Erin Schrode Isn’t Afraid Of Rubber Bullets When She’s Fighting For The Environment

Erin Schrode refers to herself as a young “Eco-Renaissance” woman, and when you look at her list of accomplishments, it’s not hard to see why. When she was still in high school, Schrode co-founded Turning Green, an organization dedicated to helping teenagers advocate for a cleaner environment. She has appeared on ABC and been quoted in The New York Times and was honored by the White House for her dedication to political action.

And late last year, she was shot with a rubber bullet.

Image credit: Erin Schrode via

Schrode was interviewing pipeline protesters at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota when she felt a piercing pain in her back. She turned to see an officer who had fired the bullet out of a grenade launcher. The experience only doubled her resolve to continue telling stories of the protesters.

“Any rhetoric of violence from the water protectors was a lie,” Schrode told CALinnovates Chief Evangelist Kish Rajan during an interview for the A Step Ahead podcast. “I saw the power of nonviolent direct action play out again and again there.”

Schrode is someone political watchers should keep an eye on. Last year, at just 25, she ran for Congress in California’s 2nd District. Although she lost to incumbent Jared Huffman, Schrode used her campaign to call attention to important issues involving the environment and education.

Over the next four years, she hopes to fire up her fellow millennials to fight back against the Trump administration through technology and by showing up in person.

“This is the time to organize and advocate and mobilize in a way we never have before,” said Schrode. “Our future depends on it.”

Listen to the rest of the interview here:

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A Step Ahead: Erin Schrode

Hey all, Kish Rajan, Chief Evangelist at CALinnovates, and welcome to this edition of A Step Ahead. This time we’re talking to Erin Schrode, who as you’ll hear, in a really short period of time, has had a remarkable career in politics and in activism. She tells the tremendous story about her time at the Standing Rock Reservation in her efforts to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, and in that she reveals the true passions she has around energy, around politics, and around innovation. It was an interesting conversation and I hope you’ll agree.

Erin Schrode, thank you so much for joining us and being part of our program A Step Ahead.

Erin Schrode: Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to chat

Well it’s great to have you. There’s lots of stuff that we can get into. You’ve been really really active lately. You’ve been very visible in a number of key things and I want to touch on a few of those. But certainly, most recently, you have been and continue to be a very visible voice in the battle over Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline. How did you get involved in that and why are you involved in it?

What is happening at Standing Rock is the fight of our lives, in my opinion. It is a convergence of so many of the most important pressing movements of our time around climate and a livable planet, around human rights, around peace and justice. It touches on so many different topics and unites so many diverse stakeholders. I initially got involved… I’m an environmentalist and climate change and the fight against fossil fuels has been paramount in my life for the past decade. And watching this unfold in the past eight months in mostly niche environmental or small media has been really interesting. But I was reticent to show up. I didn’t necessarily think this was quote unquote my fight. And in October I saw a call from the Standing Rock Nation saying, “Come. We need people to not only figuratively stand with Standing Rock but to literally show up to be the numbers, the boots on the ground, to put your body on the line, to get skin in the game.” And I went. I was on the way to North Dakota the next day.

I just wanted to jump in. The call that they made for people to show up physically is a sort of interesting thing in the times that we’re in. Political engagement, now, is so much about digital engagement. We can talk about more about this. I even remember recently in the Standing Rock issue, there was a question about… they were encouraging people all over the world to check in on Facebook at Standing Rock because it was supposedly an effort to help the protestors gain some footing against the local authority who may or may not have been suing Facebook to track what was going on there. I’m wondering how you saw that and then how you compare that to that call that they had for people to actually show up.

That’s a very interesting larger dialogue and issue in our world today. This balance between online and offline. We have these incredible tools at our fingertips, at our disposal, with which to organize, with which to amplify. But the actual work happens offline. It happens in the real world and so it’s fascinating to see how, yes, there was an incredible role, a necessary role that people could play around the country and around the world, be it in this movement to check in or in pressing our legislators, picking up the phone, e-mailing them, in divesting your funds and just raising awareness and just sharing the content about police brutality or illegal land seizure. But then, you had thousands of people there faced with brutal law enforcement and they needed numbers. They needed this critical mass. So we all have roles to play but we can’t think that clicking a button or doing something behind a screen is enough. It’s necessary but that’s not the be all end all.

