Erin Schrode is a community organizer and environmental activist from Marin County, California. At the age of 13, she cofounded Turning Green, a national non-profit organization devoted to education and advocacy around environmentally sustainable and socially responsible choices for individuals, schools, and communities. Now at 25, she is a congressional candidate in California’s District 2—the youngest person ever to run for Congress.
On a picnic bench in the courtyard of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, where Erin delivered a lecture on passion and leadership, she talked with me about women in politics, being a millennial change-maker and the urgency of finding what lights your fire.
You started an NGO at just 13. What inspired you to have such an ambition at so young an age?
I was born and raised in Marin County, California—it’s idyllic, spectacular, I’m totally biased, but it’s the prettiest place I know. In 2002, it had the highest breast, prostate and melanoma cancer rates in the world. And no one knew why. That didn’t sit right with my mother. She sprung into action, launching a grassroots campaign. Nothing correlated: It wasn’t water, it wasn’t demographics. And then a study came out a couple years later that linked the ingredients in personal care products to cancer, birth, and reproductive harm. And suddenly, these far-off problems, these health epidemics were very tangible. And very personal.
I thought I lived a healthy life. I ate organic food, I car pooled, I carried a glass water bottle, I went to the farmers’ market, but the realm of personal care products was a total non sequitur for me. And to see the correlation—toxins in, toxins out—suddenly made sense. It was tangible. It was a purchasing decision that, even though it might not be my dollars at the store—although it soon would be—it was something that my parents bought for me. And it wasn’t so cost-prohibitive if I wanted to change.
My parents were very much on board. My mom was driving this. For us, it was a purchasing decision that was relevant, that was accessible, and it made sense. What you put on your skin goes into your bloodstream.
It really snowballed from there. We looked at the global impacts of the textile industry, using school campuses as a palette for exploration, in a really holistic way. We were talking about lifestyle choices. Talking about healthy living. And as a generation coming into our own, that’s now becoming the largest consumer block, the largest voter block, rising in positions of power and wealth and influence, who better to impact?
Did you expect ten years ago that you would still be working for this issue, and that your impact would be so far-reaching?
When we first started, we were just hippies. We were those Northern California, Birkenstock-wearing, hemp-eating granola people. And then after two years, and [Al Gore’s] Inconvenient Truth came out, and Julia Roberts was on the cover of the Green issue of Vanity Fair, suddenly people started going, oh, that’s kind of cool. What was it you were talking about?
But then it was seen as this elite movement. Only the wealthy, only the privileged could afford to consider X, Y, or Z. And I struggled with that. Yes, was there a huge market share that you could shift? Absolutely. But was I doing the most good? Was I impacting the people who needed it in the most dire way? Not necessarily. And I felt a little bit ashamed.
In the hierarchy of plights, was my issue really that bad? Were friends of mine’s parents dying left and right? Were toxicity rates and cases of contamination of babies before they are even born off the charts? Yes. But, you know, compared to child soldiers and famine and war, was this really where I needed to be devoting my resources? And I started to talk to my peers around the world and they said yes, we need that. That’s something that I can do tomorrow. They felt that these large problems were untouchable. That they couldn’t contribute. But, they could change their waste practices. They could address these issues of toxicity and health, of resources and conservation. There are no boundaries. And so that sort of solidified my role as an environmentalist. I’ll always be an environmentalist, but I’m also looking at environmental justice, racial justice, who’s bearing the brunt of our toxic waste. In the US, it’s black or Latino areas, or it’s developing countries.
We are starting to see more and more climate refugees. I was working in Lesbos [Greece] with refugees, and it’s not just people fleeing Syra, Iraq, and Afghanistan. You’re seeing people coming from small island nations whose homes are being destroyed. And so you’re seeing this line of environmentalism that connects us all. We are one planet. We need more people to find what lights their fire and do that, because I will continue to fight. It’s not to say I won’t acknowledge there are many other issues in the world, but I have my niche. You can’t take on everything. I tried. I failed.
You found your passion so young. What advice do you have for people who are still searching for theirs?
I talk often about mining your own life. I started thinking about the concept when I started consulting with companies. Because for me, it was highly problematic to see all these companies do what I would call sticky-note sustainability. After the fact. Just tack it on. Okay, we’ll write the check. Okay, we’ll fix the problem. I thought, no. Go back into your supply chain. Go back into your formulations. Go into your waste management. And solve all that and tell that story.
