Our hosts sat down with Shannon Galpin in a rare moment when she was back in Colorado and not traveling the globe! Shannon is an author, artist, global women’s rights activist, film producer, and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. She spent a decade working on humanitarian projects in Afghanistan including creating the groundbreaking street-art project, Streets of Afghanistan. She is a producer on the feature documentary, Afghan Cycles and has published two books including her memoir, Mountain to Mountain. Shannon was awarded an honorary diploma by the International Olympic Committee for her work promoting women’s equality through sports, and is a Fellow of the Explorer’s Club. Above all else, Shannon is a mother, and she’s determined to raise her daughter to use her voice for those that don’t have one.
We recorded this episode shortly after Erik had just returned from New York City where he circumnavigated all of Manhattan in a kayak to promote the No Barriers Summit that took place in October 2018. He took interviews along the way as journalists and you can read more and see some photos here.
Erik, Dave, and Jeff dove in with Shannon asking about her and her daughter’s website and how they came up with the name: “endangered activists.”
Shannon shares her love of activism with her daughter and decided to encourage her passion for animals and so, they built a project around this passion.
“Perhaps activism is also an endangered species”
Most of the time, Shannon explains, people find activism overwhelming and, especially in this day and age with all that is going on, it can seem like too much work to be involved. And instead, people become apathetic. But Shannon’s goal is to get people (including her daughter) to blast through this apathy, find their passion, and start working towards a goal or project to bring about change.
When Shannon was college age - she had dreams of being a dancer or a sports therapist and then, at age 18, she had an incredibly traumatic life altering experience when she was raped and nearly killed. This event would shape her trajectory in ways she couldn't foresee at the time.
After living abroad for 10 years, getting married, having a baby, and returning to Colorado, Shannon receives horrible news. Her younger sister was raped while at college. She starts looking into how common this occurrence is and discovers that violence against women is extremely common on college campuses and, spurred by wanting to change this and other alarming gender violence stats, “almost overnight” she became an activist.
She chose to focus on Afghanistan after learning they have some of the worst records of gender violence and human rights violations.
“The activism has always been in me but I wasn’t putting it to use in the world.”
Her first step was learning and collecting data. She made contacts that helped her meet locals from all walks of life in the community - everyone from women in prison, folks in parliament, teachers, and other activists and heard their stories. She chose to travel without security in order to help break down those initial barriers to human connection. Over time she developed a network and decided her next step was to highlight what regular Afghans were doing and in particular, the youth, since they are the future.
Little by little, Shannon was developed her cause by taking on small projects, all of which involved storytelling and evolved into street-art in and sport activism in particular.
“No matter how different my projects have seemed it all comes back to the power of voice and the power of storytelling.”
“One of my better qualities is that I thrive in the deep-end ….I like the puzzle of figuring things out. The idea of becoming an activist was just another puzzle to tackle.”
As she spoke to more individuals and traveled the country she of course experienced dangerous or risky situations but overall she was blown away on the resilience and tenacity of the Afghans she met:
“Just as you’re exposed to the worst of humanity you simultaneously are experiencing the best of humanity.”
She started speaking to women in prisons who were often jailed for so called “morality crimes.” For example: being sexually assaulted or domestically beaten and she reflected upon her own experience and how despite the trauma she endured she was lucky that the USA doesn’t punish victims in the eyes of the law. The women were incredibly open and wanted to share their stories and she began to value the importance of bearing witness even more:
“We look upon “victims” as something less than, people that we have to help, nurture, and hold up and that is demeaning and patronizing. People who are victimized and have to struggle are typically the strongest people that I know, have the most resiliency, and the most capacity to change, if we give them the tools, allow them to own their own voice, their own story and allow them to share that.”
Erik is intrigued by Shannon’s quest to bring riding bikes to the women of Afghanistan and how she pursued this goal. As a mountain bike rider in Colorado, she was blown away that nobody seemed to be taking advantage of the beautiful terrain in Afghanistan and realized that despite other huge leaps forward in the workforce and other areas of society, it was still completely unheard of for women to ride bikes.
She decided to lead by example. She brought her bike overseas and just started riding, striking up conversations everywhere she went which would lead to dinners, and coffee and more conversation, and even other men and boys who would ride with her.
Five years later (after continuing to ride) she met the first generation of women who were riding bikes in Kabul as part of Afghan National Cycling Team. She met with their coach who, it turns out, was training both men and women. And now, despite the persistence of old stereotypes and physical harassment, young women in Afghanistan are taking a stand and riding bikes - changing their culture and making history on two wheels.
This road to activism is not always easy, or instantly rewarding, or lucrative and it takes constant work and grit to succeed. She suggests that for others who are on the sidelines that want to get involved and feel overwhelmed: just start. Pick a passion and see how you can make small changes, even if it’s just locally, to affect change:
“Each action seems insignificant on its own….but when you look back and realize all the people that are putting their drops of water in the bucket: that’s how we’re making change.”
As Shannon progressed in her pursuits in Afghanistan she slowly started to accept what a strong role her own sexual assault played in helping her find this line of work.
“The things that happen to us, that we see as the worst of the worst, are also the catalyst for change in us.”
Her other tips include ignoring other people’s doubts about your choices and your decisions, to stay true to your vision, and to surround yourself with people that know more than you. Start the process, get comfortable feeling vulnerable, and stay strong in your fight to make a difference and overcome apathy.
Visit Shannon's website: endangeredactivism.org
Learn more about her film, Afghan Cycles, now touring the film festival circuit.
Read her book, Mountain to Mountain, about her work in Afghanistan.