BURLINGTON, Vt. — Stop and hold your breath.

With those words, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii introduced herself to an audience of some of the brightest and most influential progressive minds in America, from Cornel West to Bernie Sanders.

“You can’t hold your breath for very long,” she said in her smooth, measured tone. “You can’t exist for very long without air. You can’t exist for very long without clean water.

“However, so many of the decisions that are being made with regards to policy, many of the decisions that are being made by the corporations, the decisions that are being made by those driven by greed rather than driven by putting the interests and the liability of the people first, don’t take this into account.”

Susan Sarandon and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard speak to a crowd at the Sanders Institute Gathering. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Gabbard traveled to Burlington to take part in “The Gathering,” an ambitious three-day event put on by the Sanders Institute, a left-leaning, nonprofit tank that pushes progressive ideas such as Medicare for all, tuition-free college and a Green New Deal.

The Hawaii congresswoman, who’s considering a presidential bid in 2020, was just one of many stars to speak at the event.

She refused to speak to Civil Beat despite repeated requests.

Gabbard’s Saturday panel was titled “Civil Rights, Immigration & Human Dignity.” It was moderated by James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute and a former Obama administration appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Other panelists included the actress Susan Sarandon, former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, who used to head the NAACP, and Radhika Balakrishnan, a gender and women’s studies professor who sits on the United Nations Development Program’s Civil Society Advisory Committee.

Zogby kicked off the discussion by highlighting the interconnectedness of some of the most intractable conflicts and humanitarian challenges facing the world today. The example he used was climate change and the war in Syria.

He noted that the conflict stemmed in part from a 10-year drought that forced farmers to move to the cities. The resulting culture clash led to protests and then to civil war.

As refugees fled the country, Zogby said, the world witnessed the rise of xenophobia and the backlash toward the Syrian migration.

“Europe is being transformed and this whole xenophobic movement in Europe is being transformed because of a refugee crisis that began with global warming,” Zogby said.

“If we had the foresight and the policies in place to address it we could have averted such an enormous catastrophe, but we didn’t and now we’re off to the races.”

Zogby did not ask Gabbard about Syria nor did she address it. The congresswoman had been criticized in the past for her secret trip to the country in 2017, where she surveyed the fallout and met with President Bashar al-Assad.

Instead, Zogby asked Gabbard to address the idea of environmental justice.

Tulsi Gabbard, seen here with Bernie Sanders, is eyeing a run for president. Nick Grube/Civil Beat

She used the opportunity to tell a story about one of her first forays into politics. She said she was just a teenager, around 16 or 17 years old, when state politicians were considering the construction of a landfill on private property located above a major source of drinking water.

Gabbard said she worked to get people to sign petitions opposing the project, which some suspected was a part of a sweetheart political deal for a major landowner.

“They started getting approval until leaders in the community stood up and said no,” Gabbard said.

“To consider putting a landfill over the water aquifer would essentially mean the people of Hawaii would be forced to have to rely on shipping bottled water in from the mainland if that contamination occurred, which is more likely than not.”

The protection of water resources, Gabbard said, is important to her, both in Hawaii and around the country.

She talked of the Native Hawaiian struggle for water rights on Maui and noted that she stood next to the “water protectors” of the Standing Rock Sioux on their reservation in North Dakota when they protested an oil pipeline.

She also highlighted her recent visit to Flint, Michigan, where residents are still reeling from a political decision to that exposed them and their water to dangerous contamination.

Gabbard’s visit to the Sanders Institute visit comes as speculation mounts about her candidacy for president in 2020.

While she did not make an appearance at the event until Saturday morning when she was scheduled to speak on the panel, there were a number of attendees who were curious to hear what she would have to say.

Circe Wallace is a former professional snowboarder and sports agent from California who now owns a cannabis business in Los Angeles.

“I’m grateful for any woman who can affect change in the government in today’s polarized climate.” — Circe Wallace, conference attendee

When asked about Gabbard, the first words out of her mouth were, “I love her.”

Wallace quickly followed that up with the fact that both she and the congresswoman are surfers who care deeply about the environment, and in particular the effects of climate change, something she acknowledged will be deeply catastrophic for Gabbard’s home state.

“She’s a progressive thought leader in a real position of influence,” Wallace said while waiting to listen to a presentation about how the U.S. can fund Medicare-for-all.

“I’m grateful for any woman who can affect change in the government in today’s polarized climate.”

Wallace said she would back Gabbard for president, but added the caveat that it will depend on what Bernie Sanders decides for 2020. Gabbard’s military background combined with her progressive views make her especially attractive to Wallace.

“America seems so broken,” she said. “I think we need a strong advocate for profound and systemic change. Regardless of whether she can win or not I think her platform and what it is she would be running on is just incredibly important.”

Gabbard is scheduled to travel to New Hampshire on Sunday to meet with the Rockingham County Democrats, who are hosting a series of meet and greets with potential presidential contenders.

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