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AND GETTING ATTACKED BY NEO-NAZIS
A CONVERSATION WITH ERIN SCHRODE
From the Spring 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
Erin Schrode, 25, has been an environmental activist her entire life. In 2005, at age 13, in response to skyrocketing cancer rates in Marin County, California, she and her mother Judi Shils co-founded Teens for Safe Cosmetics and set out to campaign against hazardous chemicals in beauty and personal-care products.
Notwithstanding her precocious activism, Schrode was far from a public figure until she decided to make a longshot run for U.S. Congress in California’s District 2 in spring 2016. In her safely Democratic district, she was soundly defeated in the primary by the incumbent Congressman Jared Huffman. Schrode meanwhile became a target of startlingly virulent antisemitic attacks by white supremacists who were feeling emboldened by the Trump campaign. In early November, she was thrust into the national spotlight once more when she was hit by a policeman’s rubber bullet while covering the protest at Standing Rock, North Dakota, against the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline. Jewish Currents interviewed Schrode by phone on February 8.
Jewish Currents: Your primary focus during the past decade has been climate change and environmental action. But with so much to oppose and resist following Trump’s election, where are you directing your energies now, as a progressive? And where do you think we should all be putting our energies?
Erin Schrode: My origin, and my heart and soul, are with environmentalism, fighting climate change, and standing up for public health. That’s where I began when I co-founded Turning Green twelve years ago. We started with a focus on lifestyle choices -- looking into the impact of personal care products, the global impact of the textile industry. But I couldn’t stop there: Social justice and environmentalist justice are intrinsically linked, and communities that bear the brunt of environmental injustices are often black and brown. There are natural alliances there.
When I look at the plethora of issues that need attention, I always see it through that environmental and public health filter. I started to follow Standing Rock, for example, because it was a pipeline battle, about dirty fracked oil that is desecrating the Bakken shale in North Dakota near a Native American reservation, potentially contaminating the water.
In terms of priorities: You can’t do everything, and there are people that feel as passionately about any number of causes as I do about the environment. So I know I have to do my part and rely on everyone else to do theirs.
And just because I cannot do everything doesn’t mean I won’t do something. Seeing images of the earthquake in Haiti when I was a freshman in college spurred me to go there; seeing a 3-year-old boy wash up dead ashore in Turkey spurred me to go to Lesbos to work with refugees -- and I’ve now established this platform where I can drive attention and people-power and resources to these different causes.
JC: From a tactical and strategic perspective, what do you feel are the smart steps for progressives now to take?
ES: People ask me: “How do I get started? Where can I begin?” People feel almost paralyzed in terms of the avalanche of everything that’s coming their way. And I say: “Go through your life. Find the pain points. Find the injustices. Find the things that you think could be done better. Maybe you have a solution.” If you go through your life and see things that have a solution -- a corporate or policy solution or a mass mobilization or educational solution -- you’re better equipped to speak to the necessity of that solution from a very personal standpoint.
Whatever the community, activism only comes from a need on the ground. So I think “you” are an expert -- whoever the “you” is -- in your own life, in your own community, and you can best outline the solutions.
My mom is the ultimate grassroots activist. “No” is not a word that exists in her vocabulary, and she always believes in the power of people, and galvanizing that, which I saw can happen in a really effective way.
JC: You’ve been very active through the corporate world, pushing corporations to be more environmentally-friendly. Does that work?
ES: Through Turning Green, I worked with some smaller companies in the natural and organic sector, but when I was 18, I started to go to more conferences abroad and to find out about the initiatives of massive multinationals around sustainability and social impact. And I started to see business as a tool for change at a scale larger than non-profits and a speed faster than government. The need is to go into the system and shift them from the inside out.
Corporations are not the devil. You’ll talk to some activists who will say they are. I don’t believe that. I believe it takes all of us pushing from all sides, and businesses are a critical piece in that equation. We can’t let perfect be the enemy of the good. We have to recognize that if these massive corporations don’t just “greenwash,” but really truly shift even fractions of their operations, it has an exponentially larger impact than some of our smaller movements.
Some businesses are going to lead the charge and establish a new possible. Other businesses will hop on board. But a lot of businesses will not change unless policy dictates that they do. That’s unfortunate, but when businesses are in it for a single bottom line, profit dictates everything they do, and unless they face penalties, they will stay true to their status quo. So we started pushing for policy change at the county, state and federal level. Before I was old enough to vote, I was testifying before our California state legislature. That’s part of what drove me to run for Congress.
