Shannon Galpin Breaks Out Her Bike, Empowers Afghan Women

The Colorado cyclist, a National Geographic ‘Adventurer of the Year,’ activates so-called female ‘victims’ around the world.

Shannon Galpin poses for a photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan in front of a Kickstarter-funded photo exhibit of billboard-sized images of life in the country. (Photo: Courtesy of Shannon Gilpin)
Amy DuFault is a writer and editor whose work has been published in EcoSalon, Huffington Post, Ecouterre, Organic Spa, Coastal Living, Yahoo!,

National Geographic just nominated Mountain2Mountain founder Shannon Galpin as one of its “Adventurers of the Year,” which should come as no surprise with all she’s done to transform the lives of women and girls in Afghanistan (and beyond). Most of the time, on a bike.

“I meet people who are so overwhelmed. They say, ‘I can’t do this. It’s too overwhelming; it’s a drop in the bucket.’ I’m inspired by those who say, ‘Well, I’m putting my drop in the bucket.’ ”

Having recently returned back to her own mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado, from Kabul—where she showed Afghanees a Kickstarter-funded photo exhibit of billboard-sized images of life in Afghanistan—Galpin is re-inspired.

“I founded Mountain2Mountain on the ethos of connecting communities and cultures. From the beginning, I wanted to use photography and art as a way to break through stereotypes and change perspectives in the goal of emphasizing our common humanity,” she tells TakePart.

MORE: Taliban to Afghan Girls: Go to School, Drop Dead

In March 2013, after over five years of working primarily in Afghanistan, Mountain2Mountain will launch its first domestic program in Harlem in New York City. Galpin’s weeklong retreats, aptly called “Strength in Numbers,” will target young women at-risk, female military veterans, and violence survivors through talks, film and, of course, bikes.

Galpin says using mountain bikes as a catalyst for strength and freedom for “victims,” and as a way to build strength, is a powerful way to pedal a revolution. But rather than a revolution of men wth assault rifles, she calls them an “army” of young women discovering their voices and strength, who are learning the responsibility of using both to create change in community.  

“I meet people who are so overwhelmed. They say ‘I can’t do this. It’s too overwhelming; it’s a drop in the bucket.’ I’m inspired by those who say, ‘Well, I’m putting my drop in the bucket.’ ”

TakePart caught up with Galpin to hear how she's making her bucket overflow.

Shannon Galpin takes a break from a bike ride with an Afghani man. In Afghanistan, women are not allowed to ride bikes. (Photo: Courtesty of Shannon Galpin)

TakePart: In two sentences, sum up M2M?

Shannon Galpin: Mountain2Mountain fights for women's rights in conflict zones. We strive to empower voice, and value, in women who are typically labeled "victims."

TakePart: For years you’ve been going to Afghanistan to work with women. Why now the focus here in the U.S.?

Shannon Galpin: For the past five years I've been working in Afghanistan because it is routinely ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman. I wanted to challenge stereotypes and prove that we are more similar than we are different. The irony is that that is truer than I had originally thought on both the feel-good, we're all part of the global community, want the same things for our families and loved ones', perspective, and in the negative violence against women happens everywhere perspective.  

It hit home when I was preparing for a TEDx talk last January. I was using my experience with rape, and my only sister's experience with rape, as examples of the perceptions labeling women as victims. I decided to look up the rape stats in the U.S. One woman every two minutes. It made me think: I'm working in Afghanistan because women there have no voice, no rights, where women that are raped are often killed or thrown in jail.  

People always ask me if I'm scared I'll be hurt or killed working there. But the worst violence I've endured ,and that my only sister has endured, and that many close friends have endured, happened here in the U.S. As a mother now of a young daughter, I realized that there was a lot of work that I could do fighting to change the label of victimhood and create an "army" of young women that had suffered violence, but that could use their voice to create change in their communities.  

TakePart: Tell me how your daughter factors into the equation of your personal and professional life doing what you do?

Shannon Galpin: Having Devon factors into everything I do, and every decision that I make. It's hard to understand for many that I choose to work in a conflict zone when I have her. But I do this because of her, not in spite of her. The girls and young women I work with deserve the same opportunities she does, regardless of what geographic boundary sets them apart. They don't deserve less because they aren't living in America. Just because they are Afghan, or Pakistani, or Cambodian, doesn't mean they deserve less rights than Devon.

At the same time, I want to do what I can to fight for women's rights for her generation, to lead by example so that she finds her voice, and knows that as a woman she can carve out her own path based on what she is passionate about and what she is willing to stand up for.     

TakePart: Why bikes?

It came to a head when I was working in Afghanistan, a country where women are not allowed to ride bikes. I decided to challenge that stereotype thanks to the leeway I am given as a foreign women, treated as an "honorary man" and bring my bike to ride in Afghanistan. I've ridden several places in Afghanistan over the past four years, and it always serves as a unique entry point to conversation with the men I encounter. Many ride with me, or take a spin on my bike, like in the last visit where several soldiers of the Afghan National Army took turns on my bike.   

But the fact is, we can't get girls on bikes, and while that's shocking to many, it's the same issue that faced American women in the late 1800s. When you look back at U.S. history when women started riding bikes in the late 1800s, the same stereotypes and fears were there—bikes would make our women immoral, women that rode them were unchaste, offensive even. Because bikes equaled freedom. 

You say on your site “We believe that women and girls are the most underutilized resource in the world.” How do you think they should be better utilized?

Educated, educated, educated. Educated women make for educated communities. Educated communities are prosperous communities. Educated communities value human rights. Educate women, give them the tools to find their voice, their passion, and then encourage them to use these tools to be a leader, to create change, to set an example for social justice. Whether that's women's rights, the environment, gay rights, urban food deserts, it doesn't matter—it's a matter of getting an education so you can participate in society and affect its direction for the greater good. 

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