And so in your life, yes, it’s awesome to think you’ll go outside and the angels will be singing and you’ll know this is your moment, but that happens so rarely. But I think, go into your own life. Where are the pain points? What are the solutions you wish existed, be it to a social problem or a product from an entrepreneurial standpoint? And ask yourself how you can address that. Is that shared? Are there other people who have that same issue? Do you have a solution? Has someone else come up with a solution? And so I think then it becomes part and parcel to your life. And it’s not something additional. We’re all overloaded. We’re all inundated. We don’t need something extra. But if you can go into your life and find then, that’s I think when people begin to get excited, because it’s relevant, they can ground it really easily, it doesn’t require an extraordinary amount of resources to go out and there and “do,” and in many ways, you are already an expert in that issue, and can more effectively delve into it.
As well as an environmentalist, you’re also an activist for gender equality, and are now running to be the youngest women in Congress. Why is it so important to see more women like you in office?
The decisions being made today will disproportionally affect us, yet we have no place at that decision-making table. That has to change. We as women make up 51 percent of the population. In the US, 35 percent of the population is under the age 30. Yet there’s never been a woman under 30 elected to Congress. We’re 18.4 percent of Congress right now. That is so flawed.
We see the numbers in business, about corporate performance with women on boards. We don’t have those numbers in government because we’ve never had that quantity of female participation in government. But I’m hopeful. I don’t see this rising generation, the most collaborative we’ve ever seen, maintaining that longstanding partisan divide. We’re more willing to reach across the aisle. And as we move through the ranks, as we gain seniority, so too does that way of thinking. But it’s not easy. And the thing is, women second-guess themselves before they even run. It’s not as if so many women are running and losing. Women aren’t even putting themselves up for eligibility to take these positions. And that’s where we really need to see a shift, I think.
Have you found you have to work even harder to be taken seriously than a man of your age might?
People discredit me because I’m young and because I’m a woman and because I’m both. And from the get go, we’ve felt that we need to come to the table that much more prepared with sound science, with the backing of research. We had to be that much more articulate, because we went in already at a disadvantage. And I think the sexism is more latent, if you will. I know why people have invited me into some boardrooms. I check those boxes: I’m a woman and I’m a young person and if they can put that on their annual report that they’re talking about sustainability, it looks good. But once I’m in the door, I’m not going anywhere, I’m not going to be pushed around. But it’s an uphill battle.
When I started my campaign, I had a consultant tell me that if I wear my hair one way it means this and if another way it means that, and what does it mean when I walk in a room with heels or without heels, and when should I wear a dress and when pants. And is it appropriate to speak with such conviction?
Donald Trump can stand up and talk nonsense, literal nonsense, for a half hour, and make one remotely loosely related in some fact comment and people will talk about that iota of truth, that moment of lucidity if you will. Hillary Clinton gets up there and they talk about how her hair was a little bit off, that she was looking a little tired. She’s coughing, her health must be bad. Her suit matched Elizabeth Warren’s, that was a real problem. She sounded too authoritarian. And that’s the latent sexism that gets me every time.
Faith in government is at an all-time low with millennials, yet your campaign has triggered a lot of enthusiasm with young people. Do you think trust in the political system can be restored for your peers?
Millennials have surpassed baby boomers in terms of voting population in the US. But our turnout rates are dismal. More people vote for American Idol. Still, I think the reason people have gotten so excited about our campaign and so involved and so passionate—many new voices—is because for the first time they are seeing someone who looks like them, who talks like them, who remotely understands what it’s like to be them, running for office. So there’s some sort of mutual understanding that okay, I’ve got your back. You hear me. So faith in government goes up.
The walls between us, the distance, restricts. But if we keep putting people in government who aren’t representative, then why would faith in government increase? I mean, if the average age of our Congress and Senate remains between 57 and 61, and meanwhile the population curve is skewing lower and lower, we’re going to continue this divide—which is deeply problematic. It’s an impasse.
But I think that we need to show people how policy affects their daily lives, so that they become more involved as voters and candidates. And at all levels. Police commissioners. School board. City council. All of these matter on the day-to-day level.
Your generation has been called the most sustainability-conscious ever and is in other ways changing the way we think about businesses and life/work balance. What is driving young people to be changemakers?
