Marianne Schnall—author (What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?), founder of feminist.com, and accomplished interviewer—sat down with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard to help Levo uncover what will encourage young women to get interested in politics as a career choice. Here, their conversation.
Tulsi Gabbard ran for the Hawaii State Legislature in 2002 and became, at age 21, the youngest person ever elected. Representing Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, Tulsi is one of the first two female combat veterans and the first Hindu to ever serve as a member of the U.S. Congress.
A self-described “shy and introverted kid” growing up, Tulsi didn’t necessarily imagine that she would enter into politics, but her strong sense of service to others motivated her to get involved and follow what she feels is one of the most important life lessons: “If you see a problem, be a part of the solution. Don’t stay on the sidelines and complain—take action.”
Marianne Schnall: What originally inspired you to get interested in politics and where did you find the courage to enter the political world at such an early age?
Tulsi Gabbard: We’ve all met or grown up with people who, at 10 years old, are saying “I’m going to be the president one day!” I definitely wasn’t one of those kids. But from a young age, I was instilled with two important lessons. One is this: if you want to be successful, if you want to experience real, true happiness and a true sense of reward, you’ll find that in trying to be of service to others and really dedicating your life into public service.
I first got involved … because I loved Hawaii—I loved surfing and hiking and doing all these outdoor things—and I was motivated to take action when I started seeing trash floating out in the water, as I’m paddling out for a surf. Which leads to the next important lesson that I learned, which is if you see a problem, be a part of the solution. Don’t stay on the sidelines and complain—take action.
Tulsi explained further how she found the confidence at the age of 21 to run for office…
TG: In 2002, I made the decision to run for the State House because there were issues that I cared very much about and I saw that there was leadership lacking on those issues. My own personal convictions of why I was doing what I was doing were rock solid, but the very first day that I went to knock on that first door, I was scared. I sat in my car for 15 minutes just sweating bullets, trying to summon up the courage to knock on that door. Who would be on the other side of that door, would they be nice, what questions would they ask, will I be ready to answer them? And I wish I could say it got easier with every door, but it didn’t. I was a pretty shy and introverted kid growing up, and this was not something that came naturally for me. But in between every one of those doors, before going and giving that first speech, feeling sick with nervousness, I always came back to what was in my heart and why I was doing this: this is the way that I can offer to be of service to those in my community and to the people of Hawaii, and I’m going to do my best and that’s all I can do.
MS: Having been through that journey, what advice or guidance would you offer to a young woman who’s considering a career in politics and running for office?
TG: One thing that I hear from women of all ages is a lot of self-doubt. And through sharing with them my own experience—I didn’t go through political training, I wasn’t part of a debate team, I didn’t have a group of the political establishment who pushed me into running and gave me all this great support. I didn’t have any of that, but I understood what the most important qualification was: a sense of purpose and motivation toward serving others.
The rest you can learn. [If] you’re rooted and grounded in understanding and knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you’ll have the correct perspective to be able to persevere and let the arrows that are shot at you bounce off of you; it gives you that protective armor, in a sense.
MS: You talk about how rigorous it is to run for office and everything that you have to go through, and additionally, of course, we do hear so many negative stories about the dysfunction in Washington, and it may not look like a particularly appealing path to pursue. What would you say, though, to encourage women? What are the joys, benefits, and rewards of being there and serving?
TG: The greatest reminder is when I get to meet with and hear from people who I’ve been able to help in some way or another—whether it’s a family member who’s sick and can’t get access to the right kind of care or a veteran who has had the door shut on him or her so many times that she’s completely lost hope. On the issues of when and where we send our troops into combat. On issues like sexual assault in the military. Understanding the real challenges that people are going through every day, that families are going through every day, that our returning service members are going through every day, makes any little speed bumps that we go through in the course of our day seem minor.
MS: There are so many inaccurate misconceptions out there about Millennials: that they’re lazy, apathetic, or feel entitled and don’t step up to positions of leadership. How do you feel representing the Millennial generation in Congress and breaking that stereotype?
TG: I think there’s a lot of misperceptions out there. While there’s a challenge of Millennials not being engaged enough in our political process, it comes from a place of feeling disconnected, feeling that there are not people in these leadership positions—whether it’s from a national level or from a local level—who really understand the reality of the challenges we face today or the path that lies in front of us for our generation. And if you’re not feeling that you have a seat at the table where your voice and your experience will be valued, you’ve got people who are saying, “Look, I’m not going to waste my time there. I’m going to dedicate my time, whether it’s social entrepreneurship or a startup or channeling that innovation in a way that I feel will matter and will make an impact.”
