I was the first woman to mountain bike in Afghanistan. That really came from the fact that Afghanistan is a country where women cannot ride bikes, but as a foreign woman I am allowed to push on gender roles in a way that is more risky for Afghan women. I can challenge the gender roles as a mountain biker and a woman that lives in Colorado. I look at Afghanistan in the way it was viewed back in the 1950s and 1960s, a tourist destination and a country that is rich in natural beauty. It would be an adventure travel paradise if it was not dealing with the instability of ongoing violence and war. I hoped to look at the area as a region and country that is more than what we see in the news and to show another side of the humanity and region many turn their eyes from. We need to see that it is worth our attention and at the same time confront gender barriers and raise the discussion of women’s rights in Afghanistan. I hoped to start this by simply riding a bike and using the bike as a symbol for social justice. It is used in Southeast Asia and Africa as a tool to increase accessibility to education, keep women safe by providing transportation, and even serve as an ambulance in rural areas. When we realized we could not use the bike in those ways, because women were not allowed to ride bikes, I decided to push on that barrier and serve both sides. To show the difference of how we see Afghanistan through American eyes and how we see gender barriers in Afghanistan. The bike is transformative.

I founded Mountain2Mountain in 2006 to focus on developing a voice for women and girls in conflict. For the past five years, I have predominantly been working in Afghanistan and have been focused on building schools and clinics, and looking at ways we can increase access to education and health. We are also looking at the layer that supports all of that—the layer that is about discovering voice and creating value and encouraging young women to use their voice and to have confidence to work for access, especially in countries like Afghanistan. Half the time it is a matter of convincing or fighting others to gain access to basic education much less equal rights.

My dream for America is that we realize that en masse we have the capacity to achieve great things. We have to use our voice, work one step at a time, and be willing to make mistakes. It is the big steps and the little steps. It is just like voting. When you look at a vote and think of yourself as an individual voter, it is easy to be apathetic. “Why does it matter if I stand in line and cast a vote? My one vote has absolutely no bearing. It is literally a drop in the bucket. It is just one vote. Nobody will miss it.” It is so easy to think of it that way. But we vote not because of the individual vote but because you believe everyone else is voting with you. We believe that en masse we do have the power to affect change

Shannon Galpin founded Mountain2Mountain in November 2006. A rape survivor and mother, she realized she couldn’t just stand on the sidelines, watching women and girls denied basic human rights. Shannon writes regularly for Huffington Post and Matador Network, and is currently authoring her first book. She has been featured on Dateline NBC, Today Show, Huffington Post and Outside Magazine. Shannon was nominated for Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic. mountain2mountain.org

This excerpt is from American Dreamers, now available at Sharp Stuff.