Pete Huang

A vision for engaging millennials in cities

You’re a 26-year-old with a college education who just moved to Seattle for your new job at Amazon. It’s your first job at a technology company, and you’re not quite sure what to expect as you make the transition out of your previous job as a coordinator for a boutique marketing agency. Still, you figure that you should take this feeling of doubt as a sign of positive change, so you embrace it.

You move in with two roommates in a bustling, growing part of Seattle. They’re friends of friends of friends. They both work in similar-sounding jobs at similar-feeling companies. Your family, still in Santa Fe, calls you every day to see how things are going. You send them pictures.

On your way to work one day, you see a flyer: “Get plugged in with your city. Text us 206-8730-8172 or email us at” You shoot it a quick glance, but you ignore it.

Three months go by. You’re off to an excellent start at work. Things no longer feel overwhelmingly confusing, only slightly so. You love who you work with, though you’ve also realized that big tech really means corporate, just like any other company. It’s not perfect, but you won’t let perfect be the enemy of good.

But something is itching at you. Here you are, at the pinnacle of your 20s, in a big city with so much opportunity, with nice, smart, ambitious people who want to make something of themselves and change the world for the better - yet, it feels like you want to be doing more to take advantage of it.

The next day you pass the flyer, you text the number.

A real person texts back: “Hey! Great to meet you. Let’s meet for coffee - how about Woods downtown?” You decide to go.

Michelle’s lived here for 3 years. She’s similar to you - 28, from another part of the country (in her case, Boston area), moved here for a new job with no direct ties, but she’s making it happen. She asks you, “What do you care about? What are you interested in?”

You don’t have an immediate answer, partially because you don’t know and partially because you don’t want to admit it. Michelle smiles and reassures you that she still feels like that sometimes as well. After thinking some more, you say, “Something about education?”

She pauses, thinks for a slight second. “There’s this fantastic group of educators who do a lot of work in digital learning. They’re meeting next Saturday at 11am. Around here. Would you want to come with me?”

You’re caught off guard by the immediacy of the opportunity. You stutter a bit, trying to decide whether or not to commit to saying yes, but it comes out of you almost out of politeness.

Shoot. What is this actually going to be?

“Great! I’ll text you with any more details if I find them. You’ll really enjoy meeting them.”

The next Saturday, you meet a group of 10 individuals, some educators, others not. You introduce yourself as someone that’s interested, but you don’t work in education for a living. It’s a promising start, so you come back next month. And the month after. And you start to get involved on the projects and campaigns that they’re in touch with.

Or not.

Maybe you go another time and decide it’s not the right one for you. Maybe you fall out of touch or decide it’s not actually the right topic area for you, or the way they’re approaching the topic isn’t something you feel like you can contribute to.

So you go back to Michelle and her network to try again. And maybe again and again and again.

But you’ve found a place to explore from, a starting point, and that’s the most important.

A starting point for unengaged, disconnected, and lonely millennials

A simple survey of 1,000 millennials and 1,000 non-millennials showed that a vast 64% of millennials feel disconnected from their community.

22% of the millennials surveyed said that they don’t participate in their community because they aren’t friends with anyone in their neighborhood. 27% of them (non-exclusively) said that they don’t know how.

This is a huge opportunity in my eyes.

I imagine a set of networks, one in each city (from New York City to Charlotte), focused primarily on connecting new movers to the fabric of their new home - its communities, interest groups, non-profits, neighborhood associations, local leaders - while building a community itself.

I imagine building and operating these networks through extremely non-scalable interactions, an emphasis on depth and quality of interaction, a focus on slow, but steady growth. An acknowledgement and full understanding that communities are built one person at a time.

It would start with five supervolunteers who share their love for where they live, and a commitment to reach out to every single person they learn of that is new to town. Whether or not they respond is irrelevant - the outreach is the most important piece.

For everyone aged 21 to 35, you have an immediate place to go if you want to meet new people, get to know your city in a new way, and get involved in causes that you care about. All it would take it a quick text and a commitment to meet over coffee.

For the people who form the core of the network, it is an opportunity to further your understanding of your city and the organizations you love. It’s a way to augment and give back to them through a second-order fashion if you support them, but their cause is not quite your raison d’etre.

It’s a way to build and improve the social infrastructure of your local community, the air and general mindset of young people in the city.

The conversation around the future of cities is often tied to employment, housing, and transportation. But cities give young people even more of a chance to shake off their stereotypical apathy towards engagement. We should take it.