I think that’s a very key component to this generation. And that’s where I think there’s really a lot of opportunity: to make sure that the doors are open, to make sure that the collective “we” aren’t sitting back and waiting for people to step up to the plate, but actually going out, hitting the road, going to places where these young leaders are, and saying, “What do you care about? What solutions do you have to offer? How can you contribute to this?” Actually valuing their input and working together to see how we can make things happen. I think that when you look at times where that has happened, you end up with a greater value in the solution that you find.
“If it means you not only invite yourself to the dance, but you write your own music, that’s what you do.”
One thing that I found through my own personal experience—both when I was 21 and I ran for the State House, but also when I was 31 and ran for Congress—was hearing leaders in the country talking about where’s the next generation of leadership? When are they going to step up to the plate and take responsibility and own their future? And what I found was that as I started to talk to some of these people and say, “Alright, well, I’m stepping up. I’m offering to be of service. I want to take the experiences that I’ve had from serving in the military, serving in the Middle East, being a 30-something-year-old woman, and bring them to the national conversation to change the direction of leadership in our country.” At so many places, I was met with a very patronizing answer that was basically, “Tulsi, we think you’re great, but you’re too young, you’re too inexperienced, and it’s not your time.”
I thanked them for their time, put my head down, and kept working and went directly to the people who really mattered and shared my message with them, to voters, across the state of Hawaii. I shared with them my desire to be of service, asking them if they would consider hiring me to do this job for them, and that’s where we turned a race that all of these so-called opinion leaders and political wonks said was an impossible race, into a win by a 20 percent margin, because of that grounding and that focus on service and who’s most important and valuing them and letting them know their value, rather than listening to the so-called establishment status quo powers who think they’re in charge. But they’re not.
MS: Being in Congress as one of the younger members, are there any unspoken judgments that you feel people make because of your age? Do you feel that sense of not only being a woman there, but also being one of the youngest?
TG: Sure. I think there’s generally an assumption of inexperience, when, in reality, the experiences I’ve had throughout my life have in many cases been far more diverse and varied than many people who I have the opportunity to work with. I think it’s fantastic—not just being young, but being a young woman, it’s kind of intriguing to me the look of shock that I get every time someone introduces me as a combat veteran, because it doesn’t fit the picture. Still, even after we’ve had so many women serving courageously in combat, the look of shock in people’s eyes when they hear that part of my experience is another component.
MS: Another important milestone that you represent is being the first Hindu in Congress, which I do think is significant in terms of just the growing diversity in our government, whether it’s racial diversity or being openly gay. Do you feel that this is important and is a growing trend?
TG: I took the Oath of Office on a Scripture called the Bhagavad Gita and it was a very personal decision based on the wisdom, the insight, and the strength that the scripture has provided me throughout my life. I’ve been through some very difficult, challenging times and some good times. I don’t think I fully anticipated what impact that personal decision would have on such a broad part of our community in the country. And I’ve heard from people of all ages, immigrants from India, for example, who they called the Aunties and Uncles, kind of the first generation of immigrants who have literally cried when I’ve met them, saying how they’ve never felt really that they’ve been understood or had a voice until now and that they never expected to see a Hindu elected to the United States Congress in their lifetime.
And then bringing their grandkids and bringing these little 8- and 9-year-old girls who have known no other life, other than being here and they’re Americans and this is their home, but they bring this very unique heritage with them. Just seeing those dots connect—that we are a great country because of our diversity, and being able to be a part of representing different aspects of that diversity in our country is something that I’m humbled and honored to be a part of.
MS: You’ve made such a compelling case for getting younger generations to run for public office. We sometimes forget these low statistics: women make up 50 percent of the population, but only 18 percent of Congress. Why does it matter that women be represented?
TG: Again, it goes back to—whether you’re talking about in elected office or in a corporate board room or in an educational setting—the importance of having people in leadership who reflect the diversity of our country. It’s critical. And the only way this happens is if you stand up and do something about it. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that nothing comes for free and very rarely is the red carpet laid out for you, saying, “Here you go.”
The only way we change this paradigm, the only way we have leaders in every sector who represent the diversity of our country, is by women stepping up and saying, “I have something to contribute. I will take action and I will do my part.” And if that means that you build your own chair and you make that space at the table, that’s what you do. If it means you not only invite yourself to the dance, but you write your own music, that’s what you do. And again, it’s recognizing that there’s no cookie-cutter formula. There’s no black-and-white checklist of this is how you get there. It’s a matter of recognizing within yourself your own desire and conviction and commitment to serve others—to have that positive impact that will provide that motivation and that focus and that guidance in order to make that happen.
Photo: Thos Robinson / Getty Images