We Heart Our Readers: Shannon Galpin, Mountain2Mountain

Breaking barriers at home and abroad.

As the founder of Mountain2Mountain, Shannon Galpin empowers women in conflict zones by providing them with a voice and access to education and vocational training. Galpin works primarily in Afghanistan and famously cycles across dangerous zones like the Panjshir Valley – where Afghan women can be punished and even killed for riding a bike – to bring attention to women’s issues. Talk about cojones. We have incredible respect for Galpin’s work. As it turns out, she’s a fan of us too.

Name: Shannon Galpin

Website: http://www.mountain2mountain.org

What do you love about EcoSalon?

I adore the complete range of lifestyle articles, from alternative design and architecture, to green living and relationships, often covered from a truly unique and irreverent perspective! My favorite column is Foodie Underground – one week I’m dreaming of a fish taco-fueled Baja escape, the next rediscovering my Parisian addiction to the vast array of brightly colored macarons, to looking at oysters as not just a food but as an important part of a sustainable relationship with our food sources and waterfront economies. I love to see food discussed not as vegan or paleo, or as it relates to diet or body image, but instead reading about the pure joy of food, where it comes from, and how our communities are related to the food sources themselves. But I am also a huge sucker for the Sex by Numbers series, especially the Republican Caucus edition!

Tell us about Mountain2Mountain.

Mountain2Mountain was founded nearly five years ago with the desire to create voice and value for women and children in conflict zones. Essentially, I knew I didn’t want to just build schools or clinics as a reaction. We want to create catalysts within conflict zones that can create a ripple through their communities which creates a more sustainable and community-driven approach for change. We can do that by improving access for education, by activism for women’s rights, through vocational training, and through media training. One of our newest programs we are launching this year is called Combat Apathy, and its based on the idea that voice matters. So we work with citizen journalism and leadership with young adults in conflict zones and evolve into youth driven social impact programs that we support to tackle the issues of women’s rights, sex trafficking, LGBT rights, and war and conflict. If individuals are given the opportunity to use their voice, people will listen and you can instill a sense of value and confidence that we can cultivate into social action and community action. We have been working in Afghanistan for four years but are expanding into Cambodia, Mexico and other conflict regions this year as well.

Why women’s rights, and why Afghanistan?

I staunchly believe that we need to think of women’s rights as human rights. Women’s involvement in their community, their government, and global affairs are integral to the future of our global community. Gender equity is not just morally right, it is pivotal to global sustainable development. It is number 3 on the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – not just because its morally right but because empowering women will contribute to achieving all the other goals, reducing poverty, improving maternal health, improving universal education, combating HIV/AIDS, and even environmental sustainability. Afghanistan is consistently ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman so to me it seemed like the best place to start! It’s also a country that is the source of so much apathy in the US – overloaded with negative media and our ongoing military involvement – it seemed to me that if we could challenge stereotypes of Afghans in the U.S. and of Americans in Afghanistan baby steps could emerge.

One way you’ve broken barriers is by mountain biking across dangerous regions of Afghanistan. Can you talk a bit about the cultural implications of an act like that?

Well, Afghanistan is one of the few places in the world where women are not allowed to ride bikes. Around the world the bike is used as an effective vehicle for social justice and it was frustrating to realize that it just wasn’t something we could utilize in rural communities for school transportation, or for midwives and teachers. After working in Afghanistan for a couple of years I realized that I was constantly challenging gender barriers as part of my daily routine. When I’m in Kabul I like to walk as much as I can and interact with the Afghans I met in a more natural way. I ride a motorcycle which I bought in Kabul to avoid the traffic snarls that congest the city at rush hour, thanks to the lawlessness that permeates the country it means that you can ride on the sidewalk, or weave backwards through oncoming traffic, it’s all about the shortcuts. Being a foreign woman means that I find myself in a unique position as a hybrid gender. Men that still treat Afghan women as second class citizens will treat me as an equal and let me challenge gender barriers like riding my mountain bike because they are curious or intrigued but not threatened. It’s a little thing, but I also wanted to show another side of Afghanistan, the beauty, the adventure, and the possibility that what was once a tourist destination, could perhaps be again in the future if peace was ever achieved.

You’re obviously dealing with very heavy issues. What keeps you motivated and inspired?

My daughter, Devon, is a huge source of daily inspiration – nothing like the complete open honesty that a seven year old has to help you see the world in a fresh way. She’s also a big reason that I’m taking on the issues I am. Firstly feeling the responsibility to do my part to make the world a little better for her and her generation. Secondly to set an example to her that you MUST be involved in the world. The responsibility is not with governments or global organizations – it’s with individuals, citizen diplomats. Lastly, it’s important to remember that we are part of the global community. I want her to realize she is a global citizen, not just an American. She has to know that young girls in Afghanistan, or Cambodia, or even closer in Mexico are no different than her – and thus deserves the same access and rights.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.