I recently returned from another trip to Afghanistan. It was an amazing culmination of 5 years of work there – can you believe its already been 5 years, and 15 trips since the first visit in 2008? Many of you have been with me since the beginning, with our first event in 2007, which was the equivalent of me dipping my big toe into the water before I dove in headfirst. Others have joined the journey along the way, and I a grateful for every ounce of support you have given. Some of you have volunteered, others have donated big and small amounts, many have shared links and tweeted and helped spread the word. Before announcing the big updates and plans for 2014 and beyond, I thought it was time to take a moment to look back at our success, our failures, and our evolution!
The Streets of Afghanistan had its finale show at the Afghan Center at Kabul University – the Afghan Archives in November 2013. We donated the entire exhibition to ACKU for their permanent collection, which means it will be used for years to come in unique ways for programming and around the Kabul campus. The ACKU archive, founded by Nancy DuPree to preserve Afghanistan’s modern history, now has a copy of the Streets of Afghanistan book. This was the very first project that I started in 2008 with meetings with Afghan photographers, it premiered in April 2011 at the Denver Art Museum, and traveled to Afghanistan as a series of street art installations in October 2012. The book documents the exhibition’s pop up style exhibitions in Afghanistan with photography from Tony Di Zinno who documented the first visit in 2008, bringing the entire project full circle.
This past visit, I also witnessed the final stages of the new school construction for Afghan National Association for the Deaf. It brought great joy to see the land we had secured three and a half years ago from President Karzai, and the wall that had been built around it thanks to Rafaat Ludin and IHFD, come to life with the first school building completed sponsored by ISAF. The wall still has a debt owed on its construction, but without Rafaat Ludin’s willingness to build without funding, the land would have been lost. This project has been our biggest overstretch and in many ways my biggest failure, despite my pride at seeing the school completed. It was a lesson in staying true to my roots of activism and empowerment, and staying away from the sticks and bricks projects that many original Board members and donors wanted to see Mountain2Mountain which focused on building schools. Students started classes and the hope is that ANAD can flourish and begin to expand its program despite the difficulties of sustainable funding that continue to limit its ability to expand sign language education throughout Afghanistan and bring language and communication to all Afghans.
We have created computer labs at girls schools, we have stocked boys schools with supplies and computers, we have created and supported kindergartens in rehab centers and prisons, and we have paid midwives and teachers annual salaries. I have spent time speaking with women in prison, female members of Parliament, female ministers of government, teachers, students, artists, musicians, and activists, to gain a better understanding of Afghanistan and the potential of the women’s role in its future development. We have tried to implement rural midwife training and failed to spread that valuable seed, due to political short-sightedness. Lack of sustainable funding has prevented many long term approaches from succeeding, but it also allowed us to stay agile and evolve organically.
As the years and my experience evolved, we found our roots and our unique role. We have supported graffiti art projects which have created a ripple effect with artists like Shamsia who have created workshops for others to learn this style of art and voice. Shamsia has been invited to several countries to take part in exhibitions, and this past month she and other local artists like Nabila formed a collective that created the first graffiti art festival. Around Kabul you can see Banksy-esque stencil art, street art styled billboards, and occasional marks of the original graffiti art project by Combat Communications that started it all.
We have seen our mission of educating and empowering women and girls evolve to focus beyond education and training, with activism, arts, and sports to look at ways that connect communities, inspire girls, and build on the belief that women are equal. Its a perfect fit for me as someone that has been able to travel solo through Afghanistan, as a woman, without security or convoys or restrictions, to connect with Afghans in various areas of Afghanistan, from Kabul to Kandahar, from Mazar i sharif to Maimana, from Khost to Sherbengan. I believe that larger, staffed, and better funded organizations need to focus on building schools, medical facilities, and conduct trainings. What makes us unique is our individual approach, our ability to do less, and our goal of inspiring voice and activism in unique ways that challenge gender barriers but that are sustainable, and locally led.
