No, this is not a tour company that is taking women to one of the most inhospitable countries in regards to women’s rights. And, no, this is not yet another adrenaline junkie adventurer going to a very dangerous country in search of a few kicks. This is Shannon Galpin, the founder of Mountain 2 Mountain, an organization started in 2006 based on a simple and noble principle:
All women deserve the same rights and opportunities as her own daughter.
Shannon chose Afghanistan because of its terrible track record in women’s rights. Most would say that her choice of countries is either a lost cause or too dangerous to approach, but Shannon’s track record has proven to the contrary. In 2009, she was the first woman to ride a mountain bike in Afghanistan. In total she has traveled there 12 times; each time coming home not only happy and healthy, but also knowing that she is making a difference in a region that rarely gets any press beyond death tolls and security reports.
In 2007, the movie Charlie Wilson’s War was released. It was an account of the US support of the Mujahedeen during the Soviet war in 1980s Afghanistan. The movie ends with a disheartening tone of Charlie Wilson charging the US to build schools and help the Afghan people get back on their feet after the fighting. As you may have guessed, the movie ends with the US doing nothing. It seems all too familiar now with our occupation of Afghanistan. We are pulling out our security forces, and leaving a broken country in the dust.
Shannon is working hard to make the ending of this story different, but funding and support has become an increasingly difficult issue for her organization. The future is starting to look something like this: without security forces, the country becomes less stable and the Taliban starts to return. With the Taliban, the country becomes increasingly dangerous and difficult for someone like Shannon to do her work. Hopefully you can see the pattern here. Possibly because of their fears about the regions future, and Shannon’s safety, her usual donors are becoming more cautious with putting support behind her efforts.
But this has not discouraged her to carry on with even more amazing and impressive work. The Streets of Afghanistan project was Shannon’s first effort in the country, bringing western and Afghan photographers together to show Americans the other face of Afghanistan – the one without the fighting, death and war. Using life sized images from the collaboration, she highlights the beauty and soul of Afghanistan. Like so many stigmas of countries around the world, the vision of Afghanistan is one of a dark and dangerous place, but in Shannon’s view it is much different:
“This is a real country, with real people, with a real youth movement. Just because there is daily violence, and an ongoing war, doesn’t mean that real life doesn’t continue, that normalcy shouldn’t be encouraged, and that we can’t focus projects that embolden, strengthen, and inspire the future generation to stay in Afghanistan and give voice to its future.”
“In fact, considering the generations of conflict, it’s all the more reason to galvanize the youth out of their apathy and support those youth movements that are burgeoning. It can do more for stability than we can possibly know.”
Shannon has spoken at TedX, Move Shake did a short documentary about her (which you can see below), and currently she is touring around Colorado speaking and raising money to bring the Streets of Afghanistan exhibit back to its roots. While part of her original objective included showing the images to Americans, the other objective is to allow Afghans to see what was done with the images taken of them. The exhibit will be set up at the Women’s Garden in Kabul, and no men will be allowed. The exhibit will also have selected images displayed throughout the city as a more guerilla style street art piece.
What will be the result? It is hard to say with the uncertain future of the country. One thing is certain, however, Shannon’s work will make you think. If a petite, light haired, blue-eyed mountain biking mother can make this much progress in a country dominated by men halfway around the globe, imagine what change could be made if we all got behind her?