Mom with a Mission
by Deb Seminary
How does someone who considered herself a loner in high school end up being nominated for National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year award, become the first woman to mountain bike across Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley and start a nonprofit organization that promotes education and opportunities for women in conflict regions across the globe?
The catalyst for Bismarck Native Shannon Galpin’s activism was the rape of her sister and the birth of her daughter. Because Galpin had also survived a violent rape attack years earlier, she decided to take action. “I don’t know if it would have affected me as much if I wouldn’t have had Devon and thinking ‘what if that happened to her,’” she said. “The combination of those things and the thought that women need to step up to the plate to help other women was all I needed. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ kind of girl, I wasn’t going to be happy just volunteering for a Victims of Assault group.
She formed her nonprofit, Mountain2Mountain, in 2006. Because she lives in Colorado, her plan was to connect mountain communities in the US and abroad. Previously, Galpin spent ten years overseas and saw how women were treated in other countries. She also found out that in some countries, like Afghanistan, foreign women were treated like an honorary man, which gave her unprecedented access to be a proxy for the Afghan women. “I was able to get unfiltered knowledge about the local women,” she said. “Plus, I can share their stories. For example, often times few Americans will listen to a Palestinian woman, but a lot will listen to a local woman talk about a Palestinian woman and share that mutual connection.”
(In Afghanistan) We have developed computer labs, girls and boys schools, paid teacher and midwife salaries to help bring education to rural villages, funded kindergartens and literacy programs for women prisons. We are currently working on a film project about the Afghan women’s national cycling team and working on a book project called Afghan Dreamers.”
She has also secured a $400,000 5-acre land donation from President Karzai for a future school for the deaf. A 12-foot security wall has been built around that land and wells are dug. Now they just need to raise the money to build the school, hopefully finding a partner to take it over. “The deaf in Afghanistan are the most oppressed segment of the population,” explained Galpin. “They can’t communicate in any way and are cut off from the rest of the population. There are very few interpreters in the entire country. When I went to meet with President Karzai, along with a couple of advocates for the School for the Deaf, he did not understand why they were talking with their hands. When we explained they were deaf, he could not believe there were deaf people in Afghanistan!”
The “Streets of Afghanistan” project, funded entirely through sponsorships and not donor money, was a remarkable project Galpin organized to showcase the beauty of Afghanistan. Thirty photographs were blown up and exhibited throughout Afghanistan. It allowed Afghans to see their country in a whole new way, to show them what is beyond their war torn communities. “In the end, the goal was to show that art has a place in conflict zones,” she said. “That Afghans deserve the same access to art and beauty we all crave and that shows like this can be done safely and publicly in Afghanistan. Art has the power to inspire and create a ripple of change that resonates through communities.”
Galpin has traveled to Afghanistan, on the average, three times a year the past four years. She is away for about three weeks each time and everytime she leaves she writes her daughter a letter. “It’s the worst part of the trip,” she said. “I push it off, and then think that if this is the time it happens, that would be my last thought, is that she has no idea. The letters have evolved over the last four years, but they are basically asking her to try to understand why I am not there, that it’s not fair, I’ve done everything I could to be safe and the reason I did it was to make the world a better place. When I come back I rip up the letters. It is incredibly cathartic.”
To pay for her first trip over, Galpin was somehow able to get a loan against her car. She is now living off the sale of her house which has allowed her to fund Mountain2Mountain and support Devon. “I could have continued to work as a sports trainer and do one project at a time, but I knew this was bigger than just one project, I wanted to create a huge movement. I am my father’s daughter, unfortunately, and he is a big thinker, beyond what maybe makes sense sometimes! I needed to be able to work 60 – 70 hours a week on this.”
Unfortunately that means she gets paid sometimes, depending on available funds. “That is what we want to change this year – sustainable funding,” said Galpin. “I need to hire a staff. We have a great team of women that are already volunteering so hopefully we can hire some of them in the near future. There are a lot of things that slip through, I don’t even have time to write grants. I want to do this forever, but not the way I am doing it now.
Mountain2Mountain is launching its first domestic programs this year, and one is called ‘Strength in Numbers’. “It is a continuation of how the bike has been a thread through the work I am doing in Afghanistan, and how it related to me in terms of becoming a biker – how much stronger it made me physically and mentally,” she explained.
Strength In Numbers will also have a parallel program that develops advocacy programs for college campuses to create awareness about campus rape. Galpin believes prevention is important, not just ‘if it happens, here is where you go.’ She sees a program that engages and educates men as well, helping them to understand the value of women and that yes, there are boundaries.
Her vision for Strength in Numbers is to create an army of women, hundreds of women using their voices. “I am inspired by those who want to put a drop in the bucket,” said Galpin. “It’s not just a donation, it’s the advocacy and lending your voice to something your believe in.”
‘Combat Apathy’ is another domestic program Galpin is developing. “Mountain2Mountain is humanitarian, Combat Apathy is outrageous and loud,” she explained. “It is twenty amazing kickass women who are using their voice, engaged in their communities, breaking the boundaries. It is the activist wing of Mountain2Mountain, the voice, to raise money.”
As Mountain2Mountain grows and evolves, Strength in Numbers and Combat Apathy will be the two main things they focus on. One as the main program focus and one as the activist and advocate side. “I want to continue to support the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team, local activists and finishing the deaf school, otherwise I am realizing how much more we can do with Strength in Numbers,” said Galpin. “That doesn’t mean we don’t continue to support Afghanistan, I just think we can create a bigger ripple with Strength in Numbers.”
This fall Galpin will be honored for her humaitarian efforts and all of the ripples she has created when she is inducted into the Bismarck High School Hall of Fame.
Shannon and the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team were recently featured on NBC Nightly News.
For more information and to donate, go to mountain2mountain.org