The past five years we have seen recognition of these efforts featured in the New York Times, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, Dateline NBC, BBC World, Outside Magazine, and hundreds others across the United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany, France, and Spain media and press outlets. The full list is on our website under newsroom. The documentary film made about my motivations as the founder behind Mountain2Mountain, MoveShake, won an award at the Adventure Film Festival. National Geographic recognized me as an Adventurer of the Year for my work in Afghanistan. I have spoken at TEDx three times – each one about a different aspect of my vision of M2M’s core work: The Perception of Victimhood and the Power of Voice, A Two Wheeled Revolution, and the most recent, Art as Activism in the Streets of Afghanistan on the TEDx stage in Italy in conjunction with an invitation to speak at the Italian Parliament. We are making progress, and we are being heard.
October 3, 2009, I became the first person to mountain bike in Afghanistan in the Panjshir Valley. Something I did for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is a country that didn’t allow Afghan women or girls to ride. I rode to challenge that gender barrier and it led to amazing roadside conversations with random Afghan men about women’s rights, sports, and the work I was doing with Mountain2Mountain. I rode with boys and men in various parts of the country every visit since that intial ride, but never did I find any women. The power of the bike as a vehicle for social justice was something that became an unexpected symbol and theme of Mountain2Mountain. We created a bike team, Team M2M, we created a series of community bike rides as fundraisers, dubbed The Panjshir Tour that launched the same day I attempted to ride across the Panjshir Valley in 2010. If we couldn’t get girls on bikes, we could use the bike as a tool for fundraising.
As you know, we found the women that dare to ride last year, and we are now pedaling a revolution with the Afghan National Women’s Bike Team. Our initial step this year supported the first women cyclists focused on our spring gear drive and distribution, which brought over 7 racing bikes and over 450 pounds of cycling gear for the mens and the women’s cycling teams, and raised awareness internationally of these amazing women. In a country that has historically not allowed women to ride bikes, we are witnessing the challenge, and the eventual elimination, of this gender barrier. We are building ongoing support, training, and future coaching and we are now playing a role in spreading the women’s cycling movement beyond Kabul for years to come. This spring we will be launching the first ever women’s mountain bike team and a companion road bike team in Bamiyan province. We are supporting the spread of a two wheeled revolution for women with the creation of our Strength in Numbers program. Believing that one woman can create change, we believe that our real strength is in our numbers and that we could create an army of women that could change the world, and we believe we can do it on two wheels. We need your help to continue our work in Afghanistan on behalf of the women that dare to ride – who are breaking long held taboos, and who see the bike as their right.
I also stepped up as the producer for the production of the Afghan Cycles documentary film, with Let Media and an all female film crew to document the women who dare to ride and tell their inspiring stories. The film is in production and set to premiere in the fall or winter of 2014/2015. You can learn more about the production and watch the trailer at www.afghancycles.com As the film’s non profit partner, all outreach will directed to supporting women who ride through our Strength in Numbers program.
There are several ways to get involved. The biggest is helping us reach out goal of 100 Bikes by Christmas, which thanks to the support of articles with Matador Network and GOOD Magazine and their planned New Year’s outreach, we’ve extended into the New Year. 41 bikes were purchased as gifts which we will purchase and distribute this spring to women and girls. $100 = 1 bike that we can donate to the women that are learning to ride in Afghanistan. You can learn more on our Facebook Campaign or you can donate directly online here: www.mountain2mountain.org/donation
You can also purchase a copy of Streets of Afghanistan book for your friends and family – proceeds benefit Mountain2Mountain.
We are still operating as a one-woman show, no office, no staff, and building our projects and our reputation one trip at a time. It takes a village to create a revolution – and I am grateful for every single donation that comes in, knowing that it is literally the difference between creating change and accepting the status quo. Those of you that donate have affected the lives of women in Afghanistan in profound ways. You should be proud, and I am continually humbled and grateful. If you can make an end of year donation to help us keep our working moving forward, you can donate directly at www.mountain2mountain.org/donation!
Thank you for being with us through the ups and the downs – we can’t wait to pedal a revolution with all of you in the years ahead as we build our strength in numbers!