If you don’t already know, Erin is a 25 year old Californian who is running for Congress. She announced her candidacy on Medium just a few weeks ago, and her campaign has taken on a momentum and meaning that is refreshing and hopeful in the current political climate.
I asked for an interview because always I’m curious to learn how my peers developed their confidence, enthusiasm, and willingness to strive for big changes. I want to understand how we can all pursue missions to build our own personal momentum toward the changes we want to see in the world. Erin joined me for a half hour phone call, transcribed below. We talked about running for Congress, her experiences studying abroad 4 times, and what specific actions we can all take to have a positive impact on the world around us.
I hope you get as much out of this post as I did talking to Erin. It was an incredible privilege. She’s an inspiration, and I hope her campaign is a smashing success. If you’d like to help her get elected you can do that using the links at the end of the interview below.
Hi Erin, how are you doing? You’ve been on a media tour for the past couple days, yeah?
I have, it’s been wonderful. I just got news though, that Prince just died. I’m a little bit shaken. He’s the most amazing performer I’ve ever seen live.
You’ve seen him live?
I have yeah, with my mother – and I think it was one of our greatest moments together as a mother daughter duo just because we both admired him so much! He wore a red suit and a red fedora and red platform shoes!
So, I’m super excited to get to talk to you! One of my friends retweeted you the other day – and when I saw you were 24 and running for Congress I thought I’d reach out and here we are! First – a bit of background. I run an online course that helps students study abroad. I’m super curious about your motivation and keen to learn what gives you your confidence. You studied abroad 4 semesters of your college experience, right?
Yes! First of all, thank you for encouraging students to study abroad. That was the most important part of my education and the fact that you’re making it available to more is thrilling. I cannot underscore enough that every student should seize that opportunity.
That’s actually one of the reasons that I chose NYU. They have an incredible network of universities – Accra Ghana, Berlin Germany, and so on. I got to do university on FIVE continents.
That experience is so helpful for learning your place in the world, developing confidence, and I’m sure that ties in closely to your story. I have 5 questions that are about the campaign and five that are more open ended to let you tell your story. Let’s dive right in!
First off, anyone who has read any of your interviews knows that you’ve been running a non-profit and you’ve been in school for the last few years. I’m curious—in contrast to those roles—what the experience of running for office is like. Would you talk about that a little?
I never thought that I would be a politician. I still don’t see myself as a politician, per se. I’m a public servant. Public service is my passion, and it’s where I’ve existed for the last 11 years of my life. What really spurred me to take this leap was the idea that I could not only inspire, educate, and mobilize people, but that I could actually deliver solutions and put forth policy.
What about your campaign has worked surprisingly well?
What’s been most surprising is honestly the resonance, embrace, and the acceptance of people in California’s second Congressional district, across the country, and around the world. 4.5 million views on a video speaks clearly to that resonance. People are ready and wanting this message. That’s been absolutely beautiful—invigorating and shocking, too—and I never could have imagined that response when I pressed post on that Medium post 3 weeks ago.
It’s only been 3 weeks?!
It’s amazing the way the world has taken ErinForUs and run with it and embraced it. I feel privileged to be a part of the movement! People have reminded me that the name Erin Schrode is the one on the ballot and I’m still getting used to making that a part of the rallying cry, too!
What are the biggest challenges you didn’t foresee?
It’s funding. I think that it takes more money to run a political campaign than I ever could have imagined. We’re not going to change that until we have comprehensive campaign finance reform, which I’m now a proponent of—You’ve gotta get voters out the door, and in order to reach voters you need to have a communication strategy in place, and in order to set up an effective strategy you need to hire the right people and that costs money!
So in that way, dollars directly correlate to the amount of people we can reach and the amount of people we can mobilize to get out on June 7th and vote for me!
We’re trying to fundraise by crowd funding – it’s basically a Kickstarter for political campaigns! Now if only I had a dime for every one of those 4.5 million views, we’d be set. We can power this movement because there’s so much energy and enthusiasm – now it’s just a matter of turning it into real-world impact by electing me to office!
