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By Michael Roberts
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"It all hit me at once," she remembers. "This was where I had to work."
Back in Colorado, Galpin considered all the needs she'd encountered in Afghanistan — as well as her drastically diminished bank account — and weighed the difference between what looked good and what would actually do good. "My biggest hate is to be called naive, to be criticized for believing change can happen," Galpin says. "I was naive, though, before I realized how much money talks, how integral that chicken-versus-the-egg model is."
She worked on a structure and financial plan for her proposed nonprofit, built a six-member board of directors and a six-member advisory board, and then in 2008 filed the 501(c)(3) paperwork for Mountain2Mountain, which she named after an Afghan proverb: "No matter how high the mountain, there is always a road."
Once she'd decided on her own road, she was committed. Galpin soon closed her wellness studio, told her husband she wanted a divorce, sold him half of their house and listed her Subaru Impreza online. "I'm kind of an all-or-nothing person, unfortunately," Galpin says. And she was going to do it all on her own. "I didn't like Western organizations coming in and saying what to do, and I wanted the focus to be on using Afghan ideas to assist Afghan people," she explains. "The goal is to be a proxy for these women until they have their own voice, not to just sit there and pretend to be their voice."
From the start, Galpin was determined to avoid what she calls "Band-Aid activism," which she avoided by taking on only those projects that could continue without her. "In general, Afghans respect people who are willing to engage them fully, people who are willing to eschew a lot of the security theater that surrounds most of the international community there, people who meet them in their homes and villages instead of calling them into heavily fortified compounds," says Una Moore, an independent consultant on international development projects who met Galpin in Kabul. "Shannon really gets the idea that for any development to work in Afghanistan, the expats have to be in the background as opposed to out front. You can't implement projects that are just being dreamt up in major cities in the West."
Working in Afghanistan is like sifting through quicksand: The politics change every week. One of Mountain2Mountain's most ambitious early projects stemmed from Galpin's first trip there and her conversation with the doctor over the high rate of maternal deaths in childbirth. For months, Mountain2Mountain organized a program dedicated to teaching women in rural villages midwifery skills, right before Afghan political administrators updated the country's health regulations, effectively killing the project.
In 2009, Mountain2Mountain finalized the paperwork to start a school for the Afghan National Association of the Deaf, which, when finished, will be worth eight times Mountain2Mountain's current annual budget. Three years later, though, there is only the foundation of a building. "Shannon's goals are incredible, but the Afghan people look at results," Moore says. "It is one thing to say you will create change in Afghanistan and another thing entirely to do that. Shannon knows this more than most."
Another early effort targeted women's prisons, where it's not uncommon for the inmates' children to live with them. Over several trips, Galpin visited five facilities to decide whether the nonprofit's focus on women's rights should be stretched to include prisons. In March 2010, wearing a tightly wrapped burqa, accompanied by a handful of male escorts and a small video camera, Galpin entered the women's prison in Kandahar.
Through an interpreter, inmates told her of the "moral" crimes they'd been accused of committing. "I met this woman, the fifth wife of a 65-year-old man, who was twenty, married at sixteen and beaten, with knife wounds all over her body," Galpin recalls. The woman had been accused of attempting to murder one of her stepsons, and the resulting prison sentence actually presented an escape. "Before she got there, she was already imprisoned in her own life. I realized I could do nothing for them," she says.
After a day of interviews, as Galpin headed for the exit, the women presented her with a token: a jeweled barrette that Galpin often holds but never wears. When she tried to refuse the gift, a prisoner brushed out Galpin's hair and clipped the barrette in. For the second time in her life, Galpin says, she felt completely helpless.
She's felt that way often in the days since, as she contemplates the enormity of the work that needs to be done in Afghanistan.
And as she tests the durability of Mountain2Mountain, Galpin continues to test herself. At the same time that she was launching the nonprofit, she took up mountain biking. Between trips to Afghanistan and rounds of fundraising, she rode with friends, trying to figure out a way to connect her primary form of recreation with her all-consuming cause.
She started a Mountain2Mountain biking team, which occasionally competes in races to earn pledges for the nonprofit. In 2009, she took her bike to Afghanistan, where she rode it through a few rural villages. And then she came up with a grand plan: To raise funds for and awareness of Mountain2Mountain, she would ride across Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, where few women traveled and certainly none rode bicycles.