To stay informed about the 2016 presidential election in the United States is to ask yourself: Really? These are the best candidates our country has to offer? Maybe I should run for office.
Erin Schrode is 24 years old, the age Hannah Horvath is in the pilot of Girls, in which another character says, "You could not pay me to be 24 again." But unlike Hannah, Schrode already has a job she's extremely passionate about—she's the co-founder of Turning Green, a nonprofit dedicated to environmental advocacy—and now she is aiming for another. She's running for Congress in California's District 2, in her hometown of Marin County. If she wins, she'll be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and the first woman under 30.
"There are two other candidates, and both are…middle-aged men. Can I say that?" she asked, laughing, in an interview with MarieClaire.com the day after she announced her campaign. The seat she's hoping to fill is currently held by Jared Huffman, who is, unsurprisingly, a 52-year-old white male.
"This election cycle has angered and inspired me," she says, "and last month I was giving a speech about the impact of Marin on my upbringing, my values, my professional endeavors, on who I am. Marin is the catalyst for so much good." When she walked off stage, the comments and phone calls and tweets started coming: Would you ever consider running for office?
"I'm not going to say the notion never crossed my mind, but in a far off, distant manner. Something I do way down the line, when I have the right pedigree and the right career and the right finances and the right image and the right connections, because that's what we've come to expect," she says. "But that's not what I'd want from an elected official." Her best friend pushed her over the edge. "I talked to friends and mentors, and my best friend said, 'Yeah, there's a million reasons why you should wait. But why not run while you wait?'"
So what are the steps to running for Congress? Schrode needed to get 60 signatures, open a special checking account, and file with the Marin County registrar. "I had to take an oath to pledge my allegiance to the state of California and the United States of America," she shares. "I am a proud Californian, and a proud American." She worked with friends to design a website and logo. Oh, and she has to turn 25, as that's the minimum age of candidacy for a seat in the Congress. Luckily, her birthday is next month.
Her platform has three pillars: environmental health, the future of education and work, and human rights. "Because human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are human rights," she says, quoting Hillary Clinton. She pledges to fight for paid leave, reproductive health care, and equal pay.
Talented people are afraid of politics, according to Schrode, and perhaps it's because they fear they'll have to change their fundamental values to get elected. "I am who I am to a tee. I think that the greatest compliment I get when speaking to students, is, 'Oh my god, you're exactly who I thought you were,'" she says.
"I don't know what's to come, but I am aware of my personal values. I have issues that drive me that I will not compromise on," she says, her voice getting louder and sentences more declarative. "I'm an environmentalist. I'm an activist. I'm a woman. And those identities cannot be stripped away from me."
Her work as an environmental advocate began when she was just 11 years old. "In 2002, a study came out that revealed that Marin County has the highest breast, prostate, and melanoma rate in the world, and no one knew why," Schrode remembers. "And Marin is idyllic! It's got organic farms, it's the birthplace of mountain biking. But there wasn't enough money to do the testing, is what we were all told by supervisors."
Her mother launched a door-to-door campaign to ask Marin residents why they suspected their cancer rates were off the charts. "My mom is my best friend, my hero, my mentor. Seeing her lead this campaign when I was 11 years old was fundamental in forming who I am," she says. Schrode and her mother started investigating lifestyle choices, and in 2005, when she was 13, she co-founded Turning Green. She has traveled to over 70 countries to spread her message of personal social responsibility, from simple, everyday actions like buying fair-trade food or used clothes to encouraging people to register and vote.
She started by lecturing to her 8th grade class. "The response was universal. What do you mean no one's looking out for our health and well-being? What do you mean there's no government oversight? What do you mean there's no regulatory body? What can I do?" she says. "For me, that has been the question I've always asked myself: What can I do to respond to injustice?"
So here she is, stepping up and taking charge, and becoming—again—her own catalyst for change.
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