Fantastic. A couple quick lightning round questions to get a picture of what running the campaign is like.
How has your day to day life changed?
This is my focus. This is my everything. I can’t imagine doing anything more important with my time, but it does take a lot of time out there meeting people and getting to know every facet of society and every problem I’ll be representing.
There’s also a lot of strategy involved now. I’ve run my life in an unconventional path that’s all supported my mission, but now we have a very concentrated effort and goal. It’s exciting to rally all these resources behind one mission.
Is this a natural extension of work you’ve already done then?
Yes, I’d say so. I’m used to bringing together stakeholders toward a certain interest. But there’s a beauty of the urgency in a campaign that gives it an amazing power to rally people.
How does your campaign differ from your competitors?
We’re digital natives. We’re very millennial in our approach to this. We’re tapping into the best and the brightest to collaborate. Our generation is more collaborative than we’ve ever seen. We have policy working groups and task forces, thousands of young people wanting to get involved in every aspect of our campaign online.
But we can’t forget this is just as much online as it is offline. We have to reach people in “real life” — it’s the duality of offline and online, reaching and registering younger voters and getting them out to vote while still also reaching people who have voted in 4 out of 4 of the past 4 elections and making sure they know I exist, too!
You’ve told stories about the moment that contributed to your decision to run. People have responded to your work by suggesting you run for office, but very few people who are 24 (even if they get told to run for office) actually launch a campaign.
What convinced you that running for Congress would be worth trying if you might fail?
Success has many different faces. Our goal is to elect me to the House of Representatives, but our campaign stands for many different things.
Redefining civic engagement. Reinvigorating public service. Expanding the definition of “politician.”
In a way that has exceeded my wildest expectations we have already achieved those with our campaign, and that alone is exciting. We need people that are willing to take those risks—to show new possibilities, not only for young women, but also for people in general. We represent elements of everyone with our campaign because everyone sees elements of themselves in our campaign, and we hope that inspires as broad a range of people as possible.
Is there a single piece of advice or way of thinking that has helped you strategize and prioritize your thinking as a young advocate for public good?
There’s a beautiful quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt the a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” It was on the wall of my first grade classroom, and my mother and I lived by those words as we built Turning Green together.
It’s great that you mention your mom, she’s the subject of my next question. You were raised by an activist and community organizer. What was the biggest takeaway from your experience cofounding a nonprofit with her?
My mom is my role model and she’s taught me so much and led by example. She always told me to dream and to do. The intersection of dreaming bold, brave, audacious dreams, but then also getting to work to implement them has been a tremendous inspiration in my life. I know she’s always there to support me, but she’s also the first one to challenge me to do better, expect more, and push myself and other people to create the most just, healthy, safe world we can. I’m in awe of the way she walks through life and of her fulfillment. She wakes up passionate and inspired to work hard to be the change. Gandhi said it, my mom lives it, and it’s inspired me on my journey.
What about your campaign do people overlook because of your age or gender?
I think that people expect us not to have sound policy, or not be aware of the actual brass tax of legislating. No, I have never been an elected official, but I have spent the last 11 years working on policy at the country, state, and federal level!
I’m not going to report I know everything about everything, but I know a lot about some things and I know a little about a lot and I have an amazing team of people around me. People push back all the time, but people—even in youtube comments—have begun defending me and changing their minds based on the experience that I bring to the table. I’m proud of that and I stand behind it ready to do more for those I represent.
This wasn’t in my list of questions, but since you mention knowing how the game is played, so to speak, I’ll ask. A lot of people are quick to point out that many go into the game of politics starry-eyed, but they don’t come out that way on the other side. How do you expect to maintain your ideals given the practical reality of the job ahead should you get elected?
