggie Love, President Obama's former 'bodyman,' recommended volunteering at military hospitals, as he has often done with the President, and listening to the stories of wounded veterans: "There isn't a more inspiring thing you can do."
Recognizing the military's longstanding role as a vehicle for social mobility and character building vital to a healthy democracy, Fagan Harris, a Rhodes scholar who recently co-founded the Aspen Institute's Impact Careers Initiative, echoed calls by military leaders such as General Stanley McChrystal and Admiral Mike Mullen for mandatory national service that would include an option for non-military civilian service.
The idea of government as an adept and awe-inspiring problem solver that treats citizens the way companies like Apple and Google treat customers was yet another leitmotif. Grand challenges and gross inefficiencies are not symptoms of decline -- they are problems waiting to be solved, opportunities for the next generation to achieve success as innovators and entrepreneurs. This was the attitude of TurboVote co-founder Katy Peters, whose non-profit aims to make voting from home as easy as watching a Netflix movie on your laptop.
The individuals that spoke at the Millennial Ideas Forum may be, as Berenika observed, revolutionaries in our own time -- but they are certainly not the only ones. The diversity of their ideas and strength of their convictions represent generational traits that are beginning to manifest all across our country, and the world.
The fact of the matter is that Millennials are not giving up -- they are, as the late Steve Jobs urged us to do: thinking different, dreaming big, and moving fast. Indeed, they are just getting started.
Follow Patrick Dowd on Twitter: www.twitter.com/millennialtrain