09/29/2016 11:52 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

7 Ways to Be an Effective 21st-Century Political Activist


Earlier this year, Erin Schrode, a 25-year-old Californian, ran to be America's youngest female Congresswoman. The New York University graduate and founder of the environmental nonprofit, Turning Green, waged an underdog fight against fellow Democratic incumbent, Jared Huffman. The opponents were in agreement about the issues facing the state's liberal North Coast (which stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the forested Oregon border), but Schrode argued it was time for young people to take the reins in Washington. Although she came in a distant third in the June primary, Schrode brought a youthful energy to staid Congressional politics and believes she switched up the dynamics of the race.

NationSwell spoke to her recently while she was on a visit to New York City about the lessons she's learned about political organizing in the era of hashtag activism.

1. Give people small ways to change their behavior

To most, the images of belching smokestacks and melting glaciers from Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" feel like problems too large to solve. "I couldn't put back together the melting polar ice caps to save the habitat of polar bears. I couldn't take my house off the grid. I couldn't get a hybrid car," Schrode says. (She still doesn't have her own vehicle.)

But there's always something that's in your control. Schrode's activist career began in 2005, when she hosted meetings about switching to environmentally friendly cosmetics. It wasn't cost-prohibitive for her friends to swap out brand-name mascara and deodorants for ones that had fewer toxic chemicals. More importantly, Schrode avoided a feeling of "doom and gloom" in the process. "Telling someone to do less bad things does not inspire action," she says. "I wanted to give people something they could do. I wanted to tell people yes." Fear-based tactics might motivate someone in the short term, but the most lasting change comes from adopting a movement you want to be a part of, Schrode believes.

2. Make your movement into a lifestyle

Millennials aren't yet caught up in a routine way of doing things. "We're not stuck in brand loyalty," Schrode says, explaining that young people are more likely to change their behavior. To get more young girls onboard with eco-friendly products, Turning Green hosted events across the Bay Area: pop-up beauty shops with trained aestheticians at local malls, makeover events on Saturday evenings and an annual ball with a huge feast and a fashion show. By tapping into distinct high school experiences, Schrode's cause gained traction. "All the programs that we're producing are emblematic teenage experiences, like prom, the dorm move-in or back-to-school, and people loved that," Schrode says. "It fit into our lives in a way that wasn't off-putting."


3. Make your claims relatable

When it comes to the environment, it's all too easy to dismiss left-wingers as spouting "hippie-dippy" eco-nonsense, Schrode says. That's why activists need to dig through the science and "arm ourselves with information to stand up against the naysayers" and big business industry, Schrode emphasizes. The real trick is not to use scientific jargon or data that people can't comprehend. Instead, you must make erudite knowledge relevant to consumers. For instance, someone glancing at a skincare product label may not know how to pronounce propylene glycol, but once she knows it's a key ingredient in antifreeze, she'll be on the lookout for it in the future. (It's debatable just how much damage trace amounts of it would actually inflict, but do you really want to rub car coolant on your face?)

4. Use social media to activate disconnected individuals...

Social media allows young, like-minded activists across the country to unite in a way they've never been able to before. Schrode says that's particularly valuable in reaching the "lone warrior" in places like small towns or cities that politically lean one direction. With Facebook and other digital tools, an organization can connect people to a cause and provide them with specific fact-sheets, resources and programming ideas. Optimizing an online presence, the successes at one university can become a nationwide network almost overnight. One of Schrode's favorite projects assigns 21 days of action, which is particularly powerful because "thousands of people every day are logging in to take the same sorts of actions, regardless of their geography, their background or their school."

5. ...But recognize the limitations of online activities

"A lot of people think it is enough just to do something online, enough to click a button, to find something and press share," Schrode says. She has two words for them: "It's not." Politicians seldom cast votes based on the number of clicks on a petition; they'll more often listen to the constituents who take the time to travel to their offices or force them to hear with a protest outside their window.

6. Translate old learnings for today's world

After a study discovered off-the-charts breast cancer rates in Marin County, Calif., preteen Schrode joined her mom canvassing door-to-door for access to mammograms. (The study's findings may simply indicate that wealthy, white women are screened more regularly, resulting in more false positives.) She still views the experience as evidence that an older generation has valuable expertise and wisdom to share with young activists. Millennials might have a better sense of what they want the future to look like, but they don't necessarily know what prevented previous generations from getting there. By meeting with older policymakers, activists and researchers, organizers today can learn those lessons. "That sharing of ideas, of tactics, of energy and of experience is unstoppable," Schrode says.

7. Enact change on a broad scale by aspiring to elected office

Schrode has experience in nonprofits as an activist and in the corporate world as a consultant. Both arenas move far faster than government -- but they're as equally hamstrung by bad legislative policies. The move to government, Schrode says, is a natural progression to the place where you can have more impact. Even though she lost the primary, Schrode believes her campaign platform decidedly changed the dynamics of the race by highlighting young people's concerns for green living, women's reproductive and workforce rights and Black Lives Matter.
There's never been a woman under the age of 30 elected to the House of Representatives. Luckily, Schrode's next shot to "[change] the definition of who can be political" is just two years away.