It really is a fascinating thing to think about. And I want to unpack that a little bit more in the broader sense of political engagement. But I don’t want to lose the thread for just a minute. So when you got there, for those of us who were following online or watching on T.V., give us a couple of minutes about what you did, and what did you experience, and were you glad that you went?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. I arrived there. The first two people that I met, Floris and Nicosse, Floris is a 34-year-old mother of five and Standing Rock Native, Nicosse is a Ponca man from Oklahoma who works on pipeline issues all across the region. And to get this personal, in-depth story from the two of them set the stage in a very unique way. Just two days prior to my arrival, the northernmost camp on the front lines had been raided and 140 some people had been arrested and thrown into dog kennels, had numbers written on their arms. The teepees had been ripped open with the ends of assault rifles. People, human beings, have been ripped out of prayer circle, out of sweat lodge. So this was the psychological and emotionally charged environment to which we were walking.

And we stayed there with them in their yurt at Oceti Sakowin. The camp was built around the sacred fires and it was such a beautiful space. These peaceful, prayerful people have gathered from all across the world. You have representatives from over 300 tribes and the visual of the flags of all of those nations is quite striking. But to see so many people show up, and everyone had their own reason and their own stories, but I saw the power of non-violent direct action play out again and again and again.

And you saw water protectors one day go up, wade across a river in freezing cold conditions, on their sacred land, on their treaty land, and across the river were met with a line of armed militarized police. And I say that because I’ve only seen visuals like this in photos out of Iraq or Afghanistan and maybe in the past couple of years in Baltimore and Ferguson.

It really is striking. And just to be clear, these actions that you were taking, I think you were describing the militarized actions, the disruption of the prayer circles, I had never heard of the idea that people were being put into kennels or cages and numbered. I mean, these are startling observations and who again were the actors that were doing this? Is this local police?

The coalition of about seven states that sent forces. So you have local Morton County. You have North Dakota State and you had other state forces that sent in varying numbers of law enforcement from different divisions, some of whom promptly left, said this is not in line with serving and protecting a population. Floris has photographs of the dog kennels, of the numbers written on her arm. She and Nicosse likened it to Nazi Germany and concentration camps.

Good heavens. That’s a remarkable thing and you may be reluctant to draw more attention to yourself but isn’t it in fact true that in the course of you being there and perhaps doing some live reporting of what was happening there, weren’t you yourself struck by a rubber bullet?

I was. I’ve been very cognizant not to draw attention away from the bravery of the people in the front lines through the power of non-violent action. But I did speak out about it because it was such a blatant example of excessive force. I was conducting an interview on camera with a Native American man, two feet firmly planted on the soil where the police wanted people to retreat to. And I felt a devastating blow to my lower black. And I whipped my head around, completely confused at what had just occurred. And I saw, just offshore in the small tributary, three of these officers and one of them had just fired what we came to see was a thirty-seven, forty millimeter rubber bullet out of a grenade launcher at us, at me, at innocent, unarmed, un-violent people.

It was caught on video by a couple of journalists who went back and pulled it and I posted it. And the next morning I woke up to a lot of people saying, “Well, if you were good at your job you’d have proof.” And I started flipping through the videos that I have been taken that day and I watched myself be shot live on camera, which is nothing I would wish upon anyone. But I decided to share that video for the reasons mentioned before, just to say that this is inexcusable and any rhetoric that the police are speaking about, about incitement, about violence coming form the water protectors is false, is a lie.

What an incredible thing. Well thankfully I’m sure it had and will have a lingering impact. I don’t know how anybody could endure something like that personally and not be impacted by that. Thankfully, you’re able to tell the story.

I am. I’m very lucky.

Well, I’m glad.

Thank you. You know it didn’t hit my spine. It wasn’t a real bullet. Didn’t hit my face. It didn’t permanently maim me in the way that you saw Sophia Wilansky, a water protector there, who had been hit with a compression grenade. One woman lost her eyesight form a canister. So it’s horrific and the way you see police rewriting these narratives is devastating, but thankfully you have a ton of proof because of the power of technology today that’s put into the hands of the people rather than those in power.

It’s incredible. Well, we could talk about this forever and I appreciate you relating these experiences. But to sort of back up and put this in context for just a moment. So we’re talking about the construction of the new pipeline. It’s about continuing to build massive infrastructure and make massive investments and also very clearly marshall state and local forces in the continuation of that oil-based economy. Given how much you’ve done in clean tech to try to help stimulate the development of more renewable and sustainable energy practices, I’m interested in, given what you’ve just endured, your impressions in how we’re doing and how much more needs to happen to address trying to change the economy that we’re clearly so invested in?

