Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Everyone is Connected, Yet No One is in Control”: An Interview with One Young World Ambassador Erin Schrode

Erin Schrode photo credit @Oneyoungworld
This year, at the second annual One Young World (OYW) summit in Zurich, more than a thousand young activists will converge to discuss critical global challenges. Erin Schrode of Ross, California is one of those activists. The co-founder and spokeswoman of Teens Turning Green, a non-profit that promotes global sustainability and youth leadership, Erin has been called a “sustainable prodigy” and “the face of the new green generation.” At the age of 20, she is a blogger, columnist, public speaker, full time NYU student (she won a scholarship), and has already spearheaded numerous projects with the modest goal of changing the world.

Erin, who founded a project for Haitian students in need after working in earthquake disaster response, makes me and most of my 20-something friends look like fatigued and elderly large-bottoms. It would probably be annoying if she weren’t so damn inspiring. Recently, I was lucky enough to talk to her about what issues she’s taking with her to One Young World, whether she’s gotten any flack about her age, and what she thinks of the fact that her generation is labeled “apathetic.”

Here’s what Erin had to say.

Kathleen Hale (KH): Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Is there something in particular about your experience that shaped you as an agent for change?

Erin Schrode (ES): Well I was born into a world of green. When my mom was pregnant with me, she read a book called Diet for a Poisoned Planet.You name an eco product, practice, or guideline and it was a part of our life.

In essence, active citizenry is in my blood. My mom once went to a county meeting with a friend finishing chemo, and heard that cancer rates in our county had risen 60% in nine years, but that there was not enough funding to do any studies. In reaction, she organized a door-to-door march with 3,000 volunteers going to 60,000 households in one day to gather data for a scientific epidemiological mapping project. Our motto is: dream and do. No task, organization, industry, government body, or lobbying group is too big to take on. I cannot imagine my life any other way.

KH: Do you think people take your activism less seriously because of your age?

ES: I’ve said it before – to large crowds, rooms of politicians, media cameras, among others – and I will say it again: we are the future, so start paying attention. It is in your own best interests to become familiar with the habits, wants, and needs of the future voting block, consumer population, workforce, parents, industry leaders, politicians, clergy, and media personalities.

So yes, people have said to me, ‘go to school, get life experience, then come back and talk to us’—and I don’t profess to know it all, or even a small portion of much of anything, for that matter. But I can still take on issues I feel passionate about. I feel like, more so than at any time in history, we have the power to make ourselves heard; the digital revolution has not only made information instantly available at our fingertips, but has also enabled us to disseminate messages at the drop of a hat. Everyone is connected, yet no one is in control—and that is the decentralization aspect working to our advantage, empowering the masses of people.

KH: Wow. You are like way younger than me and way more articulate—I literally just got shivers.

ES: …Thank you.

KH: So, what’s the most condescending response you’ve gotten to your work?

ES: I am typically able to handle flippant comments about the superficiality of advocating for eco and socially responsible living. Some responses, however, have really gotten to me—particularly a selection of the hundreds upon hundreds of comments on a feature profile written about me last year, which ran as the cover story of the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to chastising me about my looks, bubbly teenage demeanor, optimistic outlook, and family wealth (of which there is none; I live with my single mom in a rented home and have been on scholarship my entire life), I found these (direct quotes from written comments) to be particularly condescending:

Could you be a little more sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing, please?

Gag me with a compostable spoon.

Another trust fund hippie saving the world on mommy and daddy’s dime. Sorry Erin, I can’t hear your lectures over the sound of the 50,000 BTU motor that heats the pool in your mom’s $5M Ross mansion.

KH: Ugh, I think it’s really annoying that people call us an apathetic generation—and then, when people like you get up and take a stand, they jump all over you for your insolence and criticize your tactics. What do you think about the idea that our generation is apathetic?

ES: Well, my catchphrase is, “APATHY IS OUT!” I see hope in my generation’s love of new technology—if for no other reason than we like to make our voices heard. Presently, too many words represent too little action for too few. My generation is of the instant gratification age, liking things to happen in short snippets, and very quickly. 140-characters is the new sound bite – and we have learned to use that brevity for high impact results. We can hold individuals, companies, and governments accountable, and are beginning to do so more and more frequently, in our own way.

KH: At the first OYW summit last year, Bob Geldof told delegates that in order to institute change, they needed to become unreasonable people…Do you consider yourself to be unreasonable?

ES: Oh yes.  I would call myself quite unreasonable, in fact. You must be unreasonable in order to bring about necessary and veritable change. Living and breathing activism and humanitarianism day in and day out is not something that one can “turn on” or “turn off.”  It requires a commitment to go out on a limb, to imagine something better and share that vision with the world.

Our earth and its people are facing a great number of mammoth challenges today – and we need to shake it up in a big way, ushering in a new era of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable practices for individuals, corporations, and governments. If I’m seeking to electrify other people to join me in this cause, I have to first hook them with the dreams and visions, expose them to the pressing need for deep-rooted change. Why should we not dream dreams, as Desmond Tutu says? What have we to lose? Nothing, really. The way I see it is: let’s envision something better than we have, and make enough of a ruckus to bring it to life.

Originally published on The Huffington Post and One Young World Newsroom

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