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Forum Preview: Shannon Galpin

We’re honored that Shannon Galpin, a global visionary in using the bicycle as a tool for women’s empowerment, will be speaking at the 2014 National Women’s Bicycling Forum on March 3. Adeline Bash, who works in the public relations department of Polar Bottle, interviewed Galpin for this profile piece. Register for the Women’s Forum and Bike Summit today!

People have different relationships to their bicycle. For some, it is a means of transportation. For others, a bike is a vehicle for getting fit or winning medals. And for those of us in the bike industry, bicycles are valuable tools for addressing issues ranging from the health of our communities and preservation of our environment to the mending of our economy.

For Shannon Galpin, bicycles hold the key to even more. For the Colorado philanthropist, bicycles are symbols of freedom, potential catalysts for social change and a key tool for her work addressing gender violence and inequality through her nonprofit Mountain2Mountain — an international women’s advocacy group focused mainly on bringing attention to women’s rights in Afghanistan.

In 2009 — after traveling to Afghanistan several times to work on various education and relief projects, — Galpin mountain biked the entire Panjshir Valley in north-central Afghanistan. To the best of her knowledge, she was the first woman to have ever done so. For women in Afghanistan, she says, biking is almost unheard of — a deeply rooted cultural taboo that up until recently few dared to question.

By cycling the region, Galpin hoped to gauge how Afghans — particularly those in more remote regions — would respond to a woman challenging a long-standing social norm.

At first, she says, she expected people might resent a woman biking through their community. Instead, she found that her bike was a good tool to break the ice with Afghan men and often initiated very productive conversations about the role of women in Afghanistan and the work Galpin hopes to accomplish there.

“It opened up conversations that wouldn’t have been possible, ironically, without the bike,” she said.

From this experience, she began to understand the wider implications for gender equality if Afghan women began participating in the sport. Following that first tour, Galpin completed several other mountain bike trips in different areas throughout Afghanistan, which put her and her work in the international spotlight and eventually landed her a spot as one of National Geographic’s 2013 Adventurers of the Year.

Galpin, now 38, founded Mountain2Mountian in 2006 after gender violence hit close to home, when she and her younger sister were both victims of sexual violence. “I was so outraged when it happened to my sister that I decided to stop ranting about women’s rights and the changes I wanted to see for women,” Galpin said. “Instead I decided I needed to enter the fight for women’s rights.”

Committed to finding a new way to make real, lasting change for the women who needed it most, Galpin began researching what type of gender inequality and sexual violence women faced in other nations around the world. If sexual violence could occur so close to home — in seemingly safe places in the United States — Galpin says she couldn’t imagine what it might be like for other women. “This just can’t continue,” Galpin said she realized. “This is happening in so-called safe places, in Minneapolis and Colorado — these were not war zones.”

In the end, Galpin chose to focus her work in Afghanistan because it was repeatedly ranked as one of top three worst nations to be a woman in the world.

Mountain2Mountain, Galpin says, operates differently than similar nonprofits in that it aims to not simply advocate for women but to provide them with the tools they need to fight for change within their own countries. In Afghanistan, bikes have become one of Galpin’s major weapons.

Finally, after years traveling to the region, she is no longer the only woman in the saddle.

Last April, Galpin made the 15-hour trip to Kabul, Afghanistan for the 12th time — and was accompanied by a professional film crew, as well as hundreds of pounds of bike gear donated from some of the top outdoor and cycling brands. The goal of the trip was to document the journey of the nation’s first all-women’s cycling team.

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“These women are taking great risks to ride a bike,” Galpin said. Women like the members of Women’s Afghan Cycling Team, who are willing to take personal risks to advocate for themselves, Galpin predicts, are the same women who will lead the fight for women’s rights across the entire nation. “Change comes at a big price,” Galpin said. “Women wiling to take those risks are the ones I am most keen to support.”

Although it seems hard to imagine now, Galpin says that when cycling first became popular in late-19th-century America, female cyclists in the United States faced similar barriers to the sport as she has witnessed in Afghanistan. “That parallel was really fascinating for me,” Galpin said. “You couldn’t just write it off. This is something we had in our culture too.” For the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, bikes became a symbol of progress and freedom. Eventually, Galpin hopes, they will hold similar significance for those leading the modern day fight for women’s rights in Afghanistan.

Along with Mountain2Mountain, Galpin recently founded a new domestic program — Strength in Numbers — for women and victims of gender violence. The idea, similar to Mountain2Mountain, is to create a program that encourages women to not simply recover from oppression, violence and inequality but to use their experiences as tools to advocate for themselves and the other women in their communities. “If we change the perception of victimhood, we could be looking at the so-called victim as the solution,” Galpin said, reiterating her point that to foster real change — first within their own communities and later nationally and internationally — women must have the tools to advocate for themselves.

The more women she can help find their voices, she says, the more powerful her movement will become: “I sincerely believe one voice can make a difference. But our strength is in our numbers.”

The program, which had it’s pilot week-long camps this past summer, targeted women and girls who were the victims of sexual violence, gender bias and domestic abuse, as well as those who appeared at risk for experiencing some sort of gender violence or oppression. The camp aims to use physical activity — mainly mountain biking and standup paddleboards — to challenge campers physically and emotionally in a way that will build the sense of community and camaraderie necessary to facilitate conversations among the women about how to address the issues facing their communities.

“The goal will essentially be to create an army of women that can go out in their communities and advocate for change and work for women’s rights,” Galpin said.

Using biking in the Strength in Numbers camps and focusing much of her work in Afghanistan on promoting women’s cycling there, Galpin says, is not about grooming athletes physically but empowering them socially.

“It’s not about making better bikers,” she said. “It’s about using the bike as a vehicle for change.”

Register for the Women’s Forum and Bike Summit today!