It’s absolutely critical and we have to recognize that the fossil fuel economy is one of the past, that clean tech pays, that renewables are not the ways of the future, that they’re the ways of the present. You saw the report that just came out that solar is the most inexpensive source of power without any sort of subsidies needed. I spent time last month at Cop22 in Morocco speaking a lot about climate finance. And I’m not a finance person, that’s not my background. But there are three terms that I shared that really resonated with me which are around addressing the inherent bias, doing real risk-awareness, and flipping the profit motive, and showing people that this is viable.

Also, as we usher in a new administration filled with private sector people largely, we need to talk about how there is profit to be made. And that fossil fuels, oil, fracking, does not make economic sense in addition to the environmental degradation and consequences. So I’m working hard on that at many levels, particularly on this climate finance side, which is a place where maybe we can move the needle with the coming administration.

With that, and yet with the statements that have been made or were made by then candidate Trump as it relates to the whole question, or at least the question that relates to his mind about the reality of climate change, and then people that we see, of course an Exxon Mobile CEO, now our new Secretary of State, assuming confirmations will happen, and other deep investors in the petroleum-based economy, and our Secretary of Commerce plus former governor Rick Perry who is on the board of the company seeking to advance the Dakota Access Pipeline, how are you feeling about the prospects over the next four, perhaps longer years?

Don’t say it, don’t say longer than four. It’s awful. It’s appalling. This is not going to be easy. This is not going to be pleasant. I wrote an article the day that he announced Pruitt as his appointment to lead the EPA that said so much for Ivanka’s meeting with Gore. There were people in the environmental world that were optimistic. “Look! Ivanka Trump is taking on climate change as her issue,” despite being silent about it for the whole campaign trail. “Look, Gore went.” And “Look, Trump took time.” I said it was a smoke screen. Watch what he does next week. And within a couple of days, here he was appointing someone who has sued the EPA on behalf of the coal industry, who has lead coalitions with the attorney general to fight the clean power plan. And here he is putting in Tillerson. Here he is putting in these ghastly appointees.

I don’t think that much will happen on the federal level, truthfully, which is why I’m focusing on financial and legal infrastructures as ways that we can try to circumvent the system and try to put things into place outside of the policy arena. I’m actively working towards city and state legislation that will safeguard environmental and public health. We have no other choice. This is not the time to rest on our laurels. This is not the time to sit down, to shut up, to recoil. This is the time to organize and advocate and mobilize in a way that we never have before because our future, and that of an inhabitable planet, quite literally depends on us.

Well that organization and mobilization is an interesting question and it brings us back to where we were a couple of minutes ago. That is, I’m a Gen Xer, and I’m a bridge person that lived my life before there was mobile phones and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and now I’ve adapted in that direction. But you and others are digital natives. You’ve always lived with this technology and these powerful tools that certainly lend themselves to all kinds of organizational and mobilization efforts. But this election also raised some real doubts or concerns about how effective and how valid some of these digital mechanisms are for constructive political engagement. But I’m interested in your perspective on what are the most positive ways and affective ways of using these tools to bring, particularly younger people, into the process.

So it’s a very important debate to be having. It’s very important to reach out and to engage my generation. How do you do that? We know how to reach them, but how do you actually translate that reaching into action? How do you convert it? What we saw throughout the selection process is that a lot of people, a lot of young people in particular, get excited by Bernie Sanders’ campaign, take to the streets, mobilize, work for a candidate, a 75-year-old white man representing the youngest, most diverse generation in history. The irony is not lost.

Why do you think that was by the way? Sorry, can I stop you really quickly? What was the appeal, demographically and otherwise? Bernie Sanders would not be your first thought of who would create a following of literally tens of millions of millennials across the country, and yet he did. Why? What did you think the appeal was?

I’ll tell you the things in his messages that resonated with me and people that I’ve spoken with. He’s been saying the same thing for decades. He has stood true to his values, to his beliefs. He’s not a piece of what people see as the establishment or the machine. His views on environment, on education, are very much in line with that of my generation. He had a candor. He was very…I think authenticity is one of the more overused words in recent history, but similarly to our campaign, people were pleasantly surprised that I was willing to answer the questions, that I was willing to speak without talking points, that I was willing to engage on the issues that matter. I think there was something in Bernie Sanders’ message and rhetoric that people said, “Yes. That is real, that is relevant, that is true, and I want to be a part of it.” There was an excitement, there was a palpable energy that people got behind.

