Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard will receive The Inertia’s Global Advocate Award and deliver the keynote speech at our first-ever EVOLVE Summit on 8.18.18. Gabbard is uniquely positioned to make major impacts in helping to preserve the beauty of Hawaii, our earth, and the natural resources we love. The event is sold out, but it will be broadcast live on The Inertia as well as on our Facebook page beginning at 2:30 p.m. PST on Saturday the 18th.
Video above shot by Matt Paul and edited by Alex Smolowe
“Every time I give a speech anywhere, whether in this country or anywhere else, I always begin with, ‘Aloha.’
“I try to share with people what aloha actually means and how important it is that we do our best to live aloha. When I “aloha” you, I’m greeting you with an open heart, with respect, with care and love. If we can recognize that we are all interconnected, then we can start the process of setting aside these labels and these differences that unfortunately are often used to tear people apart and pit them against each other. We can transcend that and say, ‘How can we work together?’”
Sounds like a surfer, doesn’t it?
But this isn’t your average beach bum sprinkled with sand, hair knotted from the sea and sticky with salt. This is 37-year-old Tulsi Gabbard, the Congressional Representative for the state of Hawaii representing every town on every island in the state with the exception of the capital city, Honolulu. Outside of Hawaii, she is perhaps best known for stepping down from her leadership role as vice-chair of the Democratic National Committee to throw her full support behind underdog candidate Senator Bernie Sanders. She has consistently approached politics on her own terms. Through her steadfast connection to her personal truths and her unwavering devotion to the needs of the people she serves, she has become a true force for hope of an interconnected global community that can rise together.
And yeah, when she’s not introducing social and environmental policies, battling U.S. involvement in international regime-change wars, or representing the voice of her islander constituents in Washington D.C., you can find her in the Pacific, intermittently swapping an 8’ 0” Firewire with a 5’ 6” Hypto Krypto whenever she and her husband, Abraham, paddle out together at the famous breaks of Ala Moana Beach Park on Oahu’s south shore, where she moved from American Samoa at the age of two.
“I learned how to surf in my teens, maybe about 16-ish or so,” Gabbard told The Inertia. “A friend of mine gave me an old 7’ 0” gun, and that is what I learned on. It was probably the worst possible thing to learn on, but I kind of just learned the hard way through trial and error. My next board was a 5’ 10” fish that I got from my friend for $25. It was kind of beat up, I think there was some duct tape on one section, but that was my favorite board for the longest time.”
The images of Barack Obama bodysurfing Sandy Beach on Oahu’s east side certainly captured the world’s attention, but somehow the thought of a top-brass politician actually surfing is a hard one to compute. So when Gabbard, by invitation, paddled out at the Waimea Bay opening ceremony for the inaugural Queen of the Bay contest in November 2017, heads turned. After all, adjusting public perceptions is kind of Gabbard’s specialty, simply by being herself: a young, beautiful, female Hindu politician who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, especially if it favors the will of the people over the benefits of special-interest groups.
“When I was there for opening ceremony of the [Queen of the Bay] competition, one of the competitors said, ‘Gosh, it’s just so amazing to have a politician paddling out with us. I expect politicians to be 70-year-old people stuck in stuffy dark rooms.’ I was very stoked to be invited to join them and join the community in showing our support for them, their skills, their talents and just the sport as a whole,” Gabbard said.
“I think here in Hawaii especially, being an island state, whether you surf or not having that connection with ocean and land and our home is a really special thing,” Gabbard told The Inertia. “So when I’m going out in communities on different islands and also when I’m dealing with legislation that is specific to our environment, it’s something that’s real — it’s not just something that’s written on a page. I think my constituents know that and appreciate that.”
Gabbard introduced the Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act (OFF Act), which aims to replace fossil fuels with 100 percent clean energy by 2035. She also champions the health of our oceans and access to clean water.
Gabbard’s efforts run the gamut, from defying all odds in Washington to reauthorize the Native Hawaiian Education Act, an education bill to help maintain Hawaiian cultural education for the islands’ keiki (children), to helping a veteran from Waimanalo who had suffered a heart attack get access to a life-saving surgery. Gabbard attended his wedding months later.
“What it really comes down to is being in a position to serve people, to help them and make their lives better,” said Gabbard. “Whether it was serving on the State Legislature or on the Honolulu City Council or now here in Congress, it’s really been about staying in close touch with my community and holding Hawaii with me wherever I go,” she said. “My goal is not to do what is politically expedient or to do what is safe — the people of Hawaii hired me and sent me [to Washington] to actually do a job and I take that job very seriously, it’s a great privilege and responsibility.”
Gabbard has been a public servant since 2002, when she won a seat in the Hawaii State Legislature at just 21 years old, the youngest woman ever elected to a state legislature at that time. Yes, you read that correctly: at the age most people are renting party busses and celebrating legal entrance into bars she was serving in state legislature. She also became an active-duty member of the Hawaii National Guard’s 29th Brigade Combat Team in 2003. When her unit was called up in 2004 for an 18-month deployment to Iraq, Gabbard noticed her name was not on the mandatory deployment roster. Her commander confirmed that, yes, she was not needed with her medical unit on this deployment and that she should stay in Hawaii and continue her re-election campaign to continue serving on the State Legislature. But that’s just not her style.