First of all, we need bi-partisan cooperation. I am not beholden to a status quo or special interest group. I am willing to take risks. I was on the phone a couple weeks ago with the woman who’s the chief of staff of the woman who is currently the youngest Congressperson, and she was willing to help and work together with me even though she sits across the aisle. Even with criminal justice reform, people are increasingly willing to work together to deliver real solutions, and American people deserve it. I don’t doubt I’ll be able to work with those around me to make a difference.
Advocating for people our age to run for office is very cool and is a great example to set, but most people our age are trying to pay off student loans and find a place with affordable rent. Running for public office seems a world apart. It’s unclear how one might think about getting involved on a bigger scale. What would you say for people who want to be catalysts of the change they want to see in the world?
Do something. Start somewhere. That can be starting a campaign in your back yard, volunteering, leading a petition. Take on an issue you care about whether it impacts one person or a million people. So many people talk. So few people do. If you do, you’ll learn. You’ll be able to scale and replicate your results if you start. But you have to start, you can’t replicate that experience unless you do something.
I’ve talked to tens of thousands of students, and I’ve heard everything, but I’m still amazed and excited whenever I hear about things that students have done. They can stand on something. They can be proud of what they’ve done, and they can replicate and grow their progress. Having made real world progress invigorates you and inspires others.
If you were dropped in a new state with no history and no name recognition, what would you do to rebuild the momentum you have now from scratch?
I would open my eyes! Look around! See what you’re drawn to or upset by.
This is kind of an extreme example, but when I went to Ghana all I knew is that I would be taking classes. I didn’t know anyone, I had no connections, and no idea about the culture. The first thing I noticed were plastic bags in the streets. I’m an environmentalist so that’s gonna be the first thing that speaks to me. I thought “somebody’s gotta be doing something about this” and so I googled it.
Sure enough, there was a man who was hiring fellow Ghanians to go and pick up millions of these bags, wash them using reclaimed water, dry them harnessing the power of the sun, and stitch them into new market totes to then sell. It was a whole system that he had in place.
I went and I met with him because I wanted to learn about what he was doing and how I could support that because that was something that for some reason also touched me. I worked with him, I told him I’m passionate about the environment and engaging young people. That’s the filter that I lay over everything I do—the lens through which I see the world. So we started going around public schools in Ghana and talking to kids about this problem!
So there I was, dropped into a nation in West Africa, noticed something with my eyes, did my research to tap into existing frameworks and meet a need, and was able to galvanize people there!
That was a very concrete example, and what a story! Thank you!
And thank you for asking meaningful questions so I don’t have to use political jargon!
“Our campaign is about inspiring change!” Exactly. I tried to come up the kind of questions you won’t get asked a million more times.
Now I know your study abroad experience was incredible—my question for you after doing on-the-ground advocacy in four nations during four semesters, is: What originally inspired you to study abroad and how did your original intentions studying abroad contrast with unexpected lessons you learned during that time?
I have always wanted to see the world — and I know in a perfect world you’d be able to hop on planes and see the world with your family — but that wasn’t financially feasible for my family. I wanted to go places with a purpose. Education provided me with that purpose, to be in a place not just to explore, but to infuse myself into the fabric of the community, learn, share, and contribute. I walked away a far better informed global citizen.
I didn’t honestly have expectations, I think in going into these study abroad experiences — I’m a people person, I wanted to connect, learn — I set myself up for success. I saw that other people walking in had preconceived notions and having an open mind and getting involved as best I could turned out to be very helpful. I clearly believe in experiential education to the utmost. Not just taking classes, but going out and befriending the locals, working, interning, wandering, and exploring. I loved every moment of it, and I have such lasting, pivotal moments — turning points — in my life. It expanded my frame of reference, helped me build lifelong friendships, gave me invaluable work experience, and really gave me an education in the global fluency that is needed for leadership in our world today.
To people who might say, “I’m super shy, it’s dangerous to get out and meet people” or even to program providers who try so, so hard to get students plugged in with local communities. Can you give us another concrete example of how you set yourself up for success while you were abroad?