What I hope now is that that doesn’t die, that this idea of the need for, truly a revolution, doesn’t stop because that candidate lost, or because Hillary Clinton has suspended her presidential campaign. I fear that though. I fear that it’s easier for people to rally behind a person than having to get people to continue this momentum behind a whole group of people and actually follow through. Perhaps in talking about millennials, as you were asking, how do we activate them? And I think what you hear form many young people now is that, “Well, maybe we have to run. Maybe we have to insert ourselves into what we see as a broken system if we actually want to see any market improvement.”

Well, I think that the idea of getting more people actually running for office is a big deal. But I want to underscore one point that you made again, is that we at CALinnovates are thinking about the role of technology in our public lives, be it campaigns or civic engagement or what have you. I heard something in your answer, or at least I want to make sure that I heard this right, because I think it’s very interesting, when you were talking about Bernie Sanders, is that the appeal for someone like him, it wasn’t technology, it was the authenticity of his message. It was policy-based, it was values-based that was the appeal. Really technology then becomes a way of telling that story, creating infrastructure around organization. Technology is not the end onto itself, right? It’s the means to an end. Again, this is what I think I hear. If you had the right message and the right messengers to bring people into engagement in the first place.

Absolutely. That is definitely what I said and what I believe. But there’s another piece of technology that we spoke about on the campaign trail. To make government more effective, more efficient, and more transparent. And that goes beyond technology being nearly, and I say nearly within quotes, it’s an extraordinary conduit, but actually so much of what Sanders was talking about was holding people accountable, was the need for transparency. Technology there becomes an actual concrete tool to bring that to fruition. So technology definitely has a role to play and you see it creating two-way channels and real accountability, or has the potential to do that for government if they’re willing to be so bold as to put it into practice in that way. I can only hope.

Well I think it’s a great point, and you talk about, as we only have a couple of more minutes left, I’d love to come back and continue this conversation, because there’s so much more. Perhaps we could chat with you again down the road.

I’d love to.

On this last topic that you’re raising, which is actual engagement. Again, me being a Gen Xer spending a lot of time in the private sector and in government, I certainly have seen very clearly the limitations of government in terms of utilization of new technology, creating that transparency, being more effective and responsive in ways that would inspire others to participate. I trust that that part of your message here is that government itself is going to have to be…we’re going to have to renovate it. We have to modernize the way it functions if we expect people to want to be part of it.

Absolutely. During a campaign meeting with many people from Silicon Valley and from Northern California where I live and where I ran, they were asking, “What can we do? What can we tech innovators do?” And there is so much. Let’s just put out the challenge to the powers that be, figure out how to vote online. Figure out how to make that…I find it hard to believe that that can’t be as secure as mailing a ballot through the United States Postal Service. The larger challenge is to actually bring our government into, not perhaps the 21st century but the 20th century. We are lagging so far behind and I want people to consider innovators, movers, shakers that are changing the face of business through disruptive start-up models and economies in tech that are taking media to new heights. They are using non-profits in ways that we have never before seen to not give up on politics. We need you, all of us there as well.

Well, that’s great. So final question is you, not long ago, were one of the youngest people running for Congress. You had in many ways a very successful campaign. You did not win the race, but you created a great brand and platform. What is next for Erin Schrode on the electoral front?

Many things. We launched the campaign seventy days before the primary election and I was quite realistic about the chances of coming out of the top of the polls. I laid out very clear metrics of success around redefining civic engagement, around reinvigorating a culture of public service and expanding the definition on who can be a politician while adding value to society, while talking about the kinds of policy issues we’ve been discussing, and what we achieved was beyond my wildest dreams. We came up six points short of advancing to the June primary. I am so proud of the movement that we built, that we were able to coalesce people with such an urgency, that we were boots on the ground up and down the district, the Northern California coast, while reaching tens or hundreds of millions with our messaging across the country and around the world.

That intersection of media and policy is where I feel we excelled so greatly. Getting people to care about issues they didn’t necessarily know existed within a matter of minutes. And I want to expand upon that, I want to continue to activate and mobilize people that translates to direct policy, lobbying, change, push other government officials. You haven’t seen the last of me. I absolutely want to run again. I don’t think it will be in 2018, we’ll see. But look out 2020. We have a movement to build, a generation, and a nation to take ownership over and lead and create the future that we wish to see.

Well Erin Schrode we appreciate you being in the arena politically and being present in things like Standing Rock and other critical issues. It is obvious that you are one of the people that is inspiring a new generation of participation and for that we’re grateful. And certainly we’re grateful for your time here on A Step Ahead.

Thank you for having me. Thanks for engaging people in these critical conversations. Ir’s going to take all of us for all time so I’m with ya.

Awesome. Thanks again.