The political system right now in the US is a pretty bleak landscape. The rise of the alt right. The rise of white nationalism. The rise of racial divides. The anti-immigration rhetoric. The bigotry. We dealt with a massive recession, so we saw how just about everything can disappear from a wealth standpoint. We’re seeing the growing burdens of student loans and student debts and questioning the fundamentals of our education system and whether it is serving us. It ain’t pretty. It’s this perfect storm. And I think a lot of my generation is saying well, it can’t get worse. I have absolutely no faith in our leadership because they’ve failed us time and time again. I don’t think any of the systems that have been working for the past couple hundred years are working now, so I’m going to try something new. Otherwise, I’m going to be living in my parents’ garage for the rest of my life on a planet that may or may not be inhabitable and from these dark moments stems unbelievable innovation.
[But] I think there’s also a desire of people to make this life worth living.
We believe. I hearken back to our founding fathers and this vision, this bold, audacious vision that they had to create something new. And young people have always been the dreamers. We’ve always been a bit on the fringe. We’ve always maintained hope because what else is there? We’re not yet so cynical, we’re not yet so stuck in our ways. We don’t have that much to lose. And we’ve got the tools. Technology. We’ve seen smart phones literally launch revolutions. People use them to learn, to start businesses. When you put all these tools in the palms of our hands, it’s very empowering.
You’ve become a strong role model for young girls in particular. In what ways can you be a positive influence on girls, and what message do you want to send them, particularly about women in politics?
I take it very seriously the way in which young women look up to me, now more than ever. We need role models to find a new possible. And yeah, Hillary Clinton is running for president, but she’s not president yet.
Young women aren’t growing up knowing a female president and young women aren’t growing up seeing young women in these positions. They are seeing older women, but a 7 year old isn’t necessarily [seeing themselves in them]. Will Hillary Clinton change the game for young women across the nation? Absolutely. But to see me running is a game changer for young girls who see themselves in me. A little girl came up to me recently and told me she’s going to be the youngest member ever of the Supreme Court. And I was like, “Hell yeah, you are.”
To hear the messages every day of what our campaign means to people is amazing. You don’t have to wait 20 years. You don’t need a ton of money in the bank. Your family doesn’t have to be in politics. You don’t need that name. You don’t need special connections. You can run. You can make a difference. You can delve into whatever field it is that you feel most passionately about.
Women shouldn’t be intimidated. We have so much to offer. Historically, have we been marginalized? 100 percent. Is that a problem that needs to be addressed? Absolutely. But do we, as women, need to believe in ourselves more and raise each other up more? Need to dare to go there more? Yes.
You’ve worked as a relief worker, an environmental journalist and educator—and you speak internationally about sustainability. Do you think being in political office will give you the best platform for spreading your message and having the greatest impact?
I’ve never felt like I’ve done anything more relevant [than now]. I’ve never had people coalesce with such urgency than with this campaign. But I’ve also recognized this really unique power in the intersection of media and policy. We get people to care about issues. Here’s another great compliment I’ve gotten: “Erin, you made me think about an issue I didn’t know existed in ten minutes.”
For example, I care so much about soil. I am passionate about dirt and see it as a massive solution to this carbon crisis we are facing. Most people do not know that is a thing. And if I, this hippy chick from Northern California, can go and talk to families in middle America about these issues and have resonance, that is huge for me. Not only preaching to the choir, but also reaching new demographics with these messages. And that’s the power, that’s adding value to society through the act of a campaign, that’s reinvigorating the culture of public service, that’s redefining civic engagement. That’s expanding the definition of politician and who can be elected. Which is really exciting.
Despite the numerous issues you are fighting to resolve, you seem unstoppably positive and hopeful. How do you keep yourself from getting discouraged?
I’m an eternal optimist. It’s really depressing nobody cares about soil. It’s really depressing how the political system works. It’s hard, but you can’t give up. We have one body. We have one planet. And I refuse to give that shrug of inevitability. Call me crazy, but it’s the only way I can get up and get out of bed every morning.
Optimism. It’s a value my mom instilled in me at an early age. She always said, “Find the silver lining.” I hear her, in my head, and I get up each day and I call myself a rabbal-rousing optimistic. I try to cause trouble for good. And I think that maybe that sort of energy is new, and different, especially in the political realm. Doom and gloom is not activating. It’s not how you introduce new people into this fight. And it is a fight, and it’s going to take all of us. For all time. So I’m going to try to invite as many people in as I can.
This interview was edited for clarity and length. Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is owned by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.