Some silly, fun examples come to mind:
I signed up for a gym in Ghana. Seriously. I went to the gym every day in the middle of the day between classes. There were a few people. It wasn’t, you know, the packed hours. I befriended gym goers, but also the trainers, the management of the gym, the people who work there – and we became friends! We started hanging out and they’d invite me to all sorts of functions, you know, brunches at their parents’ house, parties, dinners, lunches at local restaurants, it was fantastic! Join a gym.
I interned for an environmental organization that was working to open the first environmental education center in the Palestinian authority that brought together Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian youth. My experience was in environmental education so I got to write the curriculum for that, there! I went to work at their offices in a part of Tel Aviv that is predominantly immigrant community from east Africa. It was in a part of the city that I never would have gone to otherwise. The place I went to lunch at least once a week— sometimes more— was this amazing Yemeni place, so I got a chance to experience this Yemeni culture in Israel! Fascinating!
I drank a lot of Maté in Argentina. I’d go to to a park in the afternoons and sit in a Maté circle with local Argentines. That was phenomenal too, so there’s three. I kick-boxed also! Sign yourself up for classes, make friends, hang out outside — sometimes people will find you!
That’s good advice even here at home!
Oh it totally is, I’ve seen it through this political process, even! Going to so many more meetings and clubs and affinity groups and people bringing me to their homes. I have so many new friends! I love it!
And I love your enthusiasm. It’s so cool how seeing how much genuine fun you’re having running this campaign.
It is! It’s meaningful, it’s exciting, it has resonance, and we have a clear goal, too, which is the best way to rally people behind a message. it’s about purpose, not position.
So you’ve said before in interviews: “The people that I want to vote for won’t run for office. The most talented, capable individuals I know don’t want to be associated with politics, and that’s a problem.” Are there specific thoughts you have for people you inspire or people who you think should run for office but aren’t politicians? Just some final, parting thoughts on running for office.
We need innovative, brilliant thinkers in politics that come from all aspects of society. We cannot shun the political arena. Our country was founded on the idea that people go into public office to serve. This does not need to be a lifelong endeavor for anyone who comes from a number of sectors. You can serve your country, make your country and yourself better and then go back and better serve society.
Get involved. Want to run? Great. Not everybody has to run. Support the candidates you believe in, become active in the issues that matter. We need young people in office. I’m excited by this crop of millennials rising to power. That’s what’s gonna shift the paradigm. It can’t just be one, it can’t just be twelve, it has to be en masse. I think we have to show that there is value in going to K-street the way that there is in going to wall street.
Very well put. Now, how can we help you best? For those of us outside California first:
Number 1: Donate funds. Go visit our crowdpac. Give $25, give $250, Give $5. Contribute, please!
Next, share! Donate #1 because it takes funds to run a campaign, but then share. Share our Facebook updates, post about #ErinForUs, we do Facebook live videos, Twitter, Instagram, there’s stellar content going up all over – so share it!
Call any friends you have in California District 2, Marin, Sonoma, and so on. Even if you don’t know people in my district, I’m sure you know people in the bay area who know folks in District 2. That helps. Tell people to go vote.
Amplify it. If you have a blog or your friends have blogs or you know journalists you’d like to introduce me to, that would rock. Connect those dots to amplify our message.
Finally, volunteer. Offer expertise, call, table, walk, intern, bring connections, anything.
5 things: donate, share, activate, amplify, and volunteer.
For people in California District 2, how can they help you?
June 7th is the primary, my name (Erin Schrode) will be on the ballot. Check that box. Wear the button. that’s what it comes down to. We have to get ~60,000 people to the polls to come in second and that’s the bare minimum we need for the primary to advance to the general.
And if you live anywhere nearby one of those counties just move!
Yes, let’s have a population spike before June! You have till May 23rd.
Just switch on over. This has been an awesome conversation, thanks so much for your time!
Such a pleasure, thank you!
All pictures from this post are from Erin’s Instagram.