“I just knew there was no way I could just stay home and go to my job in beautiful Hawaii and go surfing and watch my brothers and sisters go off into combat on the other side of the world without me,” she recalled. “So I withdrew from my campaign and told my commanders, ‘You need to find a place for me, because I’m going.’ There was another job in the medical unit that they needed someone to fill, so I went and got trained in that job and deployed with them. It was an experience that changed my life in so many ways.”
Tulsi’s deployment was life-changing because one of her daily tasks was to read through a list of all the names of soldiers who had been killed or injured the day before, checking for any of the 3,000 men and women from her unit to ensure they got the treatment they needed. The experience literally placed the staggering cost of U.S.-led regime change wars in her hands every day, and lead to many sleepless nights. When she returned home from that voluntary deployment, she knew what she had to do.
“I knew that behind every single one of those names was a loved one back home worried about them, whether it was a husband or a wife, siblings or kids, parents,” said Gabbard. “The cost of war is something that’s very difficult to measure, and I thought then how many people in Washington who made the decision to send our troops into Iraq and to launch this war, I wonder how many of them are actually kept up at night thinking about these individuals, these names, their families and what they’re actually going through, what to speak of those who were never able to make the trip home because they gave their lives in service to our country.”
“This was one of the things that was a major motivator for me to go and actually offer to serve in Congress because I saw that there were too few people in Washington that really got it,” said Gabbard. “I knew what was at stake, I knew why I had to do my best so that I could actually be in a position to help prevent these destructive decisions from being made in the future.”
Gabbard’s time in the military made a profound impact on her approach to policy. She trumpets a bold non-intervention agenda, insisting that the U.S. Military refuse to intervene in foreign affairs, as government officials consistently underestimate the casualties, investment, and likelihood for success. This belief inspired Gabbard to take a controversial meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a man widely considered to have committed heinous crimes against his people, about the prospect of ending his country’s civil war.
Gabbard’s approach to social issues has also evolved over time. The Congresswoman began her career echoing some of the conservative social values held by her father, Mike Gabbard, also a Hawaiian politician and a member of the Hawaii Senate. According to a New Yorker profile, she apologized to L.G.B.T. activists in Hawaii in 2012 for some of the “very divisive and even disrespectful” things she once said. She has since publicly reversed her position on gay marriage, recently telling the New Yorker that it “should be celebrated.”
Gabbard volunteered for deployment a second time in 2009, and finally, in 2012, with terrible poll numbers and multiple career politicians advising her that she was too young for Congress and should wait a decade or two before making a run for it, Tulsi Gabbard won a Congressional seat to represent Hawaii. In 2013, when Gabbard became the first Hindu person and the first person born in American Samoa to serve in Congress, she took her oath of office by placing her hand on the Bhagavad Gita, the holy Hindu text. She said she derives her two guiding principles in life and politics from the book: karma yoga (dedicating your life to the service of others) and bhakti yoga (developing a personal and loving relationship with god).
She chose to take her oath on this text for personal reasons, but that action sent impactful ripple effects to people throughout the country and the world. Prior to both her Congressional victories in 2012 and 2014, her Republican opponents publicly stated to mainstream media outlets that her religion precluded her from being able to effectively serve the United States. Some claimed her Hindu faith was “not compatible” with the U.S. Constitution, that her belief made her unqualified to serve in a Congressional position, and even one statement that “A vote for Tulsi Gabbard is a vote for the Devil.” Despite the pushback, Gabbard was victorious.
“I was really surprised by the outpouring of messages, calls, and emails from Hindus all across the U.S. but also from many different parts of the world really just expressing thanks and gratitude that for the first time in their lives — especially for Indians in America, first generation and second generation immigrants — they didn’t have to be afraid to say that they are Hindu, they didn’t have to be afraid or really hesitant or reluctant to let people know who they are or to hide their spiritual practice,” she said.
“Unfortunately these are things that we have to deal with, but it is so important to be strong and not let this discrimination stand unchecked,” said Gabbard. “The more we as a society stand up against this hatred and divisiveness and bigotry, the more successful we will be at ridding it from our society.”
When Gabbard married her husband Abraham in 2015 in a hybrid Hawaiian/Vedic wedding ceremony on the northern edge of Oahu’s windward side, ten of her friends from Congress attended — by chance, five were Republican and five were Democrat, and all were thrilled to learn more about Vedic traditions and yoga meditation practices.
“Based on this message of love delivered by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, it inspires me to find ways to work with people who may disagree with me on certain issues,” said Gabbard. “Treating them with respect regardless of their political party or ideology or any of the other things that can tend to cause us to shy away from someone. Actually looking for those opportunities because you’re doing it on the basis of a relationship based on respect and a common purpose.”
“It is my daily practice that keeps me focused on what’s most important, which is serving the people of Hawaii and the people of this country, taking care of our planet Mother Earth, and always looking for ways and opportunities to find solutions and building partnerships and friendships with others who share that same goal.”
Consistent through her entire political career is her unwavering commitment to the environment, and she’s in a position to make a big impact on behalf of the surf and outdoor community
And that’s what happens when a surfer becomes a politician.