"I never saw myself as politician," Erin Schrode says. "Still don't." These are surprising words from someone who ran for Congress last year on a platform of climate action and social justice.
As an activist, Schrode does a lot of public speaking. After an impassioned talk she gave in her hometown of Mill Valley, California, locals asked how they could get her to run for office.
"I laughed in their face," she remembers, and told them she doesn't fit the mold. That's why you need to run, they said.
At the time it was just 11 days before the filing deadline, but Schrode mulled it over. She thought about the fact that women make up just under 20 percent of Congress, and that no woman younger than 30 had ever been elected to Congress. For Schrode, those numbers were less about history and more about representative democracy—in the United States, no one like her had ever represented anyone like her. She filed her papers and became a candidate.
"I knew going into it that chances were really slim. I had no name-recognition and no trust fund," she says. "For me, it really was about redefining civic democracy and public service."
She ran against the sitting democrat, a 52-year-old named Jared Huffman, knowing that incumbents have a significant statistical advantage. Huffman did win the democratic primary, getting close to 158,000 votes. But nearly 21,000 people cast their ballot for Schrode—9 percent of her county's electorate.
Though Schrode is an accomplished activist, writer, and corporate advisor, running for office is her proudest accomplishment to date. "I've never done something where I felt more relevant, where I felt I could make a greater impact," she says. "Most people wouldn't touch politics with a 10-foot pole. But this is a very clear way you can make a tangible impact."
Wherever she'd give her stump speech, mothers brought their daughters to see and listen. She'd have young women come up to her and say, "Wow, now I want to get involved in politics." They'd tell Schrode, "I never saw anyone running for office look like me, talk like me, or understand what it's like to be me."
"We have a gaping hole, a desperate need for young women in government," Schrode says. "You can't be what you can't see. When they came to my campaign events, they started thinking they could run. Possibilities opened up."
Schrode inherited her activism from her mother, Judi Shils, a former television producer. When Shils was pregnant with Schrode, she read a book called Diet for a Poisoned Planet. Inspired by the movement for safe eating, Shils quickly transformed their home into an organic haven—"the world that she wanted to bring her daughter into," as Schrode describes it. Schrode's father, a high school math teacher, returned home to find the place transformed into a sustainable enclave. "That was my path," Schrode says. "I grew up in a green bubble, and it absolutely instilled the values of stewardship."
In 2002, when it came out that Marin, one of the country's wealthiest counties, also had one of the country's highest rates of breast cancer, no one knew why. "My mom sprung into action and traced it to personal-care products," Schrode remembers. "I thought I lived this green life but had never stopped to consider that cosmetics could be harmful."
After realizing that there's weak government oversight when it comes to cosmetics, Schrode began speaking out against the toxic chemicals in mainstream personal products. She also co-founded a bath and body line called Teens Turning Green, sold at Whole Foods. "If I knew what I knew now," she says. "I wouldn't have gone up against the beauty industry. But thank God I did—that's the beauty of the naiveté of youth."
Schrode says her mom is her best friend and inspiration: "She always finds the silver lining, always sees the best in people," she says. "So people rise to meet that. She raised me to believe that if you see injustice, you take it on."
In addition to educating middle and high school students about how to live more sustainably, Schrode is something of a professional environmental activist. "I've never been one to stand idly by," she says. "I show up where needed."
Most recently, that was at Standing Rock, where oil corporations have built a pipeline near lands and waters that are sacred—and sovereign—to North Dakota's Sioux people. "It's the fight of our time," Schrode says. "It's about climate change, national security, Native sovereignty. It's about so much more than one pipeline in a Native American reservation. It's about the potential contamination of 17 million people's drinking water. It's not a matter of if but when it'll burst."
Schrode went to stand in solidarity with the Sioux alongside filmmaker Josh Fox. The two hoped to amplify the protestors' voices, and it worked: The duo's coverage has gotten millions of views across various platforms, and Schrode was happy to be telling the stories of the people on the front lines.
But while Schrode was interviewing a Native American man on camera, she felt a devastating blow to her lower back. She'd been hit with a rubber bullet. As she doubled over in extreme pain, she remembers, "people immediately came to my support."
The resulting footage has also gotten millions of views, and it isn't lost on Schrode that the video of a white woman getting shot is the one that got viewers' attention, while more than 160 Native Americans had reportedly been injured in similar or worse ways, without the fanfare: "Elders were shot point-blank. People were getting shot in the head. It's atrocious, reprehensible. My call to action is that we intervene before there's loss of life."
"As a white woman, I've not been raised in a culture to be fearful of police," she says. "But now I'm terrified of police. I'm most terrified about how they can fire and then rewrite the narrative."
Schrode has been targeted in other ways too: She is Jewish, and five days before the congressional election in which she was a candidate, thousands of messages filled with anti-Semitic hate started flooding her email inbox and her social media accounts. "It was 'fire up the ovens' and worse—unspeakable, ghastly imagery from Nazis and bigots."
The hate messages have not stopped, but they also haven't dimmed Schrode's steadfast optimism. Even after being assaulted, verbally and physically, she says, "I'm really excited to be alive at this time, and to be at the forefront of a movement."
To others who aspire to make a difference, she says: "You're the one this world's been waiting for. Go into your life and find the pain point, the things that don't equate for you. Do you have a better way of doing it? Then act on it. You are an expert in your own life in your own community. It's local—change begins at home. I started with teenagers because I was a teenager and that enabled me to find a niche."
When Schrode was 18, corporations started hiring her as a consultant. (Apple executives had found her by Googling "teen" and "green.") Chipotle had heard her speak at an event; someone at Coke had seen her videos. Suddenly she was working with these companies and in boardrooms, giving her take on youth engagement.
"I had serious imposter syndrome," she remembers, "but it's been fascinating work. I consult about sustainability, Millennials, and social justice. There are a lot of people changing the world through business."
Schrode is no imposter, though. While she was on scholarship at New York University, she studied abroad in Ghana, Israel, Spain, Italy, and Argentina—"I did college on five continents," she says. Using case studies from all those places, she wrote her thesis on the evolution of cause marketing and supply-chain management.
"I only made it through college because of experiential education," she says. "I've always been interested in the school of life."
She's also interested in living her life in a way that makes her a role model. While she was running for Congress, she met a teenager whose father had told her that politics wasn't for young people. The girl said to Schrode: "But if you can do it, I can do it."
"To know that I have inspired people to consider becoming more invested is humbling, really," Schrode says. "They say, 'I can, I should, and I will run for office.'"
"And yes," she adds, "I will run again."
Explore the complete list of this year's 30 top thinkers under 30 here. (Lead 3-D Illustration: Comrade)