“How do you take … fire, how do you take … passion, how do you take … opportunity that you see for a solution — crazy as it may be — and put it into action?”
Erin Schrode, a 25-year-old who ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in California’s 2nd District, discussed her congressional aspirations and activist roots at an event hosted by Cornell Hillel Thursday.
Schrode decided to run for Congress after recognizing both the lack of representation for millennials in Congress and an opportunity for her to use her background in environmental and human rights activism to address brewing social problems, she said.
Schrode’s profile, uncharacteristic of a typical congressional candidate’s, quickly attracted attention from national media sources, she said. But the national spotlight had its dark side.
Schrode said she became the target of thousands of anti-Semitic messages through every social media platform. One email read, “Get out of my country, kike. Get to Israel, where you belong. That or the oven. Take your pick,” according to Schrode.
“I’m not going to tell you that I thought that anti-Semitism was dead,” she said. “But I’d never had it targeted at me. People more Jewish than me, people more famous than me, people more influential than I am [were targeted].”
Schrode described the hurt and shock she felt when she was attacked for her heritage and for being treated as a non-American. However, the torrent of hateful messages did not deter her from continuing to run in the congressional election.
Schrode lost the primary election, receiving only 9.1 percent of the vote, according to a report filed by California’s Secretary of State, but she plans to run again, she said.
But the race was not a total loss, as Schrode learned some valuable lessons along the way. She shared one of the those messages with her audience of Cornellians.
“What are you doing?” Schrode asked. “You don’t have to be faced with some … horrific event to make that all too daring choice to do, to convert that passion into action.”
One of Schrode’s first forays into activism came when she noticed that toxins in everyday products were causing rising breast cancer rates in her community. In response, Schrode organized a force of teenage girls to create resources that would promote awareness of dangerous chemicals and greener alternatives that were safe for the body and sustainable for the planet.
But as she grew older, Schrode said, she struggled to reconcile her passion for environmental sustainability with her wariness of being too presumptuous in saying “what people should drink their water out of, or what they should put in their homes … when [they] don’t have food, water, shelter, or access to education.”
Nevertheless, Schrode’s passion for environmentalism remained strong, she said.
“I came to own my identity as an environmentalist. I was going to be that. I was going to use that as this filter where I was going to go out and change the world,” she said.
But Schrode said she is not exclusively an environmental activist.
When a catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Schrode recounted how she felt an immediate need to travel to the country to help provide humanitarian aid.
However, she realized that the desire to help was not always aligned with actual need in terms of working towards the same goal of greater good.
She described how a journalist that she was acquainted with warned her, “Think about this: any food you eat is [the Haitians’] food. Any water you drink could be the difference between life or death for somebody. Any shelter you take is taking that away from someone who will otherwise sleep without it. And God forbid should something happen to you—you will be the first one on the operating table … you will be on the cover of The New York Times.”
That experience made Schrode’s view of service more nuanced. While she encouraged aid and activism, she also discussed the importance of recognizing one’s own privilege, and learning to distinguish the proper time, place and mechanisms through which to provide real help.
“When we’re going to help, who are we really going to help?” she asked. “Are we going to help because we want to help, or are we going there to actually meet a need?”