I also saw that the most talented, capable people in my generation were changing the world through start-ups, taking media to new heights, using nonprofits in ways we’d never before seen. But where was that innovative, entrepreneurial spirit and thinking in politics? It’s absent. Because politics has become so broken, so stagnant, so divisive, you have people that completely shun that arena, when, in reality, it’s a place we can accomplish massive, impactful, lasting change.
JC: What was it like running for Congress? Was it as dirty as it’s stereotypically depicted as being?
ES: It was magical madness. I launched my campaign seventy days before the primary election. I’m not a politician, I’m the first one to tell you that. I’m an activist, a social entrepreneur; I’m a storyteller. I have spent my life working mostly boots on the ground.
I came back from my third trip to Lesbos, Greece, working with refugees, and friends asked me: “Erin, are you just going to keep going back?” And I said “No. We need a policy shift for the systemic change that’s necessary.” And they said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I didn’t have an answer. Then I gave a speech almost a year ago in my hometown in Marin County and talked about my identity and professional path, and when I walked offstage, people said, “How do we get you to run for office?” I laughed in their faces, because I don’t fit that mold of what I think of as a politician. And people said, “That’s exactly why you need to run!”
Then my mom challenged me. She said: “Why would anybody contribute time, energy and resources to a campaign that has negligible chances of winning, with no name recognition, launched seventy days before the primary?” Not to mention the fact that I’m a woman, I was 24 years old, I don’t have tens of millions of dollars in the bank, I haven’t held elected office -- none of the things typically on a checklist for your “average politician.”
So I outlined a response to my mother’s question, and for myself, based on redefined civic engagement, a reinvigorated culture of public service, and an expanded definition of who can be a politician. I focused on environmental and public health; learning and the future of work; human rights; tech innovation. I focused on policy issues and solutions that were relevant to the people who live in my district.
And the best response I got on the campaign trail over and over again was: “Erin, you made me care about an issue I didn’t know existed.” So I was able to act as a catalyst, and not just for the people on the ground. A 24-year-old running for Congress made headlines! I got the Today Show to walk door-to-door with us. I had Glamour magazine (Glamour magazine!) devoting an entire paragraph to soil health, and Forbes wrote about student debt because that was a key piece of our economic platform.
I’d never done anything more relevant -- not to mention the number of young people, of women, of folks who don’t fit the standard mold of politician, saying, “Wow, I was never interested in politics because I didn’t see anyone who looked or talked like me, who remotely understood what it’s like to be me, diving in.” Young women saying, “If she can do it, I can do it.”
JC: With last year’s campaign under your belt, do you see yourself running again?
ES: I think I’ll run again. There are two main things that win elections: name recognition and funding. Campaign finance reform wasn’t part of our platform when I launched; it certainly is now! The question I was asked right up until Primary Day, Tuesday, June 7, was “Why don’t I know you’re on my ballot? Why don’t I know you exist?” Seventy days is just not a long enough ramp for people to know I’m running. Incumbents win 93 percent of the time, so it takes a lot as the outsider, the insurgent.
JC: Many people became aware of your campaign through the antisemitic far-right trolling and threats you received. What are your thoughts on that experience?
ES: I wish I could say it’s all in the past. It has not stopped. I had never received any antisemitism in my life. My mother’s Jewish, my father’s not, but I was raised celebrating Jewish holidays; I was a bat mitsve; I went on Birthright. It’s not the number one piece of my identity, but it is never something that I’ve hidden.
Five days before the primary, two articles came out that identified me as Jewish, in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Jewish Insider. And I woke up the next day and saw in my email, on my phone, a note, something along the lines of “Kike, get out of our country. Get to Israel where you belong, or get in the oven.” Disgusting, unspeakable evil! I had not thought that antisemitism was dead, but I had never seen it rear its ugly head with nearly this intensity, and certainly not that personally. It was -- it is -- jarring and frightening: the idea that hatred is so alive and well in our country; that people feel the need to discriminate against people based on faith, race, gender, ethnicity. We’ve seen such a perilous spike in all of this, and a political leadership that isn’t outright condemning it at every single opportunity. This so-called alt-right, the same people who attacked me for being Jewish, are leading the white supremacist movement.
I was told not to talk about it. I was told this wasn’t the messaging that people needed to hear at the end of my campaign. So I waited twenty-four hours and I got a whole ’nother round -- via email, Twitter, Facebook, my Instagram, my YouTube, everything. A man named Andrew Anglin, one of the foremost neo-Nazis in our country, had written an article on his website, Daily Stormer, and put out my personal information.
