The string of murders of black men by police—from Oscar Grant in California to Eric Garner in New York—catalyzed a movement coast to coast and introduced swaths of young people to racial justice activism.
Erin Schrode, who recently announced her candidacy for California’s Second Congressional district, was one of those young people.
“For the first time in my life, I took to the streets. I protested,” Schrode said in a phone interview on Friday. “This issue of racial injustice was not foreign. It was in my city—on my streets. And I felt like I had to put skin in the game. That I couldn’t stand by idly while young black man after young black man was being killed.”
From a young age, the Marin County, CA native was an engaged citizen. She co-founded Turning Green in 2005, an eco awareness non-profit, and has consulted with numerous corporations on environmental sustainability.
But before she penned the Medium post declaring her candidacy against Democratic incumbent Jared Huffman, public office wasn’t on the 24-year-old’s radar. The antiquated notions of who a politician can and cannot be seemed a big boundary—until it wasn’t.
“This campaign is about expanding the definition of politician. I do not fit that mold of what people think of as a traditional politician,” Schrode explained.
“But I so fundamentally believe that our generation needs to get more involved in politics if we want to actually shape the future in a better, real way. Let’s stop ignoring or shirking the political arena.”
And although the political arena has historically been hostile to outsiders, a systemic change is taking place.
“I believe that democracy should be representative,” reads her Medium post. “… 51% of our population is women and 35% of our population is under 30, yet there has NEVER been a woman under 30 elected to United States Congress.”
Seeing her peers enter the workforce with a gender pay gap, mounting un- or under-employment, and incomprehensible student debt, for Erin, there has never been a better time for young people to enter politics.
Her progressive platform is rooted firmly in the grassroots, emphasizing human rights, public health, corporate responsibility, environmental protection and social justice. She speaks about prison reform, she affirms that Black Lives do Matter and she criticizes state policies that have left hundreds of thousands of refugees languishing in between Europe’s borders.
The seat she seeks encompasses six counties in California, from the northern tip of San Francisco to the Oregon border. It had been solidly Republican for years—owing to a majority wealthy and white population—but on the wave of Obama’s reelection in 2012, Democrat Jared Huffman beat his Republican challenger in a landslide.
In the June 7 Democratic primary election, Schrode faces an incumbent backed by the weight—and funds—of the Democratic establishment.
But if there’s one thing Bernie Sanders’ buoyant bid for the White House reveals it’s the power of grassroots insurgency.
The Erin For Us campaign is funded entirely by individuals. With the NYU graduate’s twenty-fifth birthday upcoming, they are asking supporters for $25 each.
“We’re grassroots,” Schrode says emphatically.
“You know, Bernie’s magic number 27, Obama proved that all donations can add up, that’s what we’re banking on,” she adds.
Beyond her concrete policies, Schrode lays down a cogent roadmap for bypassing gridlocked Congressional partisans: an alliance between the grassroots and policymaking.
“I believe that you need activists always pushing for change. You need that radical voice from the bottom up. You need businesses that are leading the way in corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability to make those choices on their own and create new models to prove it is possible,” she said.
“But the bottom line is that not all people are going to be activists or err on the side of social or environmental good. All businesses are not going to take into account these externalities or other things besides the maximization of profit. So in lieu of that you need government regulation to push people in a better direction. But government regulation responds to pressure from people and so you need this movement of activists pushing government to do better, of businesses showing what’s possible, and of government laying down policy to ensure that the rest fall in line.”
The millennial and digital native understands there is a gap in engagement among young voters. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that in the 2014 midterm, millennials turned out at the lowest rate in four decades.
“What I have found is that our generation wants to become active, but doesn’t necessarily know where to begin,” she said.
Of course, millennials have been instrumental in the Sanders campaign. “He has tapped into our generation that does not feel represented,” she adds.
Schrode wants to show young people how policy effects their lives “so [they] feel personally invested in the political system. Because,” she says, “you fight for what you love.”
“I didn’t wait for someone to tell me it was okay to run for office,” she continues. “I think the most powerful thing here is I’m a 24-year-old woman who is fed up with broken policy and does not see her voice or her generation’s voice adequately represented in our government. So I didn’t complain. I took action.”
With Bernie Sanders supporters and New Yorkers reeling from the controversial New York primary last week which saw over 100,000 purged from the voter rolls, it is clear now more than ever that the establishment machine will stop at nothing to disenfranchise. But it is equally clear that when milennials and non-traditional candidates enter the political arena, we all win.
An earlier version of this article originally appeared in The American Herald Tribune.
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