Shannon Galpin, founder of Mountain2Mountain, discusses the The Power of Voice at TEDxMileHighSalon conference.
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Shannon Galpin – Founder of Mountain2Mountain
What is it that you see when you look at this photo? Do you see potential, possibility, a changemaker?
Every day, women like these are forced to beg in the street. Women are raped as weapons of war. Children are taken from their homes and forced into prostitution, and girls are denied an education simply because of their gender.
Atrocities happen all over the world and the sheer numbers of oppression, conflict, genocide are staggering — so staggering in fact that we tune out. Shockingly, the more we hear of atrocities and brutalities happening, the more apathetic and desensitized we become. We pity those people, those victims. Something should be done, but what can I do? And so we tune out, apathy sets in and we remain silent.
But when we can put a face on one individual and use that individual to tell the story of the bigger picture, the bigger problem, people listen. We essentially plug in to the many through the heartbreak of the one and this one has a face. This one has a voice. She is the one of the many victims of self-humiliation. Setting herself on fire to protest, to escape abusive relationships.
But I would challenge you to look beyond the victimhood, beyond the victimization, and consider that perhaps women like these could be solutions. Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Call to Arms: “The world tries to break everyone. Some of us are stronger in the places that were broken.” And given a voice, women and victims around the world could perhaps change the entire perception of victimhood.
Now, I would ask you to look at me. What do you see when you look at me? Do you see an adventurer, an athlete, an activist, a fighter, a mother, a daughter, or do you see a victim? You see, many years ago when I was walking home from work, I was brutally attacked, raped and left for dead. A victim at eighteen.
But I was only one of over 200,000 women raped in the US every year, in this country. That’s one woman every two minutes. Had I believed I was a victim, had my friends and family told me I was a victim, had I’ve been born in a country like Afghanistan, perhaps things would have turned out differently. But in fact I was of the label – victim – the finality of it. Dictating what I would or would not do based on experiences out of my control versus my potential.
But it wasn’t until 13 years later when violence struck my only sister that I decided to risk everything to create a world that was just, where women that are victimized are not destined to be victims. If they had a voice, they could be solutions.
When we look at countries like Afghanistan, this is a picture we often see. I would challenge you to look at the women of Afghanistan, a country that is ranked the worst place in the world to be a woman, multiple years. Do we only see victims or do we see women like Bibi Aisha. Bibi was married at 14 to a Taliban fighter and after four years of abuse she fled. She was caught and her nose and ears were cut off to serve as an example. She didn’t die and she was able to find her way into the care of US forces. And eventually into a safe house in Kabul.
She is one of thousands of victims. But when her face graced the cover of Time magazine, we heard her voice, and through her voice we heard the voices of women throughout Afghanistan. And we understood and listened to the greater problem. Today, Bibi is smiling. Doctors in the US reconstructed her nose and ears, and instead of being labeled a victim for her entire life, you can see her smiling, you can see potential in her face.
Three years ago in Kandahar, young girls were walking to school when two men on a motorcycle pulled out and threw acid on their faces, permanently disfiguring them, victimizing them. And it was one of thousands of attacks aimed at preventing young girls from going to school. But today, all of the girls are back in school. Using their voice, because they believe education is their best hope. They stand up to even the Taliban and say, “I will not be a victim, you cannot stop me. No matter the risk.” They were the same age that my daughter is today.
What if that were the risk she took everyday just walking to school, would we be willing to stand up for the thousands of girls around the world that risk their lives just to get an education, if they were our daughters? If these were our sisters, would we march with them on the streets of Kabul? Would we march to protest sexual harassment, to demand equality? They risk their lives to use their voice.
They have seen the power of voice in Meena Keshwar Kamal. In 1977, Meena was herself a student at Kabul University, and at the age of eighteen she founded RAWA, the Revolutionary Association for Afghan Women that was dedicated to creating voice. She herself was a fierce voice, and a powerful figure that fought not just for women, but also to an end of Soviet occupation for her country, for freedom. And at age 30, she was assassinated, but she planted the seeds for an Afghan women’s rights movement based on the power of knowledge and the use of voice, and today her voice is still heard with RAWA and the risks she knowingly took have served as an example for Afghan women today.
When we look at risk and try to assess risk, it’s very difficult, because risk is subjective. Risk changes with our perceptions. And if we look at risk through the lens of the individual, it can seem quite daunting, petrifying even, but if we look at risk through the lens of our common humanity, it lessens, and it shrinks.
My individual risk is one, firstly a financial. I sold my home, I gave up my job and leveraged my last asset, my car, because I believed my actions could create change. So I created an organization dedicated to combating apathy and empowering voice in women and children around the world. Specifically in conflict zones, where voices are most trampled.
I also take physical risk, I work in a conflict zone, it comes with its own relative assessment of risk. And I would say I probably have used up more than one of my nine lives, but when you weigh the individual risk that I take, against the risk of inaction, it’s a no brainer. The fight is not with someone else. The fight is with me and it’s with you. It is with those brave girls around the world, citizen diplomats and activists standing up and taking on the challenges of our global community. Because the reward is social justice, world peace and a common humanity that believes everyone has a voice, everyone has potential.
So if we can consider a change in perception of victimhood and of risk, how do we manifest real change? I believe it starts with voice: yours, ours and theirs. Empowering victims to have a voice changes lives, communities and countries from within, organically and sustainably, creating a catalytic effect through the individual.
So as we leave here tonight, I would like you to consider your perception of risk. Risk doesn’t mean that you have to start an organization that works in a war zone. It is a risk to speak for someone that doesn’t have a voice, it’s a risk to say “no”, it’s a risk to say “yes”. But that’s life, life is a series of risks and opportunities.
If we want to see a world without oppression, conflicts, without genocide, without human trafficking, we have to take risks, change does not happen by playing safe. So, leave here and use your voice. Implore others to use theirs. And assess the risks of doing nothing in your own life.
Look outside yourself and into your community, and look to where you could perhaps speak for children, abused women, refugees, the homeless. Because you see them as more than victims, you see them – you see us, as catalysts for a better world.