It was almost paralyzing. The imagery was particularly disturbing and painful -- the bastardizations of my image, putting me in Auschwitz, me harboring terrorists, me with the stereotypical Jewish features, unibrows and large noses, Jewish stars in my eyes.
I said to my campaign manager that I’ve never remained silent. So about forty-eight hours after this began, I wrote about it, about hate speech, and my piece went viral. I think it was a real wake-up call for a lot of people who go through their lives in something of a bubble. It isn’t until it becomes personal, sometimes, that we speak out.
My piece kicked off a whole ’nother round. I became known as the “Hissing Weasel.” And now it comes in spikes -- when I spoke at the Democratic convention, when I was on TV during the debates, when I was at Standing Rock, on election night. And then I started to get some really atrocious posts: “You have ’til January 20th to get out of our country;” “Ovens or Israel: Take your pick.”
This is my country. I’m a proud American; I’m a proud Jew, but this is my home. I think one of the reasons it hasn’t stopped is because I won’t be silenced -- because that’s what they want.
I went with the ADL on a trip to Germany in December, and we talked a lot about radicalization and extremism, and sat with a former neo-Nazi for quite a while. I really want to understand how you shift people. He said you have to construct an alternate narrative. He had been deep into the neo-Nazi movement, but things started not to add up for him and he started to look into other narratives.
JC: Has this experience increased your involvement with the organized Jewish community? Has it made you question your status, and perhaps your safety, as a Jewish woman in American society?
ES: My mother is concerned for my safety, but if you’re going to hate me because I’m a Jew, you hate me already. It’s out there. So I’m more outspoken than ever before. I’m not afraid; coming from a place of fear does not benefit anyone. So I choose love and acceptance and unity.
I’ve always been Jewish: I’ve studied abroad in Tel Aviv, and been back to Israel a number of times. Then, in the past few years, I started to get involved in different communities around social entrepreneurship and innovation. But when these articles came out, and I responded, I heard immediately from the ADL, the Federation, AIPAC, and countless Jewish organizations, reaching out and saying, “We have your back; how can we best support you?” So many Jews, from all across the political spectrum in terms of Israel, reached out and said, “Erin, I don’t agree with your political stances, but you have my support.”
I am so proud to be a Jew, of my Jewish values and our Jewish community, our collective history, our identity. Here I am, a Jewish woman in 2017 who can use my voice to speak out on behalf of so many people, peoples who are oppressed. In terms of refugees, or being banned from another country, or being discriminated against legally: We can speak to that. This is a piece of our identity, and we have never been a people that is solely for ourselves. We’ve always been about serving and defending all.
There are so many young Jews who are losing touch with that identity, and I think it’s more important than ever, so I’m doing a lot of talks at schools and universities. A lot of young people are afraid: One reason is the spike in antisemitism from the alt-right and white supremacy movement, a movement that is supposedly pro-Israel but antisemitic. Their basic message is, “Get out of our country; we don’t want you here.”
But young people are also afraid to put themselves out there as Jews because of the political backlash on the Israel front. On a lot of college campuses, if you come out and say you have any sort of ties to, or desire to know more about, let alone support, the state of Israel, you’re ostracized, you’re not welcome. On a college campus, that can be really scary. You’re already reckoning with your identity. You’re in a closed place: People know where you live; they know who you are. So a lot of Jews are afraid to come out and say anything about being Jewish, let alone about Israel, lest they be stigmatized.
My Mom comes from a Conservative Jewish home -- they kept shabbat, kept kosher, went to shul on the weekends. Now I have my own shabbat ritual. For me, it’s much more about community and coming together, uniting people across all faiths and backgrounds; about pausing from this wild world in which we find ourselves. What a beautiful tradition! Tikkun olam, repair of the world, and tsedoke are my guiding principles, the sort of things that I thought of as commonplace growing up, but that are so intrinsically tied to who I am as a Jew and as a global citizen.
It’s so important that each of us remember the power of one and of community, and that we not become paralyzed; that we go forth and be bold. There’s a great saying from Pirkei Avot: It’s not incumbent upon us to finish the work, but we can’t stay away from it. We can’t give that shrug and turn our backs. It’s not just about us: It’s always been about everyone. If not us, who? If not now, when? Those are the guiding questions.
I don’t have children, but these are the values I’d want to instill in them, the sort of world that I want to create for them -- free of discrimination and hate, one of inclusion and unity, and honoring the diversity and beauty in what all of us do and who we are. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve been more proud to be Jewish or more feeling a need to unite